After spending the better part of the last two years working in some of the most destitute regions of the developing world’s brightest stars—Brazil and India—I arrived at two disconcerting, and perhaps cynical conclusions. First, the world’s poor face systemic injustices that threaten their very means of survival; second, the majority of those in a position to do something about it will watch these injustices unfold on their television sets and Twitter feeds, and will never attempt to become part of the solution.
Like the acute clarity that follows an unexpected blow to the face, the weight of these conclusions left me pensive and restless on the ten-hour overnight flight to Rio de Janeiro. Somewhere over Bermuda, I re-read Kennedy Odede’s New York Times opinion piece on slum tourism in his native Kibera, Kenya, and I couldn’t help noticing how his thesis resonated with my own frustration. “Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them.” Odede continues, “Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something—and then go back to their lives…”
As our flight pierced a quintessentially-carioca partly cloudy sky, this notion of poverty as entertainment simultaneously sickened, convicted and excited me. What kind of twisted individual is willing to exploit another’s poverty for his own pleasure? I had to meet these sickos.
As the cramped van full of tourists—cameras and guide books in hand—snaked through the equally confined streets of Rocinha, the largest slum (Portuguese: favela) in South America, I introduced myself to my fellow slum tourists.
On my right sat Kim, a freelance writer and photographer from California. To my left was Tom, the marketing director from Tokyo, and behind us were Alex and Jen the writer and TV producer from London, and Archie and Lorna, an interracial retired Canadian couple from the Baby Boomer set. Hmm, these aren’t quite the “Ugly Americans” I expected to meet on an exploitative excursion into the favelas.
Our guide for the tour was Zezinho, who prefers to call his trips a “favela experience,” the aim of which is to “destroy misconceptions.” Born in Rocinha but raised in New York City’s Queens borough, Zezinho is a passionate proponent of slum tourism, yet also seems aware of its potential ethical pitfalls—he warned us against snapping photos of residents without permission as “people don’t like to feel like zoo animals.”
Yet Zezinho didn’t hesitate to highlight the drama inherent in a daylong tour through territory controlled by the notorious Amigos dos Amigos drug-trafficking gang. “Now I’m going to use some code words,” Zezinho whispered, as the team listened with rapt attention. “The traffickers I’m going to refer to as ‘the guys,’ the drugs as ‘product’ and the selling points as… well, ‘selling points.’ And sometimes, you might see some ‘guys’ with ‘G-U-N-S’.”
I expected the next set of questions to center on concern for our personal safety, but what came next surprised me. Jen asked Zezinho whether former president Lula’s celebrated transfer programs were truly effective. Kim wanted to know whether or not “gay-bashing” was common in the favelas. Archie was interested in how favelados pay their property taxes.
While Odede admits “the expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home,” he laments “it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.”
I imagined the same, until I heard the story of another slum tourist by the name of Pope John Paul II. Upon visiting Vidigal, a favela situated between Ipanema Beach and Rocinha, in July 1980, the Pope was so moved by the favela residents’ resilience in the face of continued government-sanctioned destruction of their homes, that he removed a papal ring and donated it to the favelados. Soon after, John Paul II successfully advocated for the Brazilian government to amend their policy of forcible eviction, and today Vidigal’s luminescent presence on Ipanema Beach serves to remind Rio’s Zona Sul of the legitimacy of the favelados’ land ownership claims.
The residents of Rio’s favelas haven’t forgotten the Pope’s generosity, nor have they forgotten the generosity of other slum tourists who, after experiencing favela life firsthand, have decided that “merely bearing witness to such poverty” is not enough. Examples include the Microsoft executive who donated a computer education center to nearby Vila Canoas favela, and the countless individuals who’ve dedicated their entire lives to empowering the community by teaching English, and supporting occupation-specific educational initiatives.
Aurelio, an immigrant from Northeastern Brazil who steadfastly observes the prevailing men’s favela dress code of soccer shorts, Havaianas sandals, and no shirt, is one of those residents who relishes the opportunity to host tourists in his favela. “Tourism is great, we get to show our favela to the rest of the world, who might one day come to stay,” Aurelio exclaimed as he beamed at the group of now slightly-sunburned and wildly-inspired international tourists at whom I rolled my eyes upon first meeting.
And perhaps that’s where Mr. Odede and I had it wrong. We assumed that for others less accustomed to poverty, “merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.” It turns out that it’s not. While many will witness injustice (via television, social media, or even slum tours) and choose to do nothing, there are some who upon witnessing such a profound need will dedicate their lives to meeting that need. Slums will certainly not go away just because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them—the tour is only the beginning of the end.
To learn more about Rocinha, slum tourism, and Zezinho’s efforts to give back to the community, visit Zezinho’s blog at http://lifeinrocinha.blogspot.com/.
All photos by Jimmy Chalk.