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In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazil is occupying the slums and opening new perspectives through sport, education and culture. Increasing numbers of NGOs and companies are getting involved in the favelas – and young people have an opportunity to show that they can be so much more than just members of a drug gang or employees of the rich.
Rio de Janeiro – For Suélen's parents, the police were the enemy. Her mother was a drug addict, her father a dealer. Now Suélen is in a police station in the Morro da Providência favela in Rio de Janeiro fighting with rather than against the police. Together with police officer Flávio Teixeira, the 16-year-old teaches children and young people jiu-jitsu, a martial art and system of unarmed self-defence.
The window looks out on a sea of haphazard red brick houses crouching close together on the mountain behind Rio de Janeiro's central train station. The jiu-jitsu room is white and empty except for the blue-green mats where two dozen children and youths in white outfits wrestle one another. Suélen watches two seven-year-old girls try their hand in a duel, rolling over each other on the mats. She explains the proper steps, encourages and comforts them.
Rio de Janeiro alone, Brazil's model city, is home to over 1,000 slums in which almost one quarter of the population lives.
Match losers burst into tears and swear. A girl strikes out. "Many of the children from the favela have not yet learned how to handle aggression and defeat", reports jiu-jitsu trainer Flávio Teixeira, age 35. Officer Teixeira is a hard task master who motivates his students. He serves as a role model for young people like Suélen who have otherwise only experienced police officers as trespassers in the favela. Police who hassled and shook them or their parents down, who provoked shoot outs with the local drug gangs in which normal favela inhabitants got caught in the crossfire.
The police's martial arts courses are part of the new peace-making strategy, Brazil's efforts to recapture the slums from the drug gangs and integrate them into society. First the military enters the favelas to run off the gangs. Then the presence of the 'pacifying police', infrastructure measures and a range of sport, educational and cultural schemes are intended to help introduce change to the favelas which decades of neglect have turned into parallel societies run by the drug gangs. Rio de Janeiro alone, Brazil's model city, is home to over 1,000 slums in which almost one quarter of the population lives.
Before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games are held in Brazil, the city plans to occupy around 100 favelas – 33 units of the pacifying police or UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora; Police Pacification Unit) have already been stationed in Rio's favelas. Critics accuse Brazil of applying the strategy primarily to improve the country's image and increase safety for tourists. It is true that all the favelas occupied thus far have either been in the centre of the affluent South Zone, in parts of the city or along beaches that attract tourists, or close to key strategic locations such as airports, football stadiums or the central train station where the brick houses of the Providência favela perch upon the mountain. But this occupation could also be the start of a transformation that has been desperately needed for decades, and offer many young people new perspectives that might change their lives – regardless of what happens after the country hosts the two huge events.
"Jiu-jitsu is now my life", says Suélen, who took up the martial art with her brother Samuel two years ago and now numbers among the best in the group. "The project is super. It gets kids off the streets, keeps them from just hanging around and gives them a better future and new goals like the next competition." The Brazilian believes that the sport can change life in the favelas and young people's attitudes: "When you take up the sport, you enjoy it. You keep going, and soon find yourself thinking about nothing other than training."
And jiu-jitsu also motivates children to stay in school – a requirement for participating in the free classes. After she finishes school, Suélen wants to attend university. She could see herself joining the navy afterwards, becoming a soldier or a professional martial artist, a jiu-jitsu teacher. Even her mother, who was initially against her daughter enrolling in the course, recently sought out trainer Teixeira to thank him.
The government is trying to create a new relationship between slum dwellers and the police – but not all favela inhabitants see the occupation as liberation, as a new opportunity. Infrastructure projects implemented without consulting favela residents and which force their relocation, tough police shake downs, favela inhabitants injured in riots, and corruption scandals inside the pacifying police are all shattering the hopes of those who initially viewed occupation as a positive change. And they affirm the worst fears of those in favour of the old ways, the days when the drug gangs reigned supreme and their iron rule ensured peace and security.
Inhabitants are used to the drug gangs, pupil Carol Lima explains as she walks through one of the favela settlements in the huge Complexo do Alemão in Rio's North Zone. This drug dealer stronghold was one of Rio's violence hotspots. It was stormed by the military and police at the end of 2010. Now two police officers with machine guns stand guard on the next corner. 16-year-old Carol has never spoken to a pacifying police officer. She has had no experience with the police – positive or negative. It's almost as if they were just cardboard cut-outs, statues. "The drug gangs used to hang out here, now we have the armed police on the corners", Carol Lima recalls. But the drug trade still goes on.
The teleférico has transformed what was once the no-man's land of the drug gangs into an attraction for tourists from Brazil and abroad.
She doesn't believe that the occupation can change everything. "But it opens doors – more institutions are coming into the favelas, there are more courses and more educational opportunities, construction to improve the infrastructure. A bank has opened that might not have come into the favela when the drug dealers were in charge", she notes. Even before the occupation favela inhabitants were creating their own NGOs, holding cultural events and building up business communities with thousands of small enterprises. Now though many more firms, such as furniture stores, banks, and electronics chain stores, are moving in and acting as sponsors. Brazilian and international NGOs with greater financial power are coming into the slums because they no longer have to make peace with the drug gangs.
