The Olympic Park will be the nerve centre of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro. Here, the world’s cameras will be trained on the finest athletes in the world competing for gold in basketball, wrestling, judo, fencing, taekwondo, handball, diving, synchronised swimming, water polo, swimming, water polo, tennis, gymnastics and track cycling.
But the cameras will not show what I happened upon on the windy afternoon of August 2, in the final countdown to the opening ceremonies. I had gone to the Olympic Park to see for myself the developments that have taken place there since Rio won the right to stage the Games in 2009.
After a short walk away from the bus that brings you to Olympic Park, you see arenas that sit alongside the best that have ever been constructed for a global competition. But knowing the fate of similar ones from Berlin to Montreal to Athens to Beijing and to so many others in between, you are not necessarily impressed. There is a closure and an abandonment that is never mentioned during the bidding blitz, but which always seems to happen after the Olympic flame has been extinguished and the white flag with the five interlocking rings has been pulled down.
A massive banner proclaims to all visitors: “The Olympics brings more than just the Olympics.” On the face of it, this message suggests good tidings and a bounty to whomever the Olympics have come. But on that afternoon, I saw for myself that the Olympics can indeed bring more than people hoped for - and not always for the good. I saw a bulldozer raze down a man’s house as he watched.
A crowd of international journalists, lucky, as it were, to be there when it was happening, kept their cameras rolling as Carlos Augusto Pereira denounced the authorities amid the dust raised by his falling house. It was gut wrenching.
The drama started soon after we asked for directions to Vila Autódromo. The security officer to whom we directed this enquiry responded with a quizzical expression. Then he seemed to remember: “Oh, that one! It used to be right here. I think there are two houses still left. Go straight on and then turn to your left. You’ll find them.”
The community of Vila Autódromo used to be where we were standing. It is located in Rio de Janeiro’s west zone, a privileged neighbourhood, which is precisely why it ultimately met its sad fate.
In the 1960s, when it was practically a rural set up, Vila Autódromo was a fishing community. Its scenic character and the impoverished status of its 600 inhabitants represented an enormous appetite for land grabbers, as we call them in Kenya, to appropriate the neighbourhood to themselves.
The most prominent of these is a billionaire by the name Carlos Carvalho who, according to Justica Global, a human rights non-governmental organisation, owns more than 10 million square metres in Barra da Tijuca, the most expensive part of Rio’s west zone.
Carlos Carvalho is the sole owner of Carvalho Hosken, a construction company worth an estimated Sh500 billion.
Carvalho, who was one of the people who funded Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes’s election and is the most prominent of the moguls awarded contracts to build the venues of the Olympics, publicly declared that he didn’t mind flattening the homes of poor people so that a “noble elite” could occupy the space.
Paes was upset with his friend’s brazenness and told him to stop talking to the media. But charges of extreme high handedness with the poor, which he denies at every turn, dog Paes who seemed more concerned with how rather than what Carvalho said.
After walking the length of Rua Vila Autódromo, the road along Olympic Park with an ironic memory, we came by Pereira’s house. His neighbor and long suffering friend in the community, Luiz Claudio da Silva started taking us through the history of Vila Autódromo and especially the long, bruising war with City Hall to keep their homes. But barely five minutes later, we had to dash out of da Silva’s house: the bulldozer had started its work.
Pereira’s house had been one of two left standing; it would be the penultimate one to be reduced to rubble so that Olympic Park could look pristine and worthy of the eyes of the world’s adoring visitors. We stood at a distance as the bulldozer’s driver inched his behemoth of an arm slowly towards his house.
He began with the perimeter walls and then slammed the folk-like hand of his machine into the house. The bricks came down in untidy heaps. Some people gashed but most watched silently as the wind blew dust across their faces and journalists trained their equipment on Pereira all through his ceaseless lamentations.
Tipper lorries stood by, ready to cart away the rubble. Without seeming to pause and catch a dusty breathe, Pereira wailed about his destroyed house.
“I feel like I am not a citizen of Rio de Janeiro,” he said.
“The rich people steal everything. Now they have destroyed my home and sent me to a place that I do not know. Even my dog is lonely in it.”
As Pereira spoke, the bulldozer finished its work. Luiz Claudio da Silva turned to us, looked at his watch and said: “Five minutes.”
That is how long it had taken to destroy a man’s life time work.
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Soon, the dust wasn’t coming from the falling house but from the bulldozer’s hand as it fed the debris into the back of the tipper lorry. And Pereira just could not stop talking, even as the dust from the departing lorry swirled around him and his audience.
To watch him was to feel pain, even without understanding the Portuguese he was speaking. You felt a certain intimate connection with him because of his loss. That feeling constantly gnawed at the heart saying: there had to be another way to this; human beings should treat each other better than this. There is a huge failure here.
The citizens of Nairobi, who coined the term land grabbing, are used to the brutal character of the exercise. When I saw Pereira’s house fall, I remembered the Muoroto evictions near the country bus station that were carried out in the dead of night as unsuspecting residents slept.
Fifteen years later, Maina Wanjigi, the former cabinet minister who represented the area in Parliament and who left government to protest the extreme violence visited on the people, told me in an interview for Saturday Nation: “I cursed President Moi for that inhumanity. I know cursing is a strong word to use, but I am telling you that I cursed him. Cursing is allowed in the bible under extreme circumstances. And I never forgave him. Even today.”
When the destruction was done and evening was beckoning, we bid farewell to Luiz Claudio da Silva and his family and started trudging along Rua Vila Autódromo, yet again past the shiny venues of Olympic Park. Some of these facilities will be pulled down after the Games to make way for more of Carlos Carvalho’s high end apartments.
The rest will remain and possibly go the way of those in the cities that have hosted the Olympic Games before. But the bank accounts of their builders will have swelled even more.