The well-heeled people come to Morro da Cruz when the macela flowers are out. The name of the place translates from Portuguese as “Hill of the Cross” because a wooden cross was first placed there, at the top of a wooded mountain looking out across the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil’s south-east, nearly 30 years ago. Then someone built a plain, whitewashed church around it. And then someone else built a bigger cross, so that now, each year at Easter, the people from the city arrive to process up the hill, take in the indescribably beautiful view and pick the small white flowers with their yellow centre. The “smell of Easter,” as someone describes them to me.
It is when the pleasure of the festival has gone that the people go away again – a little like a World Cup, you might say – leaving Morro da Cruz as it is the rest of the year: a random collection of corrugated shacks and half-houses to the east of the city, some with roofs, some without, flung up at random. A community of people who are struggling to shake off the term which its people hate – “favelados” (“slum dwellers”) – and who wonder if anyone might come to collect the stinking refuse which has spilt out on to the street or to fix the sewerage pipe, to take away the stench.
This visit is not one of those many, glossy public-relations events organised for the world’s best footballers, with media in tow, which have helped demonstrate football’s economic benefits these past few weeks. It comes at the invitation of Lucia Scalco, a social anthropologist at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, who has spent the last 10 years trying to earn the trust of the families and break the cycle of poverty and exclusion which stalks them. Instinct tells you that these people will not welcome a foreigner with a notebook walking the steep, deeply pocked roads, past the main crack dealer’s den.
They say that things could be worse. There is only one main dealer now, an improvement on the rivals’ pitched battle for territory that scarred the place five years ago, but it is still a very bleak landscape. How long has there been sewage in the street? When will that pipe be fixed? “Two weeks. We don’t know,” says one resident. We tread around the worst of the problem. The sun is almost up on the hill, bringing a heat that will soon exaggerate the stench.
It is the refuse problem which agitates people more, though. Cooked meat, bread and vegetables spill out of black bags, which litter the street and have been torn open by the dogs that roam the place. Residents have been asking for years for some bins to keep the dogs out. None materialised so someone has found a plastic box in which to put some of this effluent of life. “Lixiera?” (“Rubbish?”) is scrawled ironically on the side of it. A few roads away, in the main shopping street, a de facto dumping ground has formed: a sofa, rubble, more rotting food.
Some say the cost of equipping the 30,000 population of Morro da Cruz with rubbish bins would be four million Brazilian reals, a little more than £1m. Doubling the workforce of the municipal council’s environmental department – providing enough staff to mend the sewerage pipes within a day – might cost 10m reals (£2.6m). Ten new refuse carts, to cover the areas of Morro da Cruz where they never collect, perhaps the same. The new football stadium down the hill in Porto Alegre, where the authorities have been in a desperate rush to finish the surrounding approach roads, signs and power supply in these past two weeks, cost 290m reals. Fifa will take a £2.3bn profit from this World Cup.
They don’t look for handouts up on Morro da Cruz, though. They are welcoming me into their place because they are doing what you and I do: try to instil in their children a curiosity, an appetite to learn, do better and move on. They are nurturing a curiosity in their children by giving them what every child wants most: a little of their time. Nicholas, a 12-year-old sitting in the little library they have converted across from the church, could be your child or mine. He’s at that difficult age; so obviously so that I know the question of which books he’s reading would be destined to receive a roll of the eyes. Through Helena Fietz, who translates for me, I try out the better alternative – football – and still awkward monosyllables come back. But someone’s giving him some attention and he likes that, so when we wander out into the sunshine, he follows. We’re soon scaling the steps to the cross – the highest point on the hill – and he’s pointing out the square of uneven concrete where he and his friends kick a ball. A new half-football pitch for Morro would cost 38,000 reals (£10,000).
This might be a basic place but the librarians would hold their heads up high among British members of the profession. They are rolling out the “reading suitcase” scheme – filling a case with 15 books and letting a family take them home to read, share and display. “Because people like to show off a shelf of books in their house, even if they can’t read them all,” says one of the staff there. The library had commercial funding for a while – the C&A retail chain, which has a footprint in Brazil, got interested. But now the church is keeping this place going, just like the Saturday open school, which is also designed to give the children’s lives some structure. It is such a fundamental part of this place that its founder, Paulinho Da Escolar Aberta (Paulinho of The Open School), is known by no other name.
It is a very steep hill that these fledgling educators climb. Scalco’s work has shown that the odds are stacked against the inhabitants of Morro – population 30,000, with 8,453 people crammed into each square kilometre – moving on and up. She’s involved in encouraging the young to get professional and technological skills. The lack of computers up here means they are disenfranchised: cut off from a knowledge of jobs and the ever shifting world down there in the city. “The young enter the job market at a very early age, with low educational levels and no technical skills. This reproduces the poverty they grew up in,” she says. “They often live their daily lives down in the city but they do not belong to it. They are exposed to criminality, prostitution and drug dealing on a daily basis. Drug dealing is becoming more and more spread each day.”
There is evidence all around that the vicious circle can be broken. It is written across the face of Breno. He is 13 and sitting in a classroom at the Murialdo centre, a church-funded place where the older children go in the mornings, when school’s out. The children have been asked to prepare questions for your correspondent about England and, while Breno is all over the assignment, he has a glint in his eye. “What’s English culture like? What’s Yorkshire pudding like?” he asks. And when I ask him what he wants to do with his life, there’s an excellent reply. “There’s plenty of time to think about that.”
Carlos Eduardo Teixera’s son, Jorge, did break the cycle. Only two sons of this community have got to study down in the city and Jorge is one of them. “I told him: ‘I’ll keep a roof over your head until eighth grade and then you’re on your own’. He did it,” says the father, tears rolling down his cheeks as he relates how his son won a bursary to study at the university available to African Brazilians in state schools under a positive discrimination system.
Ubiratan Marquette’s achievement is just as substantial, 20 years after his first conviction for drugs offences after he arrived from the countryside to seek his fortune – as 70 per cent of Morro’s people do – and ended up here instead. Paulinho helped straighten him out and Marquette now helps develop the people of Morro in every conceivable IT skill, from computing to creating artwork out of discarded parts.
No one asks for sympathy in this place. No one begrudges the richer people the macela flowers they take home. They love the view, like millions across Brazil in such communities, which are often built high on the difficult slopes, while the wealthier stick to the flat. But to observe the ambition, hope and life amid the garbage and the sewage is to imagine what a little leg-up from Fifa and its football festival might have brought.
“No,” Paulinho reflects. “The feeling from the people is that the World Cup money was not well spent. It could have been spent on public health, a sewer, to help people organise their places like we have done. The people in the stadiums are the wealthy ones. The real people here are not going to the World Cup.”