My Travels: From South African Squatter Camps to Brazil Favelas

I doubt humanity was created to be cabined, cribbed and confined in spaces like America’s black inner cities, the squatter camps of South Africa, and the favelas of Brazil. Sunday I visited Santa Marta, a favela (slum) located 148 feet up a mountainside in Rio de Janeiro populated by mostly people of color. This experience rattled something deep in my soul.

I reached Santa Marta, housing over five thousand people, by a small lift that elevated me upward towards the skies. When I stepped out before my eyes were tiny almost toy looking homes stretching up and down the mountainside connected by narrow byzantine streets and little shops. Along these meandering streets were dog feces, chickens cackling, birds nesting, open sewage drains, aromas from breakfast escaping through miniature windows, drugs sold openly guarded by a fifteen year old boy with a machine gun. Police were present but clustered at the bottom entrance of the favelos seemingly uncaring about life inside the community.

A community meeting in Santa Marta


All about were children with happy faces, old men and women beat down by time and circumstance, young women raising and watching offspring and teenagers embracing an uncertain future. Life is poor and rough in Santa Marta for it is not a place for the faint hearted. From this mountainside can be seen luxurious sky scrapers downtown and mountains slightly blocking views of the pristine beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Twenty-four hundred feet up and to the left is Christ the Redeemer with outstretched hands keeping watch over rich and poor. I thought, Christ of the Christian faith, is this favela not a blemish to you and your Father’s wondrous creations and why don’t you all just fix it? Amen.

Christ the Redeemer

It is amazing that Santa Marta is full of life, hope, and creativity and community meetings. Its people radiate pride and wish not to be degraded by anyone. This bustling but confined community reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s criticism of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma where African Americans were viewed as having a distorted pathological culture because of white oppression: “But can a people live…and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs; why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man’s dilemma?” Although oppression abounds, the people of Santa Marta have made rich lives on the side of a mountain where human existence seems as unlikely as that in a desert on a faraway planet.

Statue of Michael Jackson marking the spot where he performed in 1996 in Santa Marta

In the middle of community life in Santa Marta is a majestic statue of Michael Jackson with arms stretching out to the people. They love him because in 1996 he came to their favela and danced and sang through its narrow winding pathways. Jackson’s famous video that sprang from this haunting village declared “They Don’t Care About Us.” One gets the eerie feeling that the iconic star of pop was right but overlooked one crucial detail. The people of Santa Marta care about themselves and their dignity is unmistakable.

View of downtown from favela

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