“Gone is the friendly, welcoming dynamic which exists in slum areas of Africa and India. In Neza, children peer cautiously out of windows, instead of swarming around my camera asking for a photo. Men and women eye my camera distrustfully, suspiciously. More than once I was told to go away, not to film, even while working with a local fixer.
The conditions of organized crime are so bad, parents are forced to wear laminated ID cards around their neck when picking their children up from school. The reason? Kidnapping. As one woman told me, “they take photos of the children and share it on social media. That’s how they know which ones to take. This is why we don’t like cameras.”
I’m moving in the backseat of a Honda Accord. There’s a plush stuffed jalapeno with a sombrero hanging from the rearview mirror. We’re in the middle of Neza and there’s no end in sight.
Next to me is an aggressive looking pickup truck with “Federal Police” painted on the side, roll bars, a mounted machine gun in the bed, and two officers with tactical gear manning it. One of them looks at me and I catch his eye through the slit between his balaclava and his helmet. It’s impassive.
“I feel safer when they’re NOT around.” says my translator. It’s 10am. I already feel drained.
Neza is the biggest slum in the world, depending on how you measure it. What constitutes a slum? How do you count everyone there? These are questions which aren’t ever going to be answered. No one who lives there really cares. It’s a day to day life that people have described as the banality of poverty: The unceasing grind and unromantic day-to-day life of a member of the bottom class. Offcuts of meat and Chinese goods. Poured concrete and violent crime. The bright pink tarps on market day provide a sense of time passing, of the connection to the creator and the concept of impermanence.
We go to interview an old man in a run-down part of Neza that’s due for upgrading from the national government. There is an upliftment plan which encompasses new paint and a new roof, serious upgrades in a community with very little. Outside there is a cement mixer and an entire team of city employees. The old man buzzes from here to there with a cautious excitement, as if he’s not sure how much he should be enjoying his good fortune. We hang back and film the scene from the street.
Suddenly, he invites his into his house.
“Can we see where you spend your time?” He shows us a room filled with old photographs of his family, heavy wooden furniture, a television with a talk show and his aged, deaf mother. He shouts into her face.
“They want us to say thank you for the upgrade!”
We tell him its not necessary. He shouts it again into her face.
“They want us to say THANK YOU for the upgrade!”
She feebly gives us her thanks. We thank her in return. The situation is strange and he waits at the door for us to make the next move. We tell him we’re done, that his mother can go back to watching her program, that we’ll wait outside.
After a moment he joins us and we stand idly looking at the concrete mixer, churning wildly just in front of us. I’ve never been this close to a cement mixer before, and it looks vaguely dangerous. I wonder if we should step back. The men from the city look experienced. I decide that it’s probably OK.
They say life is made up of the details. They say life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But what details? What plans? It seems like such a presumptious thing to say in a place like this. Here if you are lucky enough to have purpose, to have employment, you seize it. If not, and the vast majority do not, you wither like a crone in a dark room. The ubiquitous television is everywhere, in every slum, in every city, feeding the banality, assuaging the boredom. The satellite dishes face north, row upon row, the last refuge of the indolent.