Conor Hartnett, a volunteer aid worker in Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, and it seems like it was just another amusing conversation with a witty Irishman.

">

The Irish ‘uncle’ of Rio’s poor kids

AWEEK on from meeting Conor Hartnett, a volunteer aid worker in Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, and it seems like it was just another amusing conversation with a witty Irishman.

The Irish ‘uncle’ of Rio’s poor kids

I transcribe from the dictaphone his memories of college. It’s hard not to laugh at his turn of phrase as much as the turn of events of his life, as he recalls the transition from Millstreet to University College Cork in the mid-1990s.

Hartnett stayed in digs. “Mary and Arthur Butler, from Ballyphehane, looked after me,” he says with a boyish roguishness that defies his 37 years. “And Mary, on the day we met, she said to me, ‘I’m firm, but fair’. As it turns out, I could’ve had Pablo Escobar and a line of Las Vegas hookers over the next night and she wouldn’t have said a word. She picked up 115 cans of Carling from the lawn after a flatmate’s party once, but she maintained she was firm, but fair. Mary and Arthur Butler, from Ballyphehane. Great people.”

Seven days earlier, I had look on at Hartnett holding forth in a grubby little bar in the middle of the Vasco de Gama favela, in Rio de Janeiro. He was lounging back on a cheap plastic chair.

The bar was in an area that tourists are warned in every guidebook to avoid, because things happen there that most people could never comprehend. Hartnett is pasty, ginger and freckled, and the predominantly black children of this poverty-ridden place rush over to high-five him with a frantic joy as they call him ‘tio, which in Portuguese means ‘uncle’. It’s a long way from the Clara Road, via the southern suburbs of Cork City, but Hartnett seems every bit as home here.

You won’t have heard of Hartnett, but he’s fine with that. He’s making a difference quietly and contently. He’s not in charity for recognition, and he asks that I don’t characterise him as “some sort of Bob Geldof”, because “this isn’t a sacrifice, as I love every minute. I’m not one of these do-gooders, these extremist, save-the-world-type people. I love my Munster finals and a pint of Murphy’s. I miss my Sky Sports Sunday on a rainy afternoon. I’m old-school that way, but this just seems right, and there are others here that do far more.” Indeed, he’s only doing the interview because he wants publicity to raise money that might allow these children a sliver of ‘light’ as they cook under the rays of the sun.

Hartnett calls for another coffee in the most out-of-place accent this shantytown has ever heard, and tells why he is here.

Having moved to Australia to work as a business analyst on long-day, six-month contracts (he still does and splits his year between there and working for free here), he headed out for five-a-side football with a few mates in Sydney one 2012 night. With surprisingly little traffic, he arrived an hour early and decided to burn off the time in an internet café. It was there he saw an ad looking for people to work with disadvantaged children and, after considering Africa, he settled on Rio. It was one of those impulsive, life-changing decisions.

“I remember the first night,” he says. “I was in the car coming out of the international airport, at 3am in late 2012, past all the favelas and there were fires all along the road and just these endless shacks off into the distance.

“Nothing would ever prepare you for it. And the day I walked into the favela I was working in, the first thing I saw was a young fella, about three, walking around with a big piece of broken glass. There was chaos; if he fell he was in big trouble, but the way I look at it now, I treat the kids like they were my own. Because of that, one thing that makes me angry, not one volunteer I’ve ever met here has ever had a background check done on them. They could be a murderer or something else. That’s very upsetting. I think it’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.”

What he means is obvious, especially as sometimes looks after 30 homeless children overnight.

But other things quickly angered him as he tried to put a small dent in this human wasteland. His opening stint was with a charity company for whom he ran sports sessions, made lunches, cleaned the school and taught English. He paid for accommodation, too, but the money was supposed to trickle down to those who most needed it.

It wasn’t a lot, less than 20 dollars a week, but after half a year he asked where it had all gone. “They said, ‘Remember that invoice you gave me, it blew out the window’. They don’t even attempt to make a good lie and that’s why I chose to fundraise myself, cut out the middleman, as I’d say that carry-on isn’t unusual. Now, everything I raise goes directly to those in favelas. I don’t even handle it — the mother advised me not to — so I just pass it along to where needed, but I do advise how to spend it.”

Coffee over, he wants to show you the ‘who, what and why’ behind his efforts. Across the road is Rainn, whose father won a Brazilian league title in 1997 and a Copa Libertadores a year later. “Obviously, he made well out of it, but drank most of it and blew the rest on women. But that kid, he’s already been signed up,” he says pointing to Vasco’s picturesque, Portuguese-style stadium in the distance.

