The Brazilian city of Recife is known for its majestic bridges, but in November a newspaper photo highlighted one of the metropolis’s uglier aspects. Published in the Jornal do Commercio, the picture showed a nine-year-old kid named Paulo Henrique submerged in a garbage-filled canal beneath one of those famous bridges, picking cans out of the filthy water so he could sell them.
According to government estimates, some 6,500 children live in the slums in the Arruda and Campina Barreto neighborhoods on Recife’s north side. Many of them wade through garbage to eke out a living just as Paulo does, but it was only after his image appeared in the press that the local government and international authorities took notice of their plight. In response to the photo and the accompanying article, the government promised to place Paulo, his mother, and his five siblings on welfare.
Unfortunately, this publicity hasn’t yet resulted in the other children of the slums getting more money or services.
“We try to keep them busy, give them education and proper food, but with the money we get, we can only assist 120 of these young kids [at a time],” said Anatilde Costa, a social worker at the Asylum Home of Divine Providence, a local NGO that provides food, clothing, and education to the children. “Many others live in a pitiful situation... Like they are animals.” Her organization receives a small amount of money from the federal government, but it subsists mostly on donations.
Larissa Silva, a ten-year-old who has chronic ringworm covering 80 percent of her body, lives a few miles away from the Asylum’s headquarters. When I met her at the cardboard house she shares with her family she asked me, “Do you think I like living here?” I said no, and she responded, “But I do. It’s the only life I know.”
Fabiana, Larissa’s mother, told me, “We spend two months collecting all kinds of aluminum material and then we sell it to a company that pays us 130 reals [around $55] for recycling. I raise my three kids like this.”
On my way out of the slum I ran into Jeferson, Larissa’s brother. He told me he hopes it rains soon so that he can take a bath and play on the garbage rivers at high tide.