Some Hope for Brazil's Abandoned Children
Hillman, Elizabeth, Contemporary Review
THE streets of Rio de Janeiro have been peopled by abandonados -- children who have nowhere else to go -- for a number of years, but the problem was recently brought to the world's notice when armed men opened fire on a group of them sleeping in the city centre. Eight children were killed, and the whole shameful situation was publicised.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Rio, and it was impossible to ignore these children, for they are everywhere, their bright, watchful eyes never still, looking for any opportunity to earn a little, to steal, or even just to survive.
Our hotel was on Copacabana, where most of the children hang out, for there the wealthy tourists congregate. Anyone owning a home, a complete set of clothes, has access to hot running water, and eats regularly falls into the rich category for these children, who feel, quite naturally, that to take money, jewellery, or cameras from such people is no great hardship for them, for such things can easily be replaced.
Our first encounter with these unfortunates occurred when we were strolling along the |promenade' one evening. We were surprised to hear a young shoeshine boy calling to us in English, a broad grin on his face. |Ey, meester, sheet on your shoe!' he called, and offered his services. On my husband's decent leather shoe was a lump of heavy grease; evidently the boy's accomplice had thrown it there with the skill of a stage magician, for we had noticed nothing. My husband angrily refused to pay for a shoeshine, but gave the boy a small-denomination note when he cheerfully provided a sheet of newspaper for us to remove the grease. The boy laughed, shrugged his shoulders philosophically, and went off to find another victim. We discovered that the boys are trained in every kind of trick, and were such experts at stealing that young men from all over South America were sent to Rio to study their skills. Gangs of children jostle adults, then run off, leaving behind watchless arms, ringless fingers, and handbags and pockets that have been slit along the bottom to release the contents into waiting hands.
Later, we lived in Rio for three years, and we got to know a little more about the street-children. We lived in Flamengo, a pleasant area away from the tourist beaches, so the abandonados that we encountered were mostly hard-working. Every Wednesday morning, there was a feira livre -- the fruit and vegetable market in the square at the end of the street, and there were always groups of children and young men asking if they could carry the shopping around the market and back to the customer's home. One or two of the upwardly-mobile lads had made remarkable big soap-box carts for the most affluent customers, and most had nailed on a car number-plate, presumably found in gutters or possibly removed from parked cars. One boy, who had evidently had a little schooling, had painted |Asa Delta' (|hang-glider') on his cart.
On one occasion when we took the rack-railway up through the forest in the middle of the city to stand below the statue of Christ Redeemer to admire the spectacular view, a couple of young boys, probably between eight and ten years old, hitched a ride, and we asked them where they lived.
|In the forest', they said.
|Alone?' we asked.
With some other abandonados, they responded indifferently. They seemed reasonably healthy, wearing the simple street uniform of a well-worn teeshirt and shorts, and certainly didn't seem to be starving. If they had to be paupers, there were certainly far worse places to be; they had constant sunshine, incredibly beautiful surroundings, a forest rich in fruits to explore (surely every boy's dream?), and a population that is, in general, the most friendly and good-hearted in the world.
I began to take note of these unfortunates, to see how they survived. By day, many find jobs at the beach carrying around cooler-chests or metal casks of cold drinks to sell to the beach-lovers. …