“He’ll play for them, and maybe Brazil, if he manages to stay on the right path. But the 120 kids in the football programme we run, they don’t have so much chance. We teach them, as well, with these ancient computers, try and get them comfortable around them, as they’ve nothing.”

Hartnett introduces me to a nine-year-old named Moisés, who lived rough from the age of four, as his mother died and his father was an alcoholic. He’s one of the lucky ones, in that he now has a foster mother. Beside him is seven-year-old Caiuw, who comes every day asking for 80 cent, just to put enough food in his body to survive a little longer, as his father is in prison and his mother is a drug addict.

And then there’s Carlão — once a professional goalkeeper for the Portuguese club within the city — who started this football programme here and operates it along with Hartnett.

“We are lucky, because we’ve a connection,” says the Cork native of his partner. “Carlão would be a rogue like me.

He loves football and I could talk it all day. But he looks after the kids, teaches them respect.

If there’s a single-parent family, the mother might come and say the kid was giving backchat and they’d be pulled aside.

You’d get a sterner chat than in a Dublin youth club. He might be a man of few words, but there’s respect, not fear.

I’m in the gig a good bit and I’ve never seen anyone like him.”

Shortly after, a woman comes to Carlão, informs him of a man who has been beating up one of the children at home and wants him to have a word, because that’s how it works here.

The football programme began a decade ago. The children used to ask Carlão to play, as there was nothing but trouble on the street.

But is the situation improving? “It’s one thing that amazed me about this favela, you won’t see really young girls going around pregnant,” says Harnett.

“Back when we started,” says Carlão, “a lot of bad stuff was happening — drug-trafficking, people being shot. So I started volunteering with the kids, as about 50% don’t have a father. Where are they? A lot of them would be dead, murdered. Vasco was very dangerous. There were a lot of guns going around here, now it’s just drugs.”

With that, he gestures at me to follow. He wants to show what they’re dealing with.

TOO POOR FOR BUS FARE

Overlooking the favela, off in the distance and high on the mountains, is the famous and beautiful Christ the Redeemer statue, yet this is as close as any of these children will ever get to it.

None have taken the tour, because they will never be able to afford it. Meanwhile, just a handful of miles away, in the affluent Zona Sul, are the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. They are teeming with tourists and the local wealthy. It is the most expensive land in the southern hemisphere. I ask the children if they’ve ever been there. None of them have even seen the sea, as that’s a bus fare of about $1 each way.

The few that do go don’t always come back and that is to understand the real Rio and the real Brazil. In fact, just days after the World Cup final, in July, in a nice part of town, I looked on at a pregnant 17-year-old sleeping rough, while her husband was throwing up.

He was addicted to ice, a methamphetamine. Rich people from near and far stepped over them without so much as a glance down and, disturbingly, one local woman of age walked past with her dog, which was wearing designer shoes.

“They live very selfish lives. Those in these rich neighbourhoods don’t want to help kids like this,” says Carlão. “If I went into a restaurant in Zona Sul, they’d be all looking at me, because I’m black. Black people only work there.”

We walk, leaving behind the small patch of concrete at the front of the locality that constitutes its football pitch.

The further we go, the narrower the gaps between the ramshackle, homemade houses and the darker the streets.

The smell intensifies, as does the heat, and, in the baking sun, you do your best to step over the pools of water.

But if the physical appearance of dwellings worsens, so does the physical appearance of those who live in them.

“It hurts to see that, just the poverty. I think, hurts the most,” Harnett says. “And working with these kids, you have to remember they are coming out of a situation where you are the safe haven and you have to be aware of that.

“You are a role model and they come to you for everything, they put savage trust in you, more than kids back home, because Irish children would have a far more solid family structure.

“But, then, seeing kids with psychological problems being picked on, and drunk parents roaring at them and those kids coming to us with black eyes, it’s really hard.

“It’s the kids that are outgoing and well-behaved that gravitate towards you, but the kid who’ll punch someone in the face, you’ve to go to them. But if you can just keep them off the streets… There’s a house over there with a sort of godfather, the mother and six brothers all in the one room. I often see them at two in the day eating biscuits we gave them and it’ll be the first food that’ll have crossed their lips.

“That’s life and if everything goes perfectly, the best for the kids will be factory work.” And the worst, you ask? “Sleeping rough on crack, for starters,” he says.

