Small victories of the spirit
Taken from the The Irish Times, 4th April 2009
RUADHÁN MAC CORMAIC in São Paulo, Brazil
Irish missionaries in the slums of the biggest metropolis in South
America operate in a world controlled by gangs and abandoned by
‘THIS IS where the inferno begins,” says Helen McCaffrey, but in the soupy midday heat the scene looks less like the site of a violent convulsion than a vision of its terrible aftermath. Known locally as Cracolândia (crack land), the area is oddly quiet for such a teeming gathering place. All along the street, men and women sit propped up against boarded shopfronts, staring listlessly onto a street where a few wheelbarrows stacked tall with copper, cardboard and discarded plastic bottles have a free run. Others lie strung out on carts and kerbs, as if a tide had gone out and left them there – every one, it seems, high on glue or the crack cocaine that kids are trading openly for about €3 a pebble.
Rotting rubbish is heaped high along the road and a filthy stench
seems to rise from every stone. Two emaciated girls, their legs
brittle and their eyes numbed, trip euphorically along the street,
arm in arm, back and forth.
Sr Helen, an energetic 71-year-old, strides on, greeting familiar faces as she moves. “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” Most of the kids she passes live on the streets. From time to time, she joins them and spends the few nights sleeping on the roadside, seeking their trust and hoping to persuade them to take up an offer of help. “I never had a better night’s sleep,” she says of the first time she slept out. “You’d be surprised how comfortable a sheet of cardboard can be.”
Estimates of the numbers of children living on the streets of this, the biggest metropolis in South America, range from 10,000 to almost twice that. Wellington, a 26-year-old from the north of Brazil, describes making ends meet through one of the most popular local forms of private enterprise: gathering other people’s rubbish for recycling.
“Copper is the most valuable. I get five dollars for a kilo of copper. When I have money I pay for a pension , but if not I sleep on the street,” he says. Despite a recent decline in the murder rate, brutal violence – knifings, rapes, beatings – are commonplace. About a month ago, a gang known to be involved with organ traffickers kidnapped two children a few streets away.
If you were to drive from here to the far side of the city, the first of the gleaming office towers and condominium complexes that make a bar chart of the skyline would come into view within half an hour. With 20 million people spread over 3,000 square miles, São Paulo is the throbbing, overworked heart of Brazilian business, its banking and commercial centre and the capital of the country’s richest state. It’s also a place of staggering inequality. Befitting its status as a regional powerhouse, the greener parts of town boast a choice of designer chocolate shops and Japanese cuisine to rival New York’s, served in garden restaurants guarded by men with earpieces. And thanks to one of the largest populations of helicopters in any city, those who can afford it need never come into contact with the millions of ultra-poor who populate the favelas, or slums, that run along the city’s endless periphery.
“You never can forget that, because it’s just hitting you in the eye
everywhere you go, everywhere you look, every day of the week,” says
Pat Clarke, a Holy Ghost father who has been living in São Paulo for
30 years and runs a cultural centre in Vila Prudente, a favela of
18,000 people. “The contrasts are pretty agonising to contemplate.”
A tall man with long white locks breaching his baseball cap and a
back-pack slung over his shoulder, Fr Clarke seems to be on
first-name terms with everyone he passes along the narrow
passageways. Like most favelas, Vila Prudente arose out of
wasteland, when the rapid industrialisation of post-war Brazil
brought thousands of migrants to the city from the poorer states of
the northeast. With nowhere to live and no money for rent, they
erected their own homes – flimsy huts made of a jumble of wood, dry
brick, cardboard and cloth.
It was in just such a shack, in 1990, that Fr Clarke opened his cultural centre, where vulnerable local children with a ready-marked route into the world of drugs and crime could find a diversion and retrieve some self-esteem. Today, the centre is an incongruous, sparkling jewel of five buildings in the heart of the slum. Inside each one, decorated with colourful tile mosaics made by local children, its staff give classes in singing, dancing, painting and sculpture. The children are fed at meal times, and a fully-equipped creche is open every day.
“I thought, people have desires and needs way beyond the purely material,” he says of the centre’s inception. “Kids have dreams. You put a pencil in their hand, or a paintbrush, or a musical instrument, and they start flourishing.
“When you see how little it takes, really, in terms of affection, in terms of a sense of caring, a sense of ‘there’s a place for you here, there’s a value that we put on you,’ then that I think is the chief ingredient of transformation – giving them a pencil or a paintbrush. The rest is easy.”
AT THE LAST count there were 122 Irish Catholic missionaries working in Brazil, many involved in development work and most having spent the greater part of their adult lives here. In conversation, sentences can start in English and end in Portuguese, and at 30 or 40 years’ distance, contemporary Ireland might as well be a foreign country. Few intend ever to return home, and it’s hard at times, for all the proximity that memories, accents and family ties might imply, not to detect a sense of alienation from the country they left.
One priest recalls that when former taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited São Paulo in 2001, he took the missionaries into a room on their own and referred to them as “our first ambassadors”, and it stuck in his mind.
But as emissaries, he suggests, their brief is informed not by a need to proselytise, but by a determination to impart the most basic values: kindness, solidarity, justice. At Belém II, one of the city’s sprawling prisons, there’s not much more to offer. When Margaret Gaffney and Catherine Doyle, of the Missionary Sisters of the Rosary, arrive for one of their regular visits, even the men in the most notorious gang-controlled section greet them like respectful children. Both are members of a team concerned with human rights and the just treatment of prisoners, and are planning to begin a literacy programme here. They spend their time jotting down notes – a request for a transfer, a plea for a better cell – and promise to take each one up with the authorities.
