Portuguese slum welcomes tourists to improve reputation

With its unpaved roads often strewn with litter, the Cova da Moura slum on the outskirts of Lisbon has long been seen as Portugal’s byword for crime and decay—and a place to be avoided.

But a local youth group is offering guided tours of the community in the hope of improving its reputation and bringing much-needed business to area shops and restaurants.

Since April 2004 dozens of people have been led each week through the narrow streets of the hilltop slum that is home to some 6 000 people, mostly from Cape Verde, a drought-stricken archipelago off West Africa’s coast.

Visitors pass by outdoor fish and fruit vendors, tiny grocery stores, traditional African hairdressers and a giant mural depicting the late United States rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed in a drive-by shooting almost a decade ago.

At the end of their tour they can enjoy a meal at one of several restaurants that serve typical Cape Verdean bean and rice dishes.

“I like showing the positive side,” said 23-year-old Silvino Furtado, one of the guides of the tours which cost â,¬5 per person.

“People think we are all thieves or assassins. But we live lives that are just like those of other people,” added Furtado, who goes by the name “Bino”.

The slum started being built in the mid-1970s by the thousands of immigrants who arrived in Lisbon in search of a better life from Cape Verde and Portugal’s four other newly independent African colonies.

The modest brick homes, many protected with corrugated metal roofs, were built illegally on land that belongs mostly to the local municipality. Electricity, water and other utilities have since become available legally to area residents but the slum’s streets are not regularly cleared of litter and no public transit operates on its roads.

But despite the community’s drawbacks it has continued to attract African immigrants and their offspring who work long hours for low pay as construction workers or maids and can’t afford to live elsewhere.

Half the population of Cova da Moura is under 20 and many youths say they have difficulty landing a job, especially when they tell potential employers where they live.

“If everything was as bad here as the television says, how could people live here? Maybe these tours will help change our image,” said Jorge Neves (21) as he sat in the sun on the steps of a building with a group of friends.

The slum was thrust into the national spotlight in February 2005 after a 33-year-old police officer was shot and killed while on a routine patrol of its streets.
A Lisbon court on Tuesday sentenced two men to prison terms of 19 and 23 years after finding them guilty of the shooting of the officer.

When riots engulfed immigrant-dominated French suburbs in November, the Portuguese government unveiled a plan to boost spending on social programmes in Cova da Moura and two other rundown neighbourhoods.

Some â,¬25-million will be spent in Cova da Moura over the next two years on professional training, Portuguese language courses and improvements to roads and other public spaces.

Godelieve Meersschaert, the Belgian vice-president of the “Moinho da Juventude” community group that runs the tours, said drug trafficking took place in the slum but the media tends to overplay the scope of the problem.

“There are problems everywhere, drug trafficking happens all over the place,” added Meersschaert (60), who has lived in Cova do Moura for over two decades.

Rather than tear down the slum to make way for a massive redevelopment project as some municipal officials advocate, she said the government should work to improve living conditions for its residents.

Most tour participants are from Portugal but some foreigners travelling in the country have taken advantage of the opportunity to see another side of the Portuguese capital that is far away from its historic monuments, said Furtado.

Many, like Joana Dias, are university students from the humanities or social sciences who are drawn by the chance to see with their own eyes the city’s impoverished underbelly.

“There is much more life on the streets than I expected. It is nothing like I imagined,” she said.—AFP

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