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World

Postal Worker Faces Unusual Challenges Working In Rio's Favelas

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our next story is about a postal worker. She deals with aggressive dogs and missing letters and all the other stuff a letter carrier usually deals with. But her circumstances are pretty unusual. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports from Rio de Janeiro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Maria Nazare Matos is a tiny 53-year-old, and she's incredibly spry, which I discover as we wind our way through Rio's largest favela, Rocinha.

So walking down this extremely narrow alleyway with rough-hewn stairs - very steep - I can barely keep up. The favela spreads up a hillside overlooking the ocean. We navigate barking dogs, and we take so many twists and turns that I have no idea where we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reach a door and knock, and a woman answers.

(CROSSTALK)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dona Nazare reaches into her backpack and hands her her mail.

ANTONIA VERISIMO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Client Antonia Verisimo tells me the only way she can get her mail delivered is through Dona Nazare. Now, the thing you need to know about Dona Nazare is that she does not work for the postal company. For the last 30 years, she's been filling a very specific need in this community. The mail service doesn't deliver to the tens of thousands of people who live here. Basically a truck pulls up on the outskirts of the shanty town, and Dona Nazare picks up the mail of her clients. She charges a small fee for the service.

MARIA NAZARE MATOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pointing to her head, she says, "my brain is like a computer, and all their names and where they live are stored up there," she says. That knowledge is vital, and it's the reason the mail doesn't make into Rocinha through the official delivery system. As I can see through following her on her route, for an outsider, the makeshift streets are very confusing. She says she started doing this 33 years ago when Rocinha was a much smaller favela.

NAZARE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It was very different back then," she says. The letters would be dropped off at a shabby, rundown bar called Little Peter's. It was a mess. The letters would get wet. The letters would go missing. Some would be stolen, she says. Paulo Cesar Viera was the president of the residents association back then, and he helped her make her start.

PAULO CESAR VIERA: This is very important because we know our favelas are very big. Only Nazare can do that because she know everything in our neighborhood - all the alley, all the labyrinth, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So she must know this...

VIERA: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Community better than anybody.

VIERA: Oh, no, no, she is the best.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Favelas are often places that have been abandoned by the state, and the residents have to get creative to get the services they need. Dona Nazare is a symbol of that very inventiveness.

NAZARE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She jokes the mail route has been good for her, too. When she started, she used to be really overweight, but all that climbing up and down stairs has made her fit, she says. There are also some other challenges particular to delivering mail in a favela as big and complicated as Rocinha. Sometimes a bad day at work means dodging bullets.

NAZARE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, "one day there was a lot of fighting between the police and the gangs, and I was praying, dear Lord, I hope I don't get hit by a stray bullet," she recounts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as we walk around, Dona Nazare is greeted by everyone. She's no longer the only person delivering mail in Rocinha. She trained a few others who now have opened businesses in the community, but she's certainly one of the best known and loved. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.