Walking the Streets of a Favela with a Community Humanitarian

by Nicole Duciaume, Regional Sponsorship Coordinator, Americas Regional Office

Editor’s note: Today Nicole concludes her three-part blog series on her visit to a ChildFund project in a Brazilian favela.

favela Brazil urban poverty ChildFund

Homes are literally built into the side of the hill and basically stacked one on top of the other. This is why heavy rains can have catastrophic results.

If I thought the streets were steep and winding when driving to Conselho de Pais Crianca Feliz in the Belo Horizonte favela, it was certainly confirmed as we walked to families’ homes. Without exaggeration, I can say we walked up near vertical hills, over paved and dirt roads, down crumbling alleys and through overgrown yards. And that is just a fraction of what our community mobilizers (volunteers) do on any average day. They didn’t spare us the details or the terrain as we literally walked many miles — if not in their shoes then at least along the same paths.

ChildFund povery Brazil favela

Ziza (in purple), who has worked as a community volunteer for more than 10 years, also cares for 13 nieces and nephews.

Our guide was Ziza, a community mobilizer who has volunteered with the organization since November 2000. She goes house to house visiting families to raise awareness about specific ChildFund programs and children’s overall health and well-being. As the mother of a 13-year-old son, Ziza is not shy about broaching the topic of child violence, both within the home and within the community at large. Over the 10 years she has spent volunteering with ChildFund, Ziza has earned a reputation in the community for being a problem solver and a great humanitarian.

Brazil favela poverty ChildFund

Nicole with two of Ziza's nieces.

In fact, she has taken on the personal responsibility of helping raise 13 nieces and nephews. They live with her in her small three-bedroom house — a house with mud-and-stick brick walls and a cement floor. Several of the children share her bed. The most recent to join her is only 3 weeks old. When asked about the heavy burden she has taken on, her response was simple: “I believe greatly in what I do. I don’t see problems, I see future solutions.”

Walking with her, it became clear that Ziza is an important and valued member in the community. People trust her and we were allowed into homes, down alleys and through areas that we would never pass alone. But with her, there was a calm presence and an unspoken respect.

Brazil Favela Belo Horizonte poverty ChildFund

Belo Horizonte spreads out below the favela.

Along the route I chatted with several children:

  • Two boys sat on a partially constructed rooftop perilously perched on the hillside. They told me that they liked the view of Belo Horizonte because one day they hoped to live there. They asked me to join them on the ledge. As I politely declined I must have unwittingly made a funny face. They laughed and came over to give me a high five.
  • One boy who begrudgingly took a break from flying his kite (homemade from plastic trash bags, sticks and an old knotted string rolled around a dented soup can) to tell me about his school — lots of students, some friends, OK teachers. But he said he knew it was important to go, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to grow up strong and smart. He goes to school in the morning shift, does his homework in the afternoon and then flies his kite until his friends come to play.
  • I met a youth who had previously participated in programs at the Conselho de Pais Crianca Feliz center. So I asked him what is the important thing teens need in his community. He shared that he really enjoyed his time at the center (learned to dance and thought it was a great way to stay out of trouble), but that what they needed most now was “job skills and information about reproductive health in order to make better decisions than previous generations.”

We made our way back to the center (slowly — those hills are rough!) and checked in on their systems, processes and audit reports. Yet we kept thinking about the children, families and community because, much like the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about.

A Bright Spot for Children in a Brazilian Urban Slum

by Nicole Duciaume, Regional Sponsorship Coordinator, Americas Regional Office

Brazil poverty favela ChildFund

Pre-teens have a sing-off trying to come up with songs with positive words given by the instructor.

Within the secure walls of Conselho de Pais Crianca Feliz, one of ChildFund’s partners in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, we first encountered a group of children (age 8 to 12) sitting in a circle engaged in a singing challenge. The teacher would call out a word with a positive association (e.g., house, heart, love, smart), and the children would try to recall a popular song featuring that word. Then the children would try to come up with obscure words to challenge the teacher: “Do you know a song with the word centimeter?” There was much laughter and many smiles, but more important was the message around encouraging creativity, self-expression and positive images.

Brazil favela poverty ChildFund

We had a lively discussion about fruit. This was his reaction to mangos!

We popped into a classroom of 5-year-olds learning to color and spell words. The children looked within a drawing of a pineapple for letters to spell their own names. I took the opportunity to ask them what other fruits they like to eat. We had a great debate on what the best fruit was, but then they said that they only get fruit at the center, not in their homes. We also saw students learning to make frogs with construction paper and cotton balls. We talked about other things that are green and, of course, we hopped around just a bit.

Brazil poverty favela ChildFund

Learning the capoeira.

Brazil favela poverty ChildFund

Mateus (far right) gives a thumbs-up.

Back outside, we headed upstairs for the official presentation of demographics, statistics, budgets and proposals. But along the way we sat in on a capoeira class. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial arts dance that has its roots in the slave identity and rebellions of Brazil. Though two people enter into the circle to “fight” each other, the goal is actually to never touch. The dance is a great source of cultural restoration and conflict resolution. I chatted with Mateus, age 10, and he told me that he “came to learn capoeira, but I’ve learned so much more.” He specifically likes the music sessions with traditional beats but with lyrics that emphasize math and literacy (a nice way to insert learning into any opportunity). Through the class he says he has learned “to defend myself, but never hurt people” and that his “African heritage is important to know and respect for [myself] and for my country.”

During the presentation by the staff, we learned that the favela has the highest population density in the state — almost 50,000 inhabitants. ChildFund’s partner is here to be a positive influence: to be role models, build awareness, develop skills and create hope. The staff realizes that they cannot make the decisions for the families, but they fight hard for children and, for the most part, the families recognize the work and want their children to attend center activities.

We also learned that local gangs see Conselho de Pais Crianca Feliz as a positive force. When violence is about to break out, the gangs often inform the staff ahead of time to make sure the children stay home. Yet our partner organization also knows that drug traffickers begin to recruit children as young as 9 years old. So it is a difficult balance to find — an uneasy peace. The staff must work within community realities, yet remain focused on the well-being of children and youth, making programming decisions and setting priorities.

We packed up and headed out into the community.

Up next, I’ll tell you more about our time walking through the favela.

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