Nanko van Buuren has become an ‘uncle’ to the underprivileged in Rio
Pot-holes, sand and stones. Most of the streets in Vigário Geral are simply dirt tracks. Although there are very few cars to be seen, there are plenty of people: 7,500 packed into an area of three square kilometres. Violence, crime and poverty all conglomerate in this favela, a slum area in Rio de Janeiro, which, until a few years ago, was one of the most violent areas in the city. Most would say that any attempt to improve the situation is a lost battle. But that hasn’t stopped Nanko van Buuren (56) from spending the last 15 years waging war on poverty in the area. And he is winning. The emigrant Dutchman is affectionately called tio, uncle, by the inhabitants of the favela – even by the drug barons.
Van Buuren is the founder and manager of IBISS, a relief organisation, whose 400 workers are attempting to improve conditions for slum dwellers and street children. ‘This is why the road is now all broken up,’ says Van Buuren on a tour of the area. ‘Sewers are being laid and we have already improved the telephone services and the electricity and water supply. We are also providing family replacement homes, improved streets, medical posts and schooling projects.’
There is a huge gulf between rich and poor in Brazil. But now president Lula da Silva and Gilberto Gil, the singing minister of culture, are supporting IBISS in its attempts to bridge these differences, by way of music, amongst other things. The organisation helps young people set up bands, which play the samba on borrowed instruments. ‘We ensure that they are given the chance to perform in clubs in downtown Rio,’ says Van Buuren. ‘In this way we want to prove that good things too come from the favela.’
Van Buuren opens the door to the recording studio in Vigário Geral. A band is rehearsing Afro Samba in the small space lined with dark carpeting. The singer is no more than 7 years old, but is definitely ‘cool’, and is gifted with an incredible sense of timing. The 14-year-old guitar player is already a highly accomplished musician. The percussionists swing and the girls in the background chorus laugh and dance. For a short time the misery outside is forgotten.
Once we are back outside ‘tio Nanko’ is approached by Claudia as we approach the IBISS office building. She lived on the streets for 14 years and – like many former street children – is now employed by IBISS as a street corner worker. The organisation has provided her with training and a house where she lives together with her 14-year-old daughter. Claudia needs Van Buuren’s advice. She has to go to a family and arrange a funeral for a six-year-old child, who has been shot to death. For Claudia this is the first time she has to counsel a family that has suffered such a heavy loss.
‘We bury more than 700 children here every year,’ says Van Buuren when Claudia has left. ‘If we didn’t bury the bodies they would simply end up in a public mass grave. It is very sad, but we have a special deal with an undertaker in Rio: we get a 50% discount for every funeral we organise.’