Skip to main content

Lessons in a world of injustice

Blog author:
It may be high time for Europe to repair the damage we have caused to other continents

This website offers the colour and hardship of life in Brazil, and stories of profound changes in people and society. The feature film Men of Brazil tells the story of the port workers in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s. In New World News vol.28 1980 you will meet Luiz and Edir Pereira from a shantytown community. In my early twenties I was privileged to work with them and others for Initiatives of Change in Brazil. Insights and experiences at the time, and their relevance, have come clearer as years have passed by.

The burning afternoon sun made my pale Norwegian skin turn red. Wooden shacks and brick houses were perched on a hillside above. Colourful in the sunshine, but threatened by mudslides in torrential rain. Though precarious constructions, these were people’s homes. In and around the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro people lived in shanty-towns, ‘favelas’, in shacks built illegally on steep hills or on stilts in wet marsh lands, or even under fly-overs. Too often despised by those who were better off, their inhabitants helped make society function with their hard work and their skills as carpenters, electricians, tile layers, nurses, cleaners and taxi drivers. This was the reality when I came to Brazil in the early 1970s, and it still is. Today they are more often called communities, and the number of people living there has increased. So has the drug trade, making it difficult for the community associations to choose their leaders in fair elections.

I followed Luiz Pereira up the steep steps and in amongst the huts standing too close to allow any privacy. Warm smiles, laughter, and curious looks welcomed us. Luiz made countless stops to talk with people. This was his world. He had come here as a young man with his wife Edir from Fortaleza in the north east of Brazil. They had brought up five children in this environment. He became the leader of his community, 3,000 people, living on the hill ‘Morro de São João’. Later he was also elected to lead a council of local favelas representing nearly 50,000 people. 

A fellow favela leader approached him with the idea that change in society starts in our own lives and by listening to God’s voice in our hearts. Luiz resisted. It took many long discussions for him to be convinced. However, as a result his leadership became more inclusive and democratic, and he managed to overcome enmities and divisions in his own community. He became part of a team of community leaders whose message to the state authorities was: We are not one million problems in the favelas, but two million hands ready to solve the problems. These community leaders won the housing authorities’ respect and trust and contributed to work out plans which provided better housing for the favelas.

After persistent efforts Luiz succeeded in getting blocks of flats for everyone in his own community, on a hill close to where their old shacks had stood. His wife was overjoyed to have running water in the home. Finished were the days of carrying heavy buckets up the hill from the communal tap. 

I noticed Luiz’s enthusiasm in exchanges with people that afternoon and on countless other visits. It was contagious. He could have been at home enjoying the comfort of his own flat. However, a passion and a deep desire to support and help those in need motivated him and made him continue to reach out to community leaders and others in the favelas. 

It was this drive and commitment that spoke to me. Heated discussions about violent revolutions and how to achieve justice in Latin America had occupied my time and mind at school. Here I was close to people on the margins of society who had begun to discover their own human dignity. They looked at what they themselves could do to change their lives and their environment instead of sinking into anger and despair. They lit a flame of hope in my heart, still alive nearly fifty years later. 

However, an incident with another friend, Antonio Rodrigues, raised an uncomfortable question which has also been with me ever since. He and I were on our way to meet some street vendors in the town of Nova Iguaçu near Rio de Janeiro. I was driving, and we got into some difficult traffic. Antonio suggested one thing, but I was the driver and felt I had to make a quick decision, and so I did. Immediately I got a torrent of angry words about Europe having exploited Brazil and “even today you are telling us what to do in our own country”. I got upset. How could a simple disagreement about which turn to take in the complicated Brazilian traffic unleash such a storm, whipping up fundamental issues of justice? And I, a well-intentioned young Norwegian, had suddenly become a representative of the oppressor, Europe.

Antonio had suffered a lot in his life and was about to become partially blind in his late thirties. I was tempted to dismiss the incident as a result of his personal trauma. But I knew there was more to it than that. We talked openly and some months later I was with him in his home town Salvador da Bahia, where about 70 percent of the people are black or coloured. He took me to the square where slaves had been sold and bought. The old cobble stones were the same on which slaves had been standing in chains. Antonio himself was the descendant of slaves. Yesterday’s brutality and injustice came so close. 

Luiz Pereira and other Brazilian friends showed me that in the midst of poverty and despair people can discover dignity and hope. But what about the door that Antonio opened for me?

European countries were active in the slave trade and exploited Brazil for centuries, and the exploitation still goes on with other means. In addition, the rich and powerful elites of Brazil itself have marginalized millions of their own people. There clearly is some unfinished business before people can experience dignity and justice. 

In the USA the brutal killing of the black man George Floyd by a white policeman in 2020 caused big upheavals as well as demonstrations around the world. It also made many people think more deeply about the legacy of slavery. That included the well-known reporter and newsreader on BBC, Laura Trevelyan. She and others in her family looked at where their family’s wealth had come from and discovered that their forefathers had owned 1,000 slaves and a plantation on the island of Grenada. She did a documentary for BBC where she met some of the people whose ancestors were enslaved by her family’s ancestors. She and six members of her family travelled to Grenada to apologize in person and, as a first step in restorative justice, donate money to be invested in education. The Dutch government has also apologized for their country’s role in the slave trade and set up a fund to help tackle the legacy of slavery.

At the heart of Initiatives of Change there is the idea that change starts with the realization of our own sins, repentance, apologies and forgiveness, and restitution for the wrongs done. 

Europe has often tried to help solve problems and conflicts on other continents. It may be high time for Europe to repair the damage we ourselves have caused on those continents through exploitation of resources and humiliation and oppression of people. Laura Trevelyan and others may have shown us the way.

The full story of Luiz Pereira and other community leaders is to be found in the chapter ‘People Power in Rio’s favelas’ in Mary Lean’s book Bread, Bricks, Belief: Communities in Charge of Their Future (published 1995 by Kumarian Press)

We welcome your comments on this blog. To participate in the discussion please visit our Facebook page via the link below.
Blog language


Article language