Harnett calls out Anderson from behind a tin door and tells him to shake my hand. “You should see him play,” he says of the frail boy. “Reminds me of Patrick Vieira, I mean really brilliant. Him and his mother and his brother, though, they’re just the poorest of the poor. If he was fed right, he could play for Vasco da Gama. But, obviously, they can’t afford to eat.” You can see this much. His ribs jaunt out of his body and the black bags under his eyes reflect 14 years of dog-hard days with worse to come.

Anderson, and many of the other 15,000 who live in this one favela, are the faces behind the brutal statistics. Illiteracy, nationwide, averages 10% and is higher in places like this. Some reports say that 13m people are underfed across Brazil. A massive 21.8 people per 100,000 are murdered, making 42,785 per annum at the last body count.

Education is awful. There is a shortage of 168,000 physicians within the health system. All the while, 15% of children under four live in areas where there is sewage running openly outdoors. That crosses my mind as I jump another puddle.

And this after a World Cup that cost €11.2bn of mostly taxpayer money, that human rights reports say hurt the poor the most, that was a big financial loss for the nation and that left Brazil in a recession.

But away from the statistics and back to their meaning, I finally come to a clearing at the back of the favela. Across the thin layer of concrete on which I stand, some children fly kites, while Hartnett tells me to look down.

“What you’re walking on now are shallow graves. The drug dealers, they dug holes and buried a lot of bodies under there.”

The latest generation of young dealers is leaning against a wall across the way and hasn’t taken kindly to our presence, and Carlão says it’s best to go. “Seven or eight years ago, though, we wouldn’t have been walking here at all like,” Hartnett says, highlighting the improvements.

“But, I have to stress, this place is like a mansion compared to the other place I work in.”

SLUM OF 300,000 PEOPLE

Complexo do Alemão needs to be seen to be believed. And even though it sprawls off towards the horizon in every direction before your eyes, believing still isn’t easy.

On the north side of Rio de Janeiro, it developed when a number of large favelas grew into one another. Estimates suggest that 300,000 people live in its labyrinth of filthy streets and makeshift shacks. That’s around the size of the cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford, if they were all shunted together.

Oddly, though, it’s become a sort of tourist attraction, since the government spent €70m, not on the people below, but on a state-of-the-art cable car that travels overhead. It serves the population to an extent, but it’s like laying down a thick red carpet over a drenched and muddy field.

After a rickety bus journey from Vasco, Hartnett brings me to the gondola station, but it’s closed. The sign beside the ticket desk mentions safety problems and technicians, but, talking to the locals, the reality emerges.

Shootings at one of the stops mean it’s been shut indefinitely. “They don’t want anyone like me or you going up there, that’d make news, if and when something happens,” says Hartnett.

But it’s a great pity, because while it may seem like voyeurism, peering down into the lives of those physically, socially and hopelessly below, it’s important, if only to understand the scale of the problem and the scale of any solution, were it to ever be forthcoming. As of now, it’s not, but Harnett still insists on doing his bit here.

Helping a handful of people is better than helping none at all.

“Sure, we’ll walk to the place I teach,” he says, before, minutes later, telling me how he wouldn’t be doing this were it after sundown. “I don’t f**k about here at night. Especially those train tracks over there. Jesus Christ, that’d be my worst nightmare, being caught down there. Homeless, crack, that’s the last place on earth I ever want to go.

“And you see that building, there’s a little favela behind that. Houses on the side of a putrid, disgusting river. Just raw sewage. It’s really bad, but it flooded and washed a lot of houses recently. It always floods here, usually in the rains in December.”

That’s because the very footsteps of Alemão lie in a gorge, as Hartnett found out not so long back. He picks open the locks of the security fences that lead into a beat-up little building where he teaches the children and administers, and he shows me the watermarks that stretch to seven feet high.

They closed the flood door, but a small window that doesn’t have glass allowed the water to pour into the makeshift classroom. “Everything got destroyed in the flood. You can still feel the dampness of the walls. Of course, I came in here, cleaned off the walls, re-plastered them, repainted it, the lot. But what I never did was wear a mask. Sure, the water was full of human faeces.

“Sixteen days. I was 16 days in my bed. I was bollocksed. It’s like breathing the fungus of walls the brother said, only worse. So you couldn’t have kids in here, either. You might think the community would help, but there’s no sense of community, if I’m honest.

