Coronavirus in the Life of Favelas, Part 9: Poetry and Public Sinks to Fight the Pandemic in Providência

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This article from Morro da Providência is the ninth in a series about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on daily life in the favelas. The series is made possible through a partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University. 

Morro da Providência, which is over 120 years old, is considered to be Brazil’s first favela. Located in the downtown Centro area of Rio de Janeiro, the area began to be occupied by former slaves in 1888, and by ex-combatants from the Canudos War in 1897. Soldiers who were sent to Canudos upon returning to Rio de Janeiro did not receive the land they were promised as payment and so settled instead on the nearby hill.

Morro da Providência resembled another hill that became the trench of the sertanejo combatants in Canudos, who rose up against the Republic: the Morro da Favella. The “faveleira” plant was dominant on that hill. Whether due to the memory of the original hill or by a possible presence of the ‘favela’ plant on the Rio de Janeiro hill, the fact is that the informally occupied region in Rio became known as “Morro da Favela.”

Over the decades, the word “favela” became the name used to identify informal settlements across Brazil, and Morro da Favela came to be called Morro da Providência. According to the municipal government’s Pereira Passos Institute (IPP) of urbanism, Providência has a population of about 5,000 people. Its residents contend there are at least twice as many.

In this story, in the form of poetry, the coordinators of the Horta Inteligente (Intelligent Garden) project in Providência—Elisângela Almeida Oliveira and Lorena Portela—describe how the first favela is taking on the Covid-19 pandemic:

In the city of Rio de Janeiro, its first favela is still fighting!
Here in Morro da Providência, alcohol gel is gold.
We should wash our hands and clothes after we have been in the street. But wash them with what water?
We should eat well to keep immunity high. But eat what food?
Lack of water and poor basic sanitation has been our reality since long before the pandemic days.
Get out of the street, kid! But how do you quarantine with a big family and a small house?

There are no hugs or handshakes.
But, more than ever, collectives and leaders have been working together:
cars with loudspeakers blaring for health, on social media yelling for donations!
Hold on: these big numbers represent union:
By the end of April, there were 620 basic food baskets, 103 organic food baskets, 950 meal cards, 2868 liters of bottled water.
For cleaning, 1,460 hand soaps, 1,008 toilet paper packages, 1,100 bars of soap, 400 bottles of alcohol gel….
In addition (and what a beautiful thing!): 37 sinks have been installed along the hill and 1200 liters of soap produced from recycled cooking oil from here in the region! And there’s a lot more coming…
By bank transfer or crowdfunding, even large companies have donated!
And to distribute it all? Residents register by WhatsApp, and whoever is most vulnerable has priority!

Cultivating gardens and orchards also continues, in the squares, along the street.
Will the favela ever achieve food sovereignty?
We can only find out if we plant!

The street is already emptier… But most of us still have to go out every day to work.
In the most unequal country in the world, staying home is more of a privilege than a precaution: a protection that basic workers cannot access.
That’s why we push for our request: basic income now! We cannot wait anymore for the bureaucracy of the State.

Gloves and masks are disposable.
The lives of millions of children and residents of favelas and peripheries are not!
From here we are putting out some surreal fires,
but we know that it is public policy that addresses structural problems.
It is for our own people that we carry on: working bit by bit,
because it’s not just a ‘little flu.’
Every day action is taken.
In these 120 years of Morro da Favela
Resistance and hope, even in times of war!

The authors of this poetic report, Almeida and Portela, also developed a campaign with watercolors to transmit—through direct messages that might attract positive attention—information useful to mitigating Covid-19 transmission. The watercolor illustrations,* made by Portela (Instagram), were drawn from Almeida’s observations on situations and behaviors in her experience in Providência:

Elisângela Almeida created the Horta Inteligente project in 2015. She lives in Morro da Providência and is from Vitória da Conquista (Bahia). Almeida is 23 years old and currently works in the administrative area at the SUIPA animal protection agency. With training in the areas of administration, logistics, and design, her dream is to earn a degree in environmental sciences. In 2015, she was named ambassador and one of the semi-finalists for Prudential’s Community of Spirit award.

Lorena Portela is an environmental engineer and doctoral student in public health (ENSP/FIOCRUZ). Portela is 27 years old and has worked with education and experiments in agroecology, permaculture, and ecological sanitation since 2013. She is also an artist and yoga instructor. Her research is in the field of health and visual arts in connection with socio-environmental issues and the affirmation of agroecology as an emancipatory practice.

*Almeida and Portela have authorized the wide dissemination of the material produced

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