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

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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.

written by Angelo Ferracuti

Topic Latin America

MANAUS, Brazil

October 13, 2019

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.

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........

© Il Manifesto Global