In the past few days at work and as I have reflected in the past blog entries, I have been very careful not to disrespect the differences on the way in which things function in this context where I am now working and living. I have tried to adapt and understand a different culture, and be wary not to put my “western values,” if so be called, before me when at work or in general. However, that sometimes can prove to be misleading, allowing others to justify on “their different culture” things that are just so harmful I cannot help but call them wrong. These are things that hinder what we know as development,not necessarily by preserving traditions or cultural values that some may consider as “backwards”. Still, it is very controversial to argue that such things must be put behind, and it makes me wonder up to which point can people allow or even desire development. And what is development if not a sort of movement towards what we call “civilization”? It is hard to escape the western colonizer connotations, even if what I and so many other people genuinely want is to make things better, to just make others happier.
The context of the favelas displays a specific culture known as “a vida de favela” or "the favela life." This culture, while being indeed Brazilian, differs in many ways from that culture of those that live right below in "the asphalt." There is something that comes from the tight community feeling, the courage and strength implied on living in harsh conditions, the lack of rule of law and the different social norms that exist in the communities. A work partner yesterday commented to me: “It is being hard for them to adapt to norms and regulations, before in (the favela that she works at)* you could do anything at any time of the day. If you wanted to eat, to play music, to play football, to sleep... it did not matter the place or the time. Now, with the new norms being implemented this is no longer that way.” Some residents feel that they are much better off, while others feel that they are loosing all their freedom. For instance, there is the new 'silence norm.' The silence norm is being imposed in favelas that have been pacified. Before, there was noise at any time. I myself had been to dance parties in the middle of the street with very loud music on a Sunday night at 4am. I could not help but think of all those who had to work on Monday. Now, the silence norm mandates that after 10pm anyone is allowed to call in the police if there is any loud disturbing noise, and the police can forbid whoever is making that noise to continue to do so. Many find that this goes against their culture, since some argue that loud music and dance parties at any time of the day are a 'deeply rooted tradition’ in the favelas. At the same time, others see this norm as a step towards development and achieving a more civilised environment, where they can enjoy a peaceful quiet sleep time. These divided opinions between preservation and change are constantly present through this new process.
An outsider such as me often finds it complicated to be part of those in favour of change without being exposed to criticism from the residents, or even other outsiders. In response to questioning some of their practices, I often hear back the phrase “you just don’t understand the favela life.” I agree, despite all my studying, my fieldwork, my close friends living there, having lived there and my work I have not been raised in a favela therefore I will not necessarily ever fully understand “the favela life.” Nevertheless, I feel that such response is quite weak. Nobody is really expected nor will ever fully understand someone else's life or culture, but that does not withdraw people from raising their opinion of one another and together try to improve. Besides, that sentence assumes that “favela life” is the same on every community, a big mistake that I am observing leads to a lot of mismanagement, for instance, on the side of government programs. “Favela” stands for simmilar geographical and ethnographical constructions with marked boundaries, like the term “country”. But not one favela is the same as another as not two countries are the same. For this reason, social problems that are being dealt by the government in a institutionalized manner are resulting more or less effective in different favelas. An example is trash collection. In some favelas people are more educated on how to manage trash, for instance Vidigal is one of the cleanest favelas where there are organized trash collection schedules and people bring the trash to the specific containers. On the other hand, Cantagalo, which is another favela in the Zona Sul, is known for being particularly dirty and people are careless with trash management, throwing the rubbish bags through their windows out to the street. The program that the government designed for trash management, which includes education panels and trash collection, is necessary in Cantagalo but practically useless in Vidigal. The same occurs with many other social aspects such as housing conditions or even crime, much more rooted in some communities than in others.
The particularity of each favela is something that must be taken in account when designing and implementing any sort of programs. At the same time and as I introduced in the beginning, there are things that I personally see as common to all. For example, I am a strong defendant of human rights -despite acknowledging that they receive several criticisms-. I have experienced several situations in which human, and more particularly children rights are easily overlooked in the favelas. Some of my good friends spent a year living in a favela. First, they lived in a small house and the renter lived above them. They saw that he frequently brought little girls up with him to the house, and they found out that he was abusing them. They did not know anyone around who they could denounce that to, and once they spoke out and the response was “you just don’t understand the favela life.” So they moved to another house. There they became very close to a 10-year-old girl that would frequent their house, sometimes staying pass midnight with no one really caring about where she was. Her mother did not care if she was attending school, or if she was out alone at night. She would bring her friends some times and comment with them: “hoje a minha mae estaba usando e...” (today my mom was smoking weed) and her friend would respond “ah, mine too.” As if that was the most common conversation between 10-year-old children. Similar situations got me to believe that, while I have always been in favour of preserving tradition, there are certain aspects of “the favela life” that have to be changed, and I do not need to understand it in order to say that. While I think that all the changes must come from within the community, I think that they must come even if suggested from the outside.
Luckily, there are also lots of close families and progressive people in the favelas. The favela Chácara do Céu with which I worked for the Rio +20 event was a hopeful example. This small favela is based on family ties since most of the residents are family related. They are in general very progressive, demand their rights and support many of the positive changes that are being brought into their community. It was really easy to work with them through the event because they were so supportive and cooperative and they all had ideas that they wanted to add and also push forward. Change is possible, change is necessary and change is many times welcomed. However, change must be adaptive and come carefully into play. I will continue seeing how it all evolves.