Monday, March 28, 2011

What country should you adopt if you hate poor people?

Jenny Holzer
Survival Series (1983-1985)

Particularly aggravating

“I had prepared myself for another rant at Comic Relief, a grisly occasion on BBC1 in which every year parades of slebs preen themselves on their good works. Last year we saw Jonathan Ross congratulating all those people who had climbed Kilimanjaro, so raising one-20th of Ross’s annual salary. Couldn’t he have saved them the trouble by writing a cheque? As Jeremy Hardy used to say, if you were collecting door-to-door what would you think if someone said, ‘Yes, I’ll give £10 for cancer research. But only if you climb Ben Nevis dressed as a penguin?’

And I was going to point out that the money would be far better spent on reforming governments than on artesian wells and mosquito nets. ‘Just remember, every penny you raise will help pay for a crack squad of mercenaries to storm the presidential palace and relieve these suffering people from decades of tyranny and squalor!’ I was particularly incensed by the notion of Rich, Famous and in the Slums with Comic Relief (BBC1, Thursday), which looked like a distillation of every grim Comic Relief moment. The Radio Times picture of four slebs — Angela Rippon, Lenny Henry, Samantha Womack and a disc jockey called Reggie Yates — posing in red noses against the Kibera slum in Kenya where they were to spend a week — was particularly aggravating.

But then at a party last week I met Angela Rippon. She talked about the trip and was extremely moving. They really had been installed in this appalling slum, the largest in Africa, with equivalent of £2 to live on. They had to earn any more cash, and in that slum there are few investment opportunities. At one point she had to choose between eating and buying a comb, and decided she could smooth her hair with her fingers and buy a carrot instead. She’d met families of eight who lived in a room one third the size of the one where we were drinking champagne.

To earn money she worked as a teacher: ‘It was the most wonderful day of my life.’ She was deeply impressed by the pride and dignity of the slum dwellers; the way that the women kept their shacks as clean as they possibly could, and would not dream of sending their children out in clothes that were other than spotless. And she’s going back.

So I will make an exception for that programme, which was far more affecting than I’d expected, and gave a three-dimensional view of poverty that went beyond the usual pot-bellied children with fly-covered faces, and women walking miles with pots of water on their heads. We met real people, leading meaningful lives in the worst urban environment in the world.”

The Spectator, 5th March 2011

From the street

The dialogue posted last Monday resulted in G leaving the street early last week. He is one of a group of children we have recently encountered living under the bridges of a major suburban hub here in the south of the city.

Although he comes from as complicated a family situation as one could imagine, we are here for such difficult cases as these. If the truth be told (even though the process stresses me to the point of stomach pains) I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The first few weeks are always a critical and sensitive time: separation from his brother and from his ‘street family’, withdrawal from drug abuse and the slow process of becoming accustomed to the discipline and circadian rhythm of the house. Let’s see how he gets on.

A Thousand Hits

You, valued reader, are privileged today to get an exclusive preview of my upcoming art installation A Thousand Hits in which the artist presents a huge collage comprised of tiny photographs of individually splattered mosquitoes.

When completed, the collage will take the form of a small child begging on the street while a group of inept law enforcement figures look on. You know, in the style of Marcus Harvey. A limited run of a million prints will follow (representing each bite received by the artist to date). All proceeds* will be going to mosquito-related charities.

*price on application

Sunday, March 27, 2011

J = João

A long overdue family visit and a welcome opportunity to drop the anonymity of initials. J is João. Dear John.

His house is situated in one of the three favelas surrounding São Jorge (which you may remember from here). João is doing exceptionally well; continuing with school (which probably patronises his fierce intelligence), this ‘graduate’ of Crackland, rescued from the street and - after passing almost nine months at the house - has now returned to his mum.

He took me for a little tour of the neighbourhood and, while hopping over broken drainage pipes and ducking under washing lines burdened with children’s clothes (bursts of softener in the nostrils among an alternating stench of dog poo and human waste), he spoke fondly of his daily visits to Casa Semear nearby, the drug dealers on the corner (who no longer aggravate him, probably because of his new height) and his desire to start a blog slagging-off the local authority for all of its shortcomings.

“They’ll bulldoze your shack,” I say, with a wary expression.
“I’m using a made-up name - obviously,” he retorts. “João Fedor” (João Stink).

I'll have to look out for that one.

a river runs through it

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I am getting all ahead of myself. Much has happened this last week which will affect the future. Old faces and many new ones.

Chronological posting will resume...shortly.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Keeping track

Sometimes I wish I could electronically tag the kids we come across on the street.

Building trust is hard enough. Week after week, conversation by awkward conversation. Then one day, you lose a child here, and then a child there. Moved on. Another part of town. Sometimes another city (they climb inside the cargo trains, you know). A season’s worth of work - seemingly gone until the next time you catch a glimse of the boy you had come to know by name.

My neck aches from leaning low to decipher worn-out faces amongst the blankets.

Mother's little helper

He's crying on the sofa.
He said he doesn't want to do his chore.
He said he doesn't know how to wash the dishes.

Who doesn't know how to wash the dishes?

Monday, March 21, 2011

I see the children, sharp as knives
I see the children, dead and alives

P.J. Harvey - Big Exit

Still at the top

do you want to leave the street?
do you really want to leave the street? I mean, you're not just saying that?
yes - it's destroying me
brothers? sisters?
a brother (by blood), 10; a sister (by blood), 13 - both on the street - somewhere

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Inconceivable in the United States

“I mean, what's the elections? You know, two guys, same background, wealth, political influence, went to the same elite university, joined the same secret society where you're trained to be a ruler - they both can run because they're financed by the same corporate institutions.

