Reportage. In the outskirts of the Amazon city of Manaus, men lead teenage prostitutes into the forest, boys deal drugs and fathers disappear. But an educational project called Gente Grande is injecting a much-needed measure of hope.

In a Brazilian slum, kids dream a future without drugs, rape and murder

When I arrive at the “Gente Grande” school, Kellen, one of the teachers, takes me into a classroom where about 20 kids are following the lesson. Among them, there is a 14-year-old girl with her daughter in her arms, asleep at one of the desks. I ask them to describe their neighborhood in one word. Stefania, with an oval face, gentle eyes and long black hair, is the first to stand up and break the ice: fudido (“fucked up”), she says, loudly and angrily. That’s my introduction to the Colônia Antônio Aleixo neighborhood.

This is a district on the outskirts of Manaus, an hour’s drive from the center, consisting of clumps of houses on stilts near the river, dusty unpaved streets, whole blocks of houses built next to each other on the clay soil, and lush, green forest vegetation all around. It was built during the Getúlio Vargas military dictatorship in 1930 to house leprosy patients, and later became a no man’s land of the marginalized.

There is child labor, prostitution, drug dealing, chronically unemployed people who live on welfare and children who sell sweets and popsicles in the streets, as many of their mothers are involved in drug trafficking and don’t look after them. The oldest daughters are forced to prostitute themselves to raise their little siblings. They start at 8 or 10 years old, their clients being old bachelors looking for girls who sell themselves for 5 reais, just over €2. They take them into the forest in the dark, like monsters from fairy tales.

A cluster of unauthorized houses built close to the Colônia Antônio Aleixo (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

The children at the school are living with a specter constantly haunting them: fear. They’re afraid to go out on the streets and afraid to stay at home with those who gave birth to them and raised them, drunk and short-tempered adults who only return home at dawn. Most of them have been the victims of sexual violence.

Stefania knows that fear very well. Many of her friends ran away from home. One of them was being abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Another was attacked by five unknown men, raped and murdered in the woods. She’s ashamed to tell the story and lowers her eyes.

To escape from that fear, to find a moment of solace, some of them have agreed to get off the streets and enroll in the “Gente Grande” project, where social educators are teaching them the basics of civil society, how to take care of themselves, to respect others and to get educated. Many have already found jobs. That’s Stefania’s great hope as well, to be able to help her unemployed and lost parents. Her eyes sparkle as she tells us about it, and she can hardly keep her composure: “In spite of everything, I want to stay here, to improve this neighborhood and help people,” she says, excited, swallowing her tears.

Maria Eduarda is a very self-aware girl as well. Her parents are separated, and she can’t even remember what her dad looks like, as she hasn’t seen him for so many years. “At first I was very traumatized, I couldn’t stand anyone,” she confesses. “I know kids who go to the center of Manaus to clean windows at traffic lights or juggle to get money to buy drugs, and there is so much bullying in the district.” The violence pushes many young people to suicide. “A year ago, a girl I knew hanged herself with a rope, and she filmed everything with her phone as she died.”

Gisell, one of the teachers, knows these disadvantaged kids very well. “In the morning, many arrive sleepy and still foggy headed. They smoke marijuana and snort cocaine. In their world, drugs are the only way up, the only way to make money and get social recognition.”

Gilson is a young boy, short and with a dark complexion, with short hair, a slender build and a tired smile which life’s hardships have not quite managed to erase. He tells me that just the day before, the police arrested two of his friends. They had offered him the opportunity to become a drug dealer like them, but he had always refused. “They sell drugs, collect the money, then on Fridays they go to bars to drink alcohol and snort cocaine in the toilets.” 

In his peer group, only four kids out of 20 don’t do drugs. They play soccer together on the field. Gilson is a forward with a powerful left kick, and his dream is to go to Paris and meet Neymar, the number 10 on the Brazil national team. “On every street, there’s a ‘smoke alley’ where the dealing takes place,” he says. The boys go around with guns, small sawed-off shotguns. A few days ago, two guys he knows killed a policeman: “they shot and hit him in the side.” Now, they’re on the run, living in a different squat every night, but people are looking for them. 

Two months ago, he lost his brother to a drug overdose. He saw him fall to the ground, gasping and foaming at the mouth. Just a few days earlier, he’d also lost his father, himself a drug dealer, shot by the police. He tells the story in a low voice, his eyes restless but resigned: they were chasing him and he used the body of a girl as a human shield, but in the end they shot him execution-style.

Here, you’re not allowed to make mistakes. It is an unwritten rule among the dealers that anyone who steals is brutally tortured, or killed outright.

Alessandro, a former drug dealer, went back to school thanks to the “Gente Grande” educational project (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

Walking through the neighborhood, I begin to understand the meaning of that word, fudido. I’m on a street they call “Cruel Street,” where outsiders are not usually allowed to go, but Kellen is able to open every door for me here. Everyone trusts him, as he has been approaching kids for years now, talking to the boys at the traffic lights and convincing them to enroll at the school. “To see these kids being transformed is the fulfilment of my life as a Christian,” he says.

Cruel Street is short, and ends near the forest. People are giving us grim, hostile looks from the houses. Only Barbara, a 14-year old girl with a tattoo of an owl on her arm, with the thin, delicate body of a child and the graceless mannerisms of an old lady of the night, tries to smile alluringly. She has been prostituting herself since she was 11 years old, in the forest, with men of all ages. Halfway down the street, there is a playroom, where Mara is doing prevention work, trying to keep the kids out of trouble by telling them stories. “The girls sell themselves for 5 reais. One of them died of an overdose recently. They are on the streets for many hours, and they take drugs to stay awake,” she says.