Carol Lima thinks the Alemão cable car is "cool". Since opening in 2011 it has soared over the teeming valleys and mountains of the favela complex. The teleférico quickly transports favela inhabitants from one settlement to another or to a bus stop where they can catch a bus into the city centre. It has transformed what was once the no-man's land of the drug gangs into an attraction for tourists from Brazil and abroad. Carol Lima has ridden the teleférico with friends from Rio's South Zone. She reports that young people from the affluent inner city districts have also become interested in life in the favelas. Carol Lima herself once lived in the Copacabana neighbourhood in the centre of Rio because her mother worked there, but she enjoys life just as much in the favela.
She recently began volunteering for a project in another favela, the Cidade de Deus slums made famous by the film "City of God" and which were also occupied by the military and police in 2009. Favela residents now enjoy new freedom of movement. In the past few young people used to visit the favelas on the outskirts of the city because when the drug gangs were in charge, it was risky to enter territory ruled by rival gangs. Now young favela residents are forming friendships and creating networks that extend beyond their own neighbourhoods.
And they are discovering just how much they have in common – including similar problems: "There is the influence of the drug gangs, there are young people who don't want to go to school, who want to do nothing", according to Lima. Together with two young men and one woman from the Cidade de Deus, Carol Lima is working on creating a cultural platform there: the Espaço Conexão Cultural for poetry, music, graffiti, photography and events in the favela.
"The Espaço Conexão Cultural should be a place that mobilizes people, encourages them to be creative – to put on a show, a play, offer a course or make a film", is how Lima explains her project. And while the favelas have produced many artists, a lot work and exhibit their work outside the favelas. Lima sums up her hopes for the project: "We want them to do something here and attract people from outside the favela; we want to draw the whole world here."
The Espaço Conexão Cultural team is part of the Agência de Redes para Juventude programme, a kind of start-up incubator for favela projects. The initiative, funded by the Brazilian Petrobras oil company, helps youth from occupied favelas develop and implement projects designed to change life in the slums. Participants attend workshops, meet with consultants and pitch to a jury. The best ideas are awarded scholarships.
The young faces of the favela no longer stand for crime and violence – they represent savvy, culture and creativity.
Carol Lima believes that the youth of today have better options for the future: "Young people want to know more; they can choose any path they want. There are campaigns that explain why they should go to university and the job market has improved – thanks to the NGOs and companies coming into the favela. Young people are being encouraged to make more of themselves." The image of favela inhabitants is also changing: "It used to be that a favelado was someone who just sat around the favela all day listening to funk music. It has many different meanings today." The young faces of the favela no longer stand for crime and violence – they represent savvy, culture and creativity.
Young people from the favelas are participating in transforming the image of the favelas through the internet – and they have a hand in their future as well. 19-year-old Rene Silva from the Complexo do Alemão founded a favela newspaper at the tender age of eleven. But he did not become well-known outside the favela until his tweets during the storming of the Complexo do Alemão by the military and police at the end of 2010 were taken up by the Brazilian O Globo broadcasting company, creating an audience of millions for the young boy from the favela. Today he is a media star. His Voz da Comunidade newspaper, "the voice of the favela", has grown into an online portal with 11,000 fans. It reports the news from a number of favelas throughout Rio. 120,000 readers follow the portal's updates on Twitter. These expose problems and air grievances, but also report on events in the favelas.
Daiene Mendes, 23, is one of the six full-time employees and 20 freelance authors who write for the Voz. She enjoys writing and reading and blogs as well. With her open, self-confident manner, trendy half-shaved head and round hipster glasses, she could blend right into any large city without attracting attention. She travelled to New York this year with Rene Silva to meet and exchange ideas with other citizen journalists.
It was the first international trip for Daiene Mendes, her very first flight, an invitation that would take her further from home than anyone in her family had ever gone before. The opportunity scared her a bit: "I was afraid because I don't speak any English, because I didn't have any warm clothes and because I had to represent the entire Alemão and the Voz da Comunidade in New York", she confessed in a report for the Voz da Comunidade. Now she views the trip to New York as one of her most important experiences. She got to know another metropolis and a different culture, met new people, and saw that the primarily African-American Harlem neighbourhood in New York has problems similar to those in Complexo do Alemão. "In Harlem the blacks are 'targets' for the police. Here we are the targets, the poor people, the favela," notes Daiene Mendes
Peace without a voice is not peace, but fear.
Her time in New York opened her eyes to the discrimination favela inhabitants continue to face: many young people are wrongly identified as dealers, searched, treated roughly, bullied, sometimes even imprisoned. And while the government has fulfilled some of its promises, according to Mendes the presence of the pacifying police presents a false impression of peace. She quotes a line from a song by the socially critical "O Rappa" band: "Paz sem voz, não é paz é medo". Peace without a voice is not peace, but fear. It seems to her that only the rulers have changed, that the people living in the favela are hardly involved in the transformation process. She has joined forces with many other young people who are working to change this in future.
Do you want to know more about favelas? Christoph Kober's web-documentary provides a glimpse into a world normally closed to outsiders. It takes you on a guided tour of Mangueira, one of Rio's oldest favelas.