Social and emotional as well as economic poverty have a stranglehold on the people here. To walk outside your front door after dark is asking for ‘trouble’. Mothers and children fear for their safety walking to and from the Compassion child development centre (CDC). Drug dealers operate openly on the streets and as we walk along a narrow alley, flanked on either side by our ‘minders’ from the CDC, a couple of guys crouched in the corner stare at us through glazed, blood-shot eyes – high on crack. Robberies and violence are the norm and living in fear is a way of life. Even the police do little to protect the innocent, assuming that everyone in this community is ‘bad’. Child prostitution is a problem here and teenagers, especially boys, receive acceptance and self-esteem from the drug lords who use them as traffickers.
On top of a crudely constructed brick wall, jagged pieces of broken glass glisten in the sunlight while the heavy iron gates below are opened, closed and padlocked again after each person enters or exits the centre. Security is important here. This is one of the few places in the community where the children can feel safe.
Joelma, a single mother in her mid-twenties, talks animatedly to us, her voice getting louder and her speech faster as she recounts the problems she faces in this community. She pauses now and then and glances over at her six-year-old son, Diogo, who sits quietly at a small desk mouthing out the words he is reading from a children’s book. Diogo is smart; he learned to read even before he started school.
“I am divorced and so now I only have Diogo,” says Joelma. “I devote all my time to him. I don’t want him to end up like most of the teenagers here who are on drugs and who commit violent crimes. The young people here terrorise the community.”
Public education is stretched to the limit and many children here are lucky to complete the 5th grade. Vocational training is desperately needed for the young people in this community and there are very few opportunities available.
Compassion, alongside some other organisations, is here in this community trying to make a difference and provide hope for the future. But resources and funds are limited. With the deepening economic crisis and the fall in the value of the local currency many families face an even bleaker future.
I watch Joelma and Diogo walk through the heavy gates onto the street outside. The gates are closed and locked behind them. I wonder what their future looks like here in this community. Because Diogo is sponsored he will have more opportunities than most of the other children here. He has a mother who loves him, but the situation is still tough and the future uncertain. The children and families in these favellas need our ongoing support.