After arriving at Lee House in Thornley, on the edge of Chipping parish, we were ushered into the chapel for introductions and to discover the plan for the afternoon.
Joe Howson introduced the Favela Experience, by telling us that we were now in a subsistence farming community in North East Brazil, suffering from a drought and lack of food. Today, like 1.2 billion people worldwide, we would be living on less than $1 per day.
Our community had heard that there are jobs in Rio de Janeiro, so several families decided to set off for the big city, several thousand miles away. Before we began this life changing journey, we all joined hands, while Joe sang “The Lord is my shepherd” in Portuguese, and prayed for God’s blessing on the journey.
Once we arrived in Rio, we found that things were not as easy as we had hoped. We found space on the edge of a “favela” or slum. Some of the people already living there made us welcome. They pointed out some poles and bits of plastic that had been left by some builders, and we used these to build simple shelters.
Fortunately Bishop Philip, the Bishop of Burnley was on hand to offer advice and support. [Bishop Philip was present as part of Crossroads, a diocesan mission and evangelism project that is underway at the moment].
Meanwhile, the younger family members were invited to join some of the families already living in the favela. They helped make herbal medicine by pounding garlic and brewing nettle tea. They weren’t too sure about the nettle tea, but they did enjoy the pancakes.
Back at the shacks, we found some containers to collect water from a local well. Pulling water was fairly easy, although carrying it on our heads was more of a challenge, but the water was not safe to drink. In order to avoid illness, we made water filters from old plastic bottles, sand, gravel and charcoal. We could find sand and gravel, but we had to buy the charcoal from the local shop. We had hardly any money and the shopkeeper was not willing to offer a discount, despite our poverty. Fortunately he needed some string, and we were able to find enough to barter with him. This make up the difference, and we were able to build filters and – very slowly – purified our water.
Just when we thought that all was well, a government official arrived and called a public meeting. We were informed that the land had been sold for development linked to the Olympic Games and we would have to move again. The army began to pull our shelters down, even though we struggled to prevent them.
A local representative of Christian Aid arrived at this point, and informed us that since some of us had been living here for three years, we had a legal right, under Brazilian law, to remain on this land. She insisted that this went to court, and so that was where we were headed next.
Arguments went back and forth in the courtroom, with the state pointing out that there was a legal document signed just over year ago showing that the land now belonged to a construction company. The inhabitants of the site had no such official document, and so had no right to remain on the land. The opposing argument stated that the inhabitants had been there for three years, long before the document of ownership was drawn up, and as such they retained the right to the land. Fortunately the judge agreed with this point of law, and we were all allowed to remain on the land.
VinB (Volunteer in Brazil) was conceived by its founder, Joe Howson, whilst he served as a volunteer in North East Brazil in the early 1980’s.
The charity exists to help individuals and communities in Brazil and Europe to create bonds of solidarity. Its primary focus is to support educational and small scale development projects in the urban communities of Rio de Janeiro and isolated rural communities in the region of Cristino Castro, North East Brazil. VinB also provide opportunities for individuals to volunteer in communities in Brazil and the UK, facilitate exposure visits and deliver experiential learning activities that raise awareness of poverty, injustice and the need for global solidarity.