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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Most Miserable Place Known To Me

Links A. Data On Former Soviet Republics
          B. East Africa And Endemic Poverty
          C. The Favelas Of Sao Paulo, Brazil
          D. Child labor In Bolivia

When I chose this particular subject to write about, I was careful to limit the list of candidate-locations to places that were familiar to me.  Lets be honest; anyone can make a list of shit-hole cities.  I was careful in my selection.  I try diligently to avoid overly long posts.  If my friend Joe can't start and finish reading a post while he is on the train home from work, then its too long.  Having Joe fall asleep while reading a post is also something I hope to avoid.  It will be difficult for even the hardiest of people to fall asleep during this commentary.

In 1990, when the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc began to crumble, many of us in the west had no idea what to expect after a close inspection of life under communism.  The image I am unable to remove from my mind's eye is row after row of ugly, gray buildings.  Communism wanted everyone to have the same exact living quarters (no one should have something nicer than their neighbor), so in many former Eastern Bloc cities like Warsaw, Belgrade, and Bucharest, it is not uncommon to still see the endless rows of gray apartment buildings, although much of the old architecture has been torn down.  The municipal buildings fit the same mold: bleak, gray and utilitarian.  In some of the poorer nations in eastern Europe, the former municipal buildings are still in use.  Attempts are made to brighten the appearance with a bit of paint and some flower boxes, but the true effect is deep and permanent.  There is no cure for the "gray building disease".  The patient must be euthanized at the earliest opportunity.  I find much of eastern Europe depressing, even two decades after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.  Some cities have made tremendous progress regaining the appearance of pleasant, traditional European communities, Warsaw in particular.  For the purpose of this post, I must pick one particular city that I would describe as "miserable".  I choose Mitrovica, Kosovo.  I see no need to deliver a history lesson.  Kosovo was a province of Serbia with a predominantly Albanian population.  In 1998, the province descended into civil war, eventually involving Europe and the United States.  Since that time, Kosovo has declared its independence, although many of the communities with large Serbian populations are loath to break away from mother Serbia.  Mitrovica is a prime example of just such a community.  It is located in the north of the former province and has a population roughly evenly split between Albanians and Serbs.  And the last time I checked, they hated each other with a passion.  The Ibar River separates the two ethnicities, and a beautiful, new bridge was built in an attempt to foster forgiveness and economic integration.  Events have not followed the intended script, as fighting between the two groups has left Mitrovica resembling a Mad Max, post-apocalyptic town, with electricity outages, garbage in the streets, and vehicles that had seen better days pre-Hitler.  Some of the houses on both sides of the river (Serbs to the north, Albanians on the south) have started to deteriorate, others have already crumbled into a pile of bricks and mortar.  The residents of this community stare at each other across the river with distrust and anger.  I'm happy to admit that I haven't visited Mitrovica in almost a decade, so its possible that the city has come together and created one community working towards safe streets, refuse collection, functioning schools, and the creation of one central business district.  But for my dollar, Mitrovica deserves to be on the list of most miserable places.

Kibera is a community just north of Nairobi, Kenya.  It is a slum-like collection of informal houses, shacks, and lean-tos, with a population that varies from 100,000 to 1 million, depending on the source.  Kibera is a Town Planner's nightmare, as no one really knows which neighboring, smaller communities are part of Kibera and which ones are not.  Ideally, the government of Kenya would task government Town/Urban Planners to map Kibera, street by street and house by house.  As many homes as possible will be left standing, but any effort to bring services to Kibera and upgrade the roads and the existing facilities will require the destruction of most shacks and shanties.  Some of those shacks and shanties house families of ten or more.  The effort to put Kibera on the grid, build real hospitals and schools, and create safe housing will never begin in earnest until the community itself is ready to make the necessary sacrifices.  Until then, segments of Kibera will improve, one section at a time.  At least its progress for some.  For the majority of the residents of Kibera, life is a struggle that is impossible for most westerners to comprehend.  Finding food is a daily adventure, especially when you have a family to feed.  Living in large townships can be very dangerous, and anyone who has anything of value is smart to keep it out of sight.  Sanitation is basically non-existent, although water is available from pipes that have been laid by the city.  My memory of Kibera is of a place that is full of children.  And interestingly enough, they were always laughing and playing soccer.  The Kenyan government has good intentions regarding Kibera, but it will take a tremendous infusion of state resources, and the complete cooperation of the people of Kibera, to remold this community into a safe, recognizable suburb.