At the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said, ‘only in this country, only in America, could someone like me appear here.’ Well, in some other countries, people much poorer than him would not only talk at the convention - they'd be elected president.

Take Lula. The president of Brazil is a guy with a peasant background, a union organizer, never went to school, he's the president of the second-biggest country in the hemisphere. Only in America? I mean, there they actually have elections where you can choose somebody from your own ranks. With different policies. That's inconceivable in the United States.”

Noam Chomsky, interviewed by Wallace Shawn, 19th October 2004

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In the city a short time ago

Brazil ranked 129th out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report, worse than Nigeria.

Source: Financial Times, 29th June, 2010

Family (re)visit

So very good to revisit B & C in the house we helped build a year or so ago. Everything in its place, but not much done since then, unfortunately (but not unsurprisingly). Left-overs from the construction piled high in the entrance provided a rather depressing welcome. The boys were upbeat though, and were still attending school. Their mum - much restored - greated us warmly and had baked a cake.

B&Cs’ heavily pregnant fourteen year old half-sister remained chirpy notwithstanding her proximity to birth (next week). The only absence (and second sadness) was granny - the anchor of the fragmented family - who lay bedridden in an adjacent room.

“these,” boasted Caio, “were all my kites”


Abandoned by his father in his childhood, Jack Nicholson was raised believing his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his older sister. The truth was revealed to him years later when a Rolling Stone magazine researcher uncovered the truth while preparing a story on the star.

Staff call

Marcelo and Renilson

Marcelo and Renilson started last week at the rescue house. I cannot tell you how difficult it has been to find good, solid helpers here in São Paulo. We have been searching and waiting patiently for over a year. Now we have been blessed with two at once.

Not only that, but Renilson (on the right) is an ex-street kid who was rescued by the mission as a small boy and has grown up in three of the rescue houses. Now he is part of the team helping to restore others. Would you believe that?

We have been dreaming big dreams for some time now, but have been constrained by a small team. Now, we can finally look to fill the rescue house to capacity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


The coat of arms of São Paulo
(translation: “I am not led, I lead.”)


The only thing I can find in which São Paulo leads - both in Brazil and in the world - is making and selling armored cars. (Source: New York Times, 4th May, 2009)

Monday, March 7, 2011

‘Everything has either a price or a dignity’ – Kant

Just returned from a visit inside what is known as Crackland, in the decimated heart of the old city. I have blogged previously (here) of the threatened urban regeneration and have often received first-hand accounts of life within those streets, but nothing quite prepared me for this night.

A rare moment in which I am lost for words as the images and thoughts tumble around inside my head. I saw people stripped of their dignity tonight. Children, prostitutes, hundreds and hundreds of addicts - often with eyes fixed on the ground, searching for stray rocks of crack. An acrid stench of human faeces. An oppressive fear eating into my chest.

When I see a child sitting, docile, sucking on a crack pipe or playing amongst the filth in the street - oblivious to the danger all around - my only response is one of ineffable pity. Who is there for such people? If the state - with all its power and might - just stands to one side, who dare extend a hand of help in what is in many ways an urban leper colony?

On returning home I found the footage below which was taken last year. Nothing (it seems) has changed.


The shepherding can be illustrated rather depressingly above. Click on the middle street (above the pedestrian crossing) to advance towards the group on the upper right of the photo. The addicts are miraculously replaced by police surrounded by drug paraphernalia - the words CRACOLANDIA can me made out in the graffiti behind the officers’ heads.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Miserable and worried

“No, it is not fatalistic. I just try to alleviate a burden from people’s shoulders. I think we should pursue other goals, and I am not sure – contrary to what most philosophers say – I am not sure that happiness is the main goal in life. It’s a goal, of course – one of the main goals. In the name of happiness you can fall down in slavery, just to satisfy your material needs. Looking for happiness is like looking for a goal which is receding on the horizon as you try to reach it.

I think another feeling for me which is more important is joy. Because joy is the acceptance of life in its good and bad sides. And being joyful, in my opinion, is more important than being happy. People who try to be happy are very often so miserable and worried.”

Pascal Bruckner
BBC Radio 4, 2nd March 2011

Probably Flabby

“We treat children for a lot of various problems. Children with learning difficulties, dyslexia, autism, ADHT. Many will have excellent hearing, but poor listening, because the two are different. And they come every day for two hours a day. And we play them music. Either Mozart or a Gregorian chant.

We play them music through a machine called an electronic ear which retrains the ear to listen properly. Some people are left-ear dominant which means that when they are listening to someone speaking, that speech is taking longer to arrive at the speech-processing area of the brain, than if they were right-ear dominant (where it goes straight in the ear and straight across). Left-ear dominant people will have problems with sequential instructions.

Physically, we can be changing the person from left to right-ear dominance. Other children, because of emotional difficulties, like a lot of adopted children who are very happy in their new adoptive situation, but have perhaps experienced quite a lot of problems with their natural parents. These children will be very, very disturbed. And when we are emotionally disturbed what we tend to do as people is to stop listening. We cut off our listening.

But the machine itself is a miracle. It retrains the ear to listen properly and it forces the muscles of the middle ear to stretch to catch sounds and then relaxes. These muscles - which were probably flabby and unable to enable the person to listen properly - they become taut and vibrant, and they can then listen properly.”

Alex Smith, Tomatis Listening Centre
BBC Radio 4, 1st March, 2011