“And it only gets worse the higher up you get. But this space is the only place these kids have anything to do. I bring some of them playing soccer, sometimes, as it’s a wasteland. I’ve way more craic working in Vasco with Carlão, but I’m needed here. If you see me after the day and I’m stressed out of my mind, then you know where I’ve been. If you see me in good form come the evening, you also know where I’ve been.”

But what eased the stress after he got sick was returning to a bunch of children who’d drawn Irish flags on pieces of paper to thank him for keeping their one outlet open and their minds alive.

Sadly, it’s only a break from their reality, though. Misery doesn’t wait for the children, it seeks them out. The father of one of those he teaches in Alemão was killed days earlier, along with two others. Up to what was merely described as some mischief, he got beaten up, shot, thrown into a car “and it was ‘see you later’.” That may seem matter-of-fact, but that’s what murder is in such parts and there’s no point putting a lick of paint on it.

“Another lad I know, Fernando, I was away last Christmas, came back, got a phone call and he’d been shot driving down the street in his moto taxi. They wanted the scooter,” Hartnett says.

Indeed, even the police aren’t to be trusted. Stories of torture regularly emerge and the woman Hartnett works with here had her own issues recently.

Walking down a street with his girlfriend, her son passed an off-duty police officer, who spoke suggestively. “Outrageous, sexual stuff,” says Harnett.

A punch was thrown and a punch was landed and nothing more came of it, until the policeman was back on duty. You can guess the rest, but it was a twenty-on-one job.”

“You’ve to try and understand that it’s life here. In April, nearby here, they had to bring the military in. They couldn’t pacify it, so in came the tanks. The locals set a bus alight to keep them out, but they were surrounded.

“Next thing, there was all this screeching. There were three kids — one an infant, one three-year-old and one six-year-old — the smoke started affecting them and they couldn’t get them out. They all died from smoke inhalation and not one of those stories made the news. That’s how bad it is and pacification actually made it worse.

“This bit, this is my little section of Complexo. Before, the drug dealers knew me. I taught their nieces and sons and daughters and they had respect for me. But the cops drove them out and now there are new drug dealers that the locals never grew up with.

“So, instead of having ‘Johnny that used to be in fifth class with you’, you’ve ‘Paddy who you never knew’ and Paddy doesn’t care about you. So, they’ve no say whatsoever and it’s harder for them, because of that. The drug dealers just go to other favelas. It’s like saying ‘you’ll move from Dublin to Limerick, the Gardaí there won’t know me’, but neither will the locals and you don’t know them. That makes for a trickier terrain.”

An ‘in’ with the drug dealers is needed. On a previous tour of another infamous favela, Rocinha, a guide showed me a police hut. It’s there so the government can claim it has a presence, but gangs allow it so long as the officer stays inside and those bringing him lunch come at the same time each day and leave as quickly as they entered.

Meanwhile, here in Complexo do Alemão, Hartnett had use for the local drug lords, before they were run out and were replaced by those he doesn’t now know.

“There was a paedophile who was at the kids and we couldn’t find him. So we worked with them, said there’s a beast out there. Now, they didn’t get him, but he got wind of it, left town, didn’t see him again, so the problem stopped there. But that, again, shows you the chaos that is life here.

“Only last week, one of the ladies was telling me. I was asking, ‘Why aren’t these four kids living at home with their mother?’ Turns out she is pregnant, lives with the boyfriend and he’s a paedophile. It’s frightening stuff.”

With that, we return to the more hospitable surrounds of the city, before the sun goes down, and it’s there I realise why we left so early.

On a television in the corner of a middle-class bar, there’s live coverage on the news of a major shoot-out a street over from where we were just hours before.

The news station has a helicopter overhead — something they couldn’t do in Rocinha, not so long back, after they found a surface-to-air missile in a drug gangs’ arsenal — and a battle with the police is raging.

I glance, over a beer, at Hartnett and ask if it would be easier to be a business analyst year round.

“Well, it’s a bit boring, like,” he smiles. “Just that?” I ask. “Well,” he says glancing up at the battle on TV, “do you think it’s fair for a child to grow up in that?”

The answer is obvious, but it’s a question that won’t, and shouldn’t, ever leave you.

To find out more about Conor Hartnett’s efforts in Rio de Janeiro, please visit www.fightforafavela.com. There, you can also donate directly, and safely, and all money goes directly to those most in need.

At present, Conor is trying to raise money for equipment and facilities for his football programmes, to feed the poorest children as well as those who live on the streets, get 10 new computers for teaching, and pay €260 a month for a specialised teacher.

More in this section

Your digital cookbook

Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up