The favelas of Sao Paulo have received a great deal of press in recent years, although the gangs of children that seem to interest most people, have been around for decades.  Favelas share many of the usual characteristics of large, urban slums.  The people are the poorest of the poor, most of the housing is informal, economic activity comes in all shapes and sizes, drugs are prevalent, and every day is a struggle for survival.  One factor which separates the favelas from many of the other famous slums of the world, is the presence of the gangs of children.  We aren't referring to groups of kids playing soccer or stealing the odd candy from the neighborhood store.  The slums of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro are inhabited by gangs of kids under the age of ten.  Many of them are addicted to glue sniffing, or if they can get it, crack and heroin.  They are often armed and terrorize otherwise peaceful residents of the favela.  A few years ago, a scandal erupted in Brazil as it was disclosed that the police were targeting the gangs "off the record".  These young kids were often armed and exhibited no fear of authority, possibly a result of being hyped-up on booze, glue and whatever else they could access.  A policeman is shot here and there, and the cops feel the justification to eradicate this problem.  While the targeting was in effect, no one complained.  Everyone had been a victim of the gangs at one time or another, and they were seen as nothing more than a virus.  The young kids, without parents probably since birth, living on the streets, dealing with underage prostitution and pedophiles, turned to each other because no one cared.  And they learned how to make hunger go away by watching the shake-downs of organized crime.  They formed gangs, stole weapons, and took to the streets.  Some estimate that in the favelas of Sao Paulo there are at least 100,000 abandoned kids trying to find a daily meal.  What a tragedy that adults act indignant when a child choses the easiest method of survival.  In the favelas of Brazil, being miserable isn't an emotion, its a condition. 

The last place on my list is Potosi, Bolivia, which is home to Cerro Rico, of Hill of Riches.  Since the 16th century, miners have labored inside of Cerro Rico, extracting silver.  The neighboring town of Potosi used to be nothing more than a small market village, but it has become a city full of the young boys and old men who venture everyday into Cerro Rico for work.  Notice I didn't mention men of average age.  That's because in Potosi, the men appear either very young, or middle aged.  That is a result of spending upwards of 18 hours a day inside of the mountain.  Laws supposedly limit the age of workers to sixteen years of age, but the reality is that boy as young as ten are working in the mine.  In fact, child labor seems to be all the rage in Bolivia.  I thought the latest ethnically indigenous America-hating Socialist was going to fix everything.  Seems to me things have only deteriorated.  But I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to these sandal-wearing pretend-farmers who managed to get themselves elected president of South American countries by blaming everything from the weather to the boil on someone's ass on the evil "Yanquis".  But the fact that children are digging around in Cerro Rico, creating more wealth for rich hedge funds who have invested in the various mines that dot the landscape, is enough to make me go postal.  I'm not socialist, but I can't help but wonder, just how much money do some people need?  And that goes for you out in Hollywood as well, and all the athletes in the U.S. and Europe, who make more in salary and endorsements than the GDP of some countries, just for kicking around a soccer ball.  Potosi is a miserable place, and thank goodness I was just passing through.  The kids that work in the mines, and the ones who are shining shoes or sleeping with truck driver's in La Paz bordellos, never get to experience the joys of childhood.  The kids who work in the mines get up when its dark, and they come home when its dark.  Inside the mine it is dark as well, and the eyesight of these young people suffers from this unnatural existence in almost total darkness.  I might not be so opposed to these kids working to help support their families, or to save money for college, if they were receiving a decent salary for their efforts.  Unfortunately, they will destroy their bodies and consign themselves to blindness at an early age, for just enough money to feed the family.  The name of Cerro Rico should be changed to Cerro Miserable.

I realize that some of my readers expected to find a commentary on actual geographic locations and how people struggle because of where they live.  it was my intention to write this post along those guidelines.  But then it took on a life of its own.  I am horrified by the lives children are obliged to lead in our society, circa 2014.  When it comes to this issue, I only wish I could find a reason to be optimistic.

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