I used to have a gratitude charm attached to my key ring to remind me of how fortunate I am to have the love and support of a large, extend family, broad circle of friends, colleagues, and neighbors, in addition to a challenging and fulfilling career that is more flexible than most and allows me to travel. Most recently, I spent a long weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although my trip included a whirlwind tour of the city, I was there to participate in a workshop on favelas – Rio’s infamous slums.
I was visiting Complexo da Mare, a conglomeration of favelas along the coast, when I encountered this young man preparing for a college entrance exam in calculus. He was studying in a community center library that was constructed by members of his community and intended to provide a space for Mare’s college-prep students. The center offers cursinhos, “little courses,” or test preparation classes. Because the quality of high schools attended by young people from the favelas is so low, completing a
cursinho is critical for those who hope to gain university entrance.
Improving education and increasing the number of Mare’s young people who go to college is one of the key elements motivating community activists there. This fact is hardly surprising, given the association between education and income. Mare is home to 130,000 Brazilians who collectively experience the nation’s lowest per capita incomes. While most of those with jobs work outside of the complexo, residents staff a variety of shops, restaurants, a health clinic, and schools. Others are engaged in the drug trafficking that has become synonymous with Rio’s favelas.
It’s a rough place, no doubt.
Yet it’s also an engaging one – rich and colorful, warm and inviting – despite the poverty. On Saturday afternoon, the streets were filled with people shopping, stopping for hair-cuts, and sitting down to lunch in eateries that spilled out of ground level “garages” into the street. Young couples walking hand-in-hand dodged motor-bikes and children racing. From my side-walk viewpoint, I could see women hanging out the clothes to dry and watched a group of men constructing another level of a characteristically substandard live-work space. I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a good case to be made that while the residents of Mare lack much in terms of healthy, physically safe, and secure living conditions, they share an enviable sense of community.
For a moment, I even thought, “I could live here.” I was certainly content to linger after lunch, people-watching.
Experiences like this one underscore my gratitude for the life with which I’ve been blessed, one that has been rich not only in terms of income, but also – and more importantly – in terms of family, friends, and the communities of which I’ve been a part. The young man studying calculus is more prosperous than he may know. My money’s on him.