A day in Rocinha - by Elaine Nollet



My first surprise was that we were walking to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, home to 70,000+ people - some, the poorest of the poor - and it’s just a short hike from the glamorous São Conrado Fashion Mall where our group met up.  There were five of us from the InC, led by Anna Whyte, and two architects who were going to meet Barbara Olivi, a long-time resident of Rocinha, founder of two NGOs in Rocinha – Casa Jovem helping teens and Il Sorriso dei Miei Bimbi, a crèche for 2-6 year olds (http://www.ilsorrisodeimieibimbi.org/).   Barbara’s new dream is to establish the Café Letterario (Literary Café) in Rocinha.  Currently it is just a garage space, but she hopes to transform this space, which has so much potential, into a gathering place/café for older teens and 20-somethings. Her Casa Jovem kids will be fully involved in building and later running the place, but for now she is looking for help to design it.  Local Rio architects Gary Ebben and his associate, André Palatnic, offered their services and were coming to see what needed to be done.

We met Barbara down at the bustling mercado at street level and she led us up by foot, through winding streets and alleys nearly to the top of the hill.  On our way, we traveled along an impressively wide and clean street – apparently a recent accomplishment by the government – which involved tearing down old structures and replacing them with a new wide street and new housing, brilliantly painted in blues, pinks, and yellows, for the displaced residents.  The project, with green spaces and playgrounds, has won the approval of the locals who were initially wary of the city’s plans.  

Before we knew it, we had arrived at Barbara’s and Julio’s place, with Julio offering us a welcome glass of cold water.  They live in one half of an old house built by Italian immigrants nearly a century ago.  When the other half of the house came up for sale, Barbara was able, by finagle and sheer will, to purchase it.  This she plans to reinvent as Café Letterario.

My assumption of what houses in a favela must be like was turned upside down when she showed us her own apartment, with its breeziness and antique charm.  We looked out from the terrazzo high on the fourth floor at a wide view of the surrounding morros and what seemed to be all of Rocinha.  Barbara and Julio take obvious pride in their home, but they are more interested in what can be done there to bring her dreams to reality and establish the Café Letterario.  As Barbara reflected on her vision of what that empty garage could eventually be, Gary and André pondered, questioned and inspected the area. 

When most of our group said their good-byes and went off to various commitments (Catherine and Mateen to their volunteer jobs teaching English at Casa Jovem), I stayed behind with the two architects.  Just as I was thinking what an interesting visit we had had, Barbara suggested a little walk to see more.  Gary, André and I were about to be immersed in another Rochinha altogether.  From Rua Quarta, we turned onto Rua Três, a mere footpath of narrow, irregular steps and concrete, with a trailing aroma of open sewer that runs along every street.  On our way we passed many people coming and going, calling out to Barbara in friendly salutations and there were hugs from children who knew her from one of her many projects in the favela.  We continued to descend and finally arrived at a place that is now engraved on my memory.  There, below ground level, in the stench, humidity, obscurity and dead air, where the sewer pipes from the neighborhood above empty with great splashing into the master drain, live people who must be at the most desperate extremity of their lives.  Adding insult to my already jarred sensibility was realizing that the inhabitants of this mind-numbing hole are paying rent.  I don’t believe poverty anywhere in the world could be worse.

I came away that day with many new impressions of favela life in Rio.  There is extreme poverty but wealth too; ugliness but also beauty; isolation and yet community.  People there are like people everywhere I guess, some with dreams of making better lives for themselves, others resigned to their condition.  In leaving Rocinha, Barbara stopped us in front of a used bookstore where she mused about one day organizing her kids to take over from the aging owner.  I saw a metaphor for the work she’s actually doing.  Like many favela people, the books in that store are tattered and worn, but what’s inside them is still noble and worth saving.  Her plans and projects for Rocinha have a single focus: to encourage dignity, respect and pride in the lives of young people.  How lucky they are to be embraced by her.

Photos by Mateen Thobani