Barbara, 15 year old, has been prostituting herself since she was 11 (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

The street ends at the cemetery, with the grave markers low and dilapidated, made of rotten wood and adorned with blue crosses. Some teens are smoking weed sitting on the graves, bleary-eyed; others are snorting cocaine. Jumili, a 16-year-old girl, is smiling distractedly as she tends to the grave of her husband, who was killed by police two months ago. “With Bolsonaro in power, the police have become more aggressive. They’re shooting people. There were 10 killed this year,” she recounts with anger.

Jumili, 16, in front of the grave of her husband killed by the police in a shoot-out two months before (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

Bolsonaro, the leader of the far-right Social Liberal Party, won this precinct with 82% of the vote—most of all due to the false promises he made, and his plan to liberalize the sale of weapons. Antonio, an old man sitting in a wheelchair outside a store in the part of the neighborhood belonging to the local lepers’ association—both his hands and legs have become stumps—tells us he had been getting the minimum wage when Lula was in power, but “now the government wants all the money back from recent years. They promised that they would maintain all the benefits,” he says angrily, “but now they want to cut them.”

Rua João de Paula is a wide street with a grass median, with rough brick houses and tin roofs on either side. Above, one can see the lush vegetation of the forest, with the tree branches covering the roofs, themselves full of satellite dishes. From the street, I climb up to the house of Alexander, a skinny 15-year-old with ebony skin, wearing a Flamengo soccer team jersey. He welcomes me to a wooden cabin, narrow and dark, behind which there is another hut, where he and his six roommates sleep. He started dealing when he was 11, working at the traffic lights in Manaus from 7am until midnight. “Smoking helps you forget,” he says, “while cocaine keeps you awake. The cocaine paste entices you to use more and more, it makes you travel outside your head and imagine things that aren’t there.” Last year, he decided to quit, and is now attending the school. He says that now he is actually able to “think about the future”—before, he had no notion of that at all.

Smoking weed in the cemetery at Colônia Antônio Aleixo (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

In another house, at the end of the street, I meet with Andreina, who is a drug dealer like her brother Najim. In their family, only one of six children went to school, and is now a baker. The mother, a stout woman dressed in black, voted for the Workers’ Party (PT). “Bolsonaro is cutting subsidies, persecuting the poor, he’s raised the retirement age,” she says with an exasperated grimace.

At the local church, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, I meet with Father Gaston, an Argentine, tall and thin, wearing prescription glasses with golden rims. Even though he is a recent arrival, he already knows the neighborhood like few others: “It is a place for those who are unwanted, who have been discarded, people suffering from infectious diseases, dangerous criminals, orphans, there is even a prison with 2,000 inmates.” The children accommodated at the church’s shelter don’t want to go home: “They are terrified,” he says. “The adults have almost all the possible problems connected with alcoholism. They are using hard drugs, cocaine mixed with gypsum. The cruelest part of it is the situation of the children here.” 

He works at the prison as well, and meets and talks with the inmates, some of whom were hosted at the shelter as children—“But look where they ended up! The stigma remains, it follows them around all their life,” he says. Perhaps working with these kids is what he calls “a breather, somewhere where there can be hope, whether it’s a palliative treatment or one that actually produces change.” He has his doubts about this, but at least the teachers all live here and get a stipend. “With that money, they manage to finish their studies, and this is already a positive effect.”

The school and the “Gente Grande” project were started in in 2017, after a lot of groundwork approaching kids on the streets. Elaine Elamid tells us the story, a Brazilian from Manaus, who together with her husband Tommaso Lombardi established the Piccolo Nazareno NGO.

“Many kids have no birth certificate, they don’t exist, they aren’t citizens,” she explains as we’re sitting at the tables of Africa House in front of the Teatro Amazonis. “We have already enrolled 420 of them so far. You start seeing the first changes, we help them to think that there is another option for them,” she explains. Some have already found work at Transivi, an electronics company that manufactures POS terminals for credit cards: “The head of the company was a kid who grew up in the favelas of São Paulo, he was the one who contacted us.” Once they’re hired, they start a whole new life. “Our idea is to tear a whole generation away from the miasma that is infecting the Colônia Antônio Aleixo, and in this way make a profound change,” she says with great determination. “Even though many things have gotten worse with Bolsonaro: he cut the aid for families, he shut down the National Council for Children’s Rights, and everything is becoming more difficult.”

Kids from the Colônia Antônio Aleixo neighborhood involved in the “Gente Grande” project (photo by Giovanni Marrozzini)

Tommaso and Elaine have another dream as well: to buy a boat and set up a floating school so they can reach the surrounding villages, to open libraries and implement initiatives involving indigenous cultures and the preservation of the environment.

It’s a dream that reminds me of Fitzcarraldo, the 1982 Werner Herzog movie based on real-life events, telling the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irish businessman who heard the great Caruso sing right at the Teatro Amazonis next to our café and decided to build an opera house in faraway Iquitos, Peru. In order to do that, he had to drag a 320-ton steamer up a hill and then bring it down through rapids to the Amazon River. As he says many times in the film—played by the wild-eyed and feverish Klaus Kinski—“it’s only the dreamers who move mountains.”

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