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An inside view of slums

An illuminating experience at the favelas (shanty town) of various cities.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2010 17:21 IST

An illuminating experience at the favelas (shanty town) of various cities.

Vila Canoas, Rio
Hoping to get an inner perspective of Rio de Janeiro, and to see the real lives of ordinary people, I asked my guide Flavio if we could visit a favela (shanty town). After all, a third of Rio’s folks live in them, and they are barely on the map. He agreed after a good deal of hesitation, warning me that a gang war had recently broken out and people had been killed in the crossfire. ‘I’ll take you, but stay where I tell you, don’t talk to anyone or take pictures’.

As we drove up the hill and entered Vila Canoas, I remembered thinking that the favelados must wake up to stunning views of Rio’s mountains and beaches. We parked just inside, and stepped out. The hodgepodge homes crowded on top of each other. Even with this slap-together construction, some balconies had plants and many walls were painted in cheery colours. Though running water, electricity and garbage collection were touch and go, the streetscapes and people that wandered about were by no means dull or joyless.

A young boy, about 16, stood nearby, sucking on an orange ice-stick. He looked typically Brazilian, with bronzed skin and flecks of light in his curly hair. I asked him if I could take a photo, and he replied, “No, I’m working” (this was translated for me in Portuguese by a nearby key maker) “Oh, come on”, I tried again, “you’re just hanging about having an ice cream…” That’s when Flavio whisked me off my feet and into the jeep. “I said not to talk to anyone! Did you see what he’s holding? It’s a hand grenade. He’s is working, as a border guard, and see that other fellow on top of that roof with a walkie-talkie, he’s the hawk, reporting your conversation...” Flavio drove away speedily to another part of the favela.

Other than this brush, favela life buzzed about normally in its crowded shops, churches, cyber-cafes and salsa schools prepared for the Carnival. As we stood on a terrace, watching the ant-farm movements, Flavio explained that young children under 18 are often commissioned for crime and violence as it does not go on their records. “They are desperate and unafraid of an early grave if it comes with early money. You too have slums in India like our favelas. Why is it that there is hardly any violence compared to ours?”

Alexandria township, Johannesburg, SA
Visiting Alexandria (Alex), an enormous township in Johannesburg couldn’t be more different from the posh neighbourhoods nearby. All manner of life tumbled out into the streets, where people hung about, ate and worked. Groups of children posed happily for my camera, giggling. Rows of tented hair salons were packed with hairdressers braiding perfect corn-rows. Mini busses hooted for custom, music blared in the shabeens, and people lined up outside phone booths.

Some of the poorer areas had metal sheet roofs and tarpaulin roofs. There was no denying that the overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation were dire. Unemployment has recently led to a spate of xenophobic attacks against refugees from neighbouring countries, yet, freedom and empowerment have been intoxicating, bringing new hope to the poor of the “Rainbow Nation”.

Rakhera, New Delhi
Little children followed us as we walked in Rakhera’s narrow lanes. Multiple-family dwellings and clutches of rooms, one-or two stories high, were painted bright blue in places.

With no room for stairs, there were ladders everywhere, leading to higher levels. Many doors were open, Hindi songs wafted out and the odour from open sewers went in. Women rolled and dried papars in the sun, knitted, and cooked. Electronics repairs, leather tanning, and quilting enterprises abounded. Though I felt gutted by the unhygienic and grim conditions, a part of me was uplifted. These were hard working people, with a strong desire to improve their lot and a fierce will to survive. They enjoy neighbourly support and comradeship that is getting increasingly rare in other societies.