Hilltop houses for dirt poor, and beer for all on the streets of Rio


People stand next to Olympic rings overlooking a favela outside the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. PHOTO | ADRIAN DENNIS |  AFP

People stand next to Olympic rings overlooking a favela outside the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. PHOTO | ADRIAN DENNIS | AFP


By Roy Gachuhi


The train journey from Botafogo to Campo Grande is long. It took one and a half hours.


I was going to Campo Grande to meet Dona Elizabete, one of the hundreds of people evicted from their homes to make way for the building of Olympics facilities. Dona Elizabete is a small, sweet lady, 63 years old.


Compared to where she was and where she is now, Elizabete and her retiree husband, Raimundo practically live in exile though still in the same Rio de Janeiro.


But it is not about her that I am writing this.


“You are going to pass through where poor people live,” Vinicius told me as we boarded the train at Central station. “And you are going to see where they live.


“You could get upset.”


Rio de Janeiro’s trains have one characteristic similar to Kenya’s country buses.


Although I have so far not come across a mobile preacher, hawkers are aplenty.


And are they loud! Along Nairobi’s roads, traffic jam hawkers mainly put on a pleading face to a potential customer; they quickly study your demeanour and decide whether to make a pitch or to walk on. Others just walk past the gridlocked vehicles and you may have to yell or wave to draw their attention if you spot something of interest.


Not Rio’s train hawkers. They loudly advertise their wares. There’s much about human communication that doesn’t require intellectual understanding for the conveyance of a message. You can easily tell good salespeople from average, without understanding a word of what is being said. Body language is powerful.


Nevertheless, I wish I could understand, for there is no way for Vinicius to give me a running commentary on each one of them. They are just too many.


Vinicius was right. We passed through many favelas. They are not dirt poor like Mukuru kwa Rueben, Mariguini, Fuata Nyayo or Kayaba. There are no mud structures. But clearly, this is where the underclass live.


In matters housing, it is an upside down world for a Kenyan here in Rio. In Kenya, what comes to mind when you hear that somebody lives in Milimani? It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Nairobi, Nakuru or Kisumu – the difference is the same.


Milimani is where the rich people live. Up the hills, as Murithi Mutiga once ably explained, was selected by rich settlers because they understood the potential danger of flooding.


Rio must be the only city where poor people live above rich people. The favelas are built in steep inclines, to visitor virtually 90 degrees. I am still trying to understand how they do it. As for the rich, their land lies low like an envelope, stretching up to the bays and beaches. Some of the world’s highest standard of life is to be found here.


As you can imagine, some favelas have stunning views of the city below. But for many people living there, there is no mental space to appreciate that.


Like many Kenyans living in the outskirts of Nairobi, they must wake up at 4am every day just to make it in time to work at 8am. It is a grind.


After our interview with Dona Elizabete, it was time to board the train again and head back to Botafogo, to Rua Dona Mariana where I live. I was back in the world of hawkers.


If there is one thing in this world that revolts me, it is child labour. My stomach turns when I see a child working to earn money for survival. He or she should be in school. So I was appropriately upset when a boy, aged about 14, entered the train in one station laden with goods to hawk. He looked like a future Neymar and I thought he should be in an academy preparing for future stardom. And he was so handsome!


Then he started advertising his wares, loudly, of course. His voice was strong.


Unlike other hawkers, he drew laughter from even those passengers consumed in their thoughts.


Vinicius laughed, too. I waited for him to finish. Then I asked him: “What is the boy saying?”


Vinicius said: “He is saying that he is selling the sweetest juices ever drunk by a human being. Nothing compares. Don’t listen, taste. Price, best. You are also not allowed to plead diabetes because they won’t cause it. And if you already have diabetes, they will cure it. You, therefore, have no excuse whatsoever for not buying these juices!”


I started laughing when everybody else had stopped.


******** ********


There is a sequel to the Botafogo versus Palmeiras story that I almost forgot to tell you. Before going to Estadio Luso Brasileiro, Vinicius had taken me to Copacabana beach as one of my first must-stops here in Rio. It was fun. As we left for the subway, I observed that we carried our partially drank beer cans in our hands, me taking the cue from Vinicius.


It seemed all normal to Vinicius but it unsettled me. I looked around. I saw many people walking the streets sipping beer from cans and bottles. Now, now, now, imagine walking from Kencom to GPO while drinking beer!


Roy immersing himself in Rio culture (Photo: Roy Gachuhi)

Roy immersing himself in Rio culture (Photo: Roy Gachuhi)


It was a furious walk because we didn’t have all the time.


We overtook everybody who was walking in front of us. We weaved around the multitudes of people and cut sharply at street corners, all the while taking a swig. For the life of me, the only people I knew who drink on the move are marathon runners. But we were virtually running. I thought: this is crazy.


Finally, we arrived at the subway, me a bit short of breath.


Vinicius told me: “We must finish now because it is not allowed to enter the train with beer.”


I thought: hell, this is what we should have done before leaving our seats at Copacabana! We jumped into the train and as Vinicius got buried in Whatsapp, I kept thinking: don’t try this in Nairobi.


Roy Gachuhi is in Rio de Janeiro as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica, an independent Brazilian investigative journalism news agency.