Belém II is typical of São Paulo’s run-down, overcrowded prison system. Built to house 800 inmates, it currently has almost 2,000 and its water system is crumbling under the pressure. In one dark, unbearably hot cell that doubles as a chapel, there are 12 stone beds, but another 15 people sleep on the floor and three hammocks have been hung across the room to squeeze in a few more. There’s one toilet, two filthy showers and no ventilation. “We’re here like animals,” says one man in the exercise yard.
Back in the administration wing, a senior prison officer has the look of a man resigned to his lot. “Brazil is a country that doesn’t invest deeply in this area,” he says. “The numbers increased a lot, but the financial situation hasn’t improved.” Violent attacks still occur here, he says, but it used to be a lot worse. “They used to kill each other.” São Paulo’s prisons are an important arm of the command structure of the criminal gangs that operate as parallel powers in some parts of the city. They’re also closely bound up with the legend of that power.
ON THE AFTERNOON of Friday, May 12th, 2006, a date familiar to all paulistanos, the city came under attack from within. All at once, gang members dressed in ordinary clothes fanned out across the city carrying pistols, automatic rifles and firebombs. They struck fast, not looting or stealing but burning buses, banks, petrol stations and public buildings. They killed policemen on sight. The sequence appeared at first like a series of random, unplanned acts, but it quickly became apparent that it was in fact a single, impeccably co-ordinated assault on the city. And it brought São Paulo to a halt for three days – people stayed at home, schools lay empty and shops closed. Simultaneously, 73 prisons – including Belém – rose in rebellion. The action was carried out by a then little-known group called Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), the First Command of the Capital, the largest of the major gang networks in São Paulo. Although directed from the prisons, where most of its leaders were serving time, the gang made no demands, which meant it was its prerogative alone to bring the attack to an end, just as it had been to start it.
The purpose was simple: to show strength.
The PCC attack took place at a time when, partly due to the gang’s
own growth, São Paulo’s murder rate was declining (smaller groups
were subsumed by the PCC, resulting in fewer inter-gang killings).
Just 10 years earlier, in 1996, the UN had declared Jardim Ângela,
one of the city’s large favelas, to be the most dangerous place in
the world. “It was pretty miserable,” says the gregarious Clare man
Jim Crowe, of the Kiltegan Fathers, who has been working in Jardim
Ângela for three decades. “There wasn’t a day you would go out
without meeting two or three bodies on the road.” At the nearby São
Luís cemetery, up to 35 funerals a day were taking place, mostly for
what locals darkly referred to as “lead poisoning”. People spoke of
an undeclared war.
“In 1996, when that declaration was made by the UN, we said ‘it’s not enough to stay praying about it, this isn’t going to solve the problem’. So we got a bit of a movement going.”
That movement began on November 2nd, 1996, when 5,000 people – mothers, sisters and brothers of the dead – turned up for an evening march through the cemetery. In the organisers’ analysis, the spiralling violence was due not only to the growth in the drugs trade but to the abandonment of the area by public authorities. There was a lack of schools and clinics, and the police had pulled out long ago. The marches continued, and resulted, among other things, in the creation of Brazil’s first community police force, which is still in place today. The murder rate has fallen from about 120 per 100,000 in 1996 to 25 last year. “It was a success,” Fr Crowe says, “but like everything, it’s not all sunshine.” To emphasise his point, we hear later that day of the death of a 13-year-old girl, who had fallen for a 38-year-old drug dealer. After telling him she wanted to end the relationship, she was raped, had her throat slit and her body was thrown in the local reservoir.
TO LIVE AND work as long as they have in the favelas, many of the
Irish missionaries have depended on the tacit approval of the gangs
that control their neighbourhoods and keep a vigilant eye on who
comes in and out. Fr Clarke’s cultural centre has never been touched
by thieves or vandals, presumably because it’s under the protection
of the gang leaders. Doesn’t such dependence pose moral dilemmas?
“It’s ambiguous, our relationship, but it allows you to do what you
think will contribute to changing a kid’s perspective on what he
wants to do with his life,” he replies. “You don’t have the luxury,
certainly, of moralising . . . because I suppose you act more on a
practical basis. But these people, they don’t realise how subversive
this is, this art. It seems harmless, but it’s really subversive.”
São Paulo’s murder rate may have fallen in recent years, but with the consolidation of the drugs trade by large syndicates, the business has become more organised and the supply lines more difficult to disrupt.
Despite some improvements, crime rates remain stubbornly high and the income gap has been slow to narrow. In parts of the city, HIV and illiteracy rates are worryingly static. Pat Clarke admits to feeling sceptical about the wider picture, but as long as he’s here, he’ll feel no temptation to despair. After all, he says, material progress will come by way of countless small victories of the spirit.
“Without what you might call a spiritual dimension to what you’re doing, people are only going to want material advancement, and then they’re going to turn into new oppressors. There are more dimensions to progress than purely material advancement . . . It’s the poverty of spirit that’s sometimes the calamity.”
Ruadhán Mac Cormaic travelled to São Paulo with Misean Cara, an Irish missionary development organisation that allocated more than €800,000 to its members in Brazil last year.