THE FAVELA BABY

We have a favela – or shanty town – situated a few hundred yards from our road down a track to a valley. It is a smallish one and we are not aware of its existence most of the time. Contrasts of wealth and poverty living juxta-position are quite common in Sao Paulo due to the quick spread of building from the centre out into the surrounding countryside. The favela is situated in a low lying area that is not attractive to the growing middle class whose villas, sobrados and town houses are springing up all around us. Such areas are left derelict for many years until the land is settled by the impoverished migrants coming in from all parts of the country. They arrive and put up lean-tos, using corrugated sheets, tar paper, wood taken from building sites and whatever else they can scavenge. Mostly the people have no regular work and if some call round to beg we give them food or clothing but never money. It is common practice to leave anything that one does not want out in front of the house and you can be sure it will be gone in the morning. This is what happened with a mattress Ursula wanted to dispose of and a young woman called to ask if she could have it. She knew of course that she could but she also wanted someone to carry the large, heavy mattress for her as she was heavily pregnant.

This I did with the help of Cliffie and his friend Jorge. We carried this mattress into the heart of the favela, walking on pieces of wood laid over the deep mud and open sewer run-offs into a small foetid den with small children lying on scraps of cloth. We laid the mattress down on the ground where the woman indicated and beat a hasty retreat from this deprived place. I told Ursula about the conditions there and when the woman came back some days later with a small, shivering feverish child to say that she was sick, Ursula went to the chemist to buy the medicine prescribed by a doctor. After this Ursula paid some visits to the woman’s shack taking food and small items of help.

When it was time for the birth of the baby I was recruited by Ursula to take Yvonne, the mother-to-be, in the car to the free hospital in the centre of Sao Paulo. After that there was no communication with her until one day, some weeks later, she appeared at our gateway clapping, which is the only procedure in Brazil for calling the occupant’s attention. Never, never, never is it permissible for a caller to enter the front garden or area of any Brazilian ┬áhouse without prior permission. She was carrying her baby. When Ursula went out in answer to her call she said she wanted to thank her for the help given. Spontaneously, she held out the little bundle saying, ‘will you take the baby and bring her up? She will have a better chance with you.’ There was nothing Ursula could say to this heart-rending episode except to tell Yvonne that she could not do what she asked.

1969