In the favelas rural and urban lifestyles often clash. In the photo above a boy, Luã, stands near the river. Behind him a herd of stray horses grazes. No one knows who brought them, but they must have been too costly to keep and were set loose. They roam the town eating out of dumpsters and blocking traffic.
Stray livestock was a common sight even in the most industrialized quarters of the city. The two other pictures show a herd loitering in front of a used car lot and two horses chomping at a garbage sack.Ironically the horses adapted better to city life than many Northerners.
Josette and Luã’s grandmother, the woman slumped in the pew, never adjusted to city life. She moved with her two grandchildren from Natal soon after Luã was born. (None of them ever told me what happened to Luã and Josette’s parents.) From the beginning their Grandma hated city life. She tried to farm but people trampled and built on her garden. She tried to keep chickens but the neighbors stole them or they fell prey to stray dogs. Over the years she gave up everything but five beehives she kept on their small patio, and the drums of animal lard she boiled down into soap. Eventually she took to watching T.V. and mumbling quietly to herself about the old days. Josette was left to keep her family afloat.
Luã would follow us as we worked in the neighborhoods. He taught me to build and fly my first kite. He always talked about his older sister, but after a month in Perus I still hadn’t met her. When she finally came to church one Sunday, she explained to me why she was never home. She was a substitute teacher. The schools in Perus are free, and a major draw for emigrants, but they are dangerous, under funded, and desperately overcrowded. (Not forty-students-in-a-single-classroom-overcrowded, like I’d seen in Utah, but too-many-students-to-fit-in-the-building-overcrowded.) The schools run in four shifts. From six to ten in the morning, then from ten to two, two to six, and finally from six to ten at night. Most teachers work two or three shifts but Josette, as often as she could, taught all four, a fourteen-hour day.
When I was in high school in Utah, the whole country reeled to see the school shootings at Columbine. In the few months I was in Perus, there were two shootings at the school, each was reported only once in the local news.
Josette’s situation was rough but hopeful. She could use her job to study, she spoke English well, and she was applying for a scholarship funded through our Church’s “Perpetual Education Fund.” As a substitute, she could also use her connections to help Luã. She could get him textbooks, notepads, pencils, even a calculator. Luã is a good boy and, like his sister, he works hard. They’ll survive. But many children in the system don’t have their advantages.