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Sunday, December 27, 2009

What's Your Favela, Tell Me What's Your Favela

About 20% of the population of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas - areas somewhat like slums, but not quite.

Story has it that in the late 19th century, the local government in Brazil needed large numbers of people to help them fight a civil war. In return, it promised its volunteer soldiers land to build their homes after the war.

After the war was fought and won, though, the soldiers did not receive the land promised, so they moved to the hills of Rio de Janeiro (soldiers always like to hold the high ground) and started building their own shantytowns there.

A seemingly haphazard collection of houses

The favelas started growing as Rio became more prosperous, because the poorer people living in the rural parts of Brazil started coming into Rio to look for jobs and opportunities. And they had no place to stay too, so THEY moved to the favela and started building their own homes there too, and the favelas just keep growing exponentially! To date, there are approximately 200+ favelas in Rio de Janeiro alone.

In a favela, each person or family builds their own residence. There are pretty much only 3 rules. One, your residence has to be 4 metres by 4 metres. Two, the walls and ceilings have to be very strong and thick. Three, be prepared for someone else to build their residence on top of yours!

Because each unit is separately built, there is no standadisation of color or materials used

Kids at play in a tiny playground within the favela

The 2002 movie, City of God, was based on life in a favela. It focused on organised crime and drugs. While favelas are justifiably notorious for crime and drug trafficking, it is also simply home to a community that wants to earn an honest living, even though that honest living might mean working as chambermaids and cleaners in the city proper for minimum wages of less than 500 Reals!

We came to a school that was run by a Non-Government Organisation (NGO). The school was primarily a place that helped keep an eye on youths during non-school hours, before the parents return from day jobs in the city.

Kids playing and learning together

I was particularly intrigued by how the students had made decorations by recycling what we commonly perceive as rubbish.

Christmas tree made from discarded bottles

Decorative snowflakes made with sawed off plastic bottles

The school also has handicrafts made by the students for sale. And proceeds goes back to the operating funds for the school, which is good. A few of these students eventually get good enough to set up their own simple stalls to sell their wares too.

Phone pouches made dubious by the presence of metal pull tabs. Only if you don't mind a scratched phone, people!

The wife liked his work enough to purchase a decorative painting for the house

After visiting the school, we went for a short walkabout the favela. The labyrinthine passages were cool and mostly shaded. Since the favela we were in was one of the bigger and more 'cleaned-up-for-tourists' ones, there was also sanitation and electricity, provided by the city officials. In fact, the residents of this favela enjoy an advantage that most other favelas still do not have - an address. With a residential address comes the ability to receive bills for services (electricity and sanitation), open bank accounts and even to obtain credit cards. Which also allows the residents the opportunity to purchase bigger-ticket items in instalments. It's amazing what the provision of road names and numbering for addresses can achieve to improve the standard of living of people in the favela.

This favela is lucky enough to have services provided by the city

It should be noted that tourists should never, ever go walking around in a favela on their own, though. We were led by a guide who knew the people and the layout of the place, and more importantly, what to do and where to hide, should any sort of fighting or turf wars occur.

Our guide assured us that unless there was a turf war, life in the favela was really crime-free. The drug lords who take care of the favelas go to great extents to prevent crime in their territory, because crimes mean that the police will be called in, leading to disruptions of their trade. There was a story about how a boy tried to snatch a bag from a German tourist, who resisted and fought back. Somehow, in the pushing and shoving, the German was knocked down onto the road and killed by an oncoming vehicle. Now, the German was part of a huge group of tourists who were here for a wedding. Diplomatic pressure was applied, and police had to start raiding the favela to find the young snatch thief who caused the death of the tourist. The drug lord found that his trade was disrupted by the constant presence of the police, and got his own enforcers to go after the young criminal too. Ouch. It was definitely not a happy ending for the boy.

Personally, I don't believe that the favelas are really crime-free now. I can believe that they are free of serious crimes like kidnapping and murder, but the traveler should still be wary of opportunistic crime by using camera straps and holding on tight to their bags.

All in all, a favela tour which takes approximately 2-3 hours and cost us 60 Reals each was a pretty good deal for its educational value. As one United Nations study put it, the proximity of the favelas and the rich in Rio de Janeiro is amazing. On one side of the street, you have people whose income are equivalent to that of Switzerland. Just across the road, and you have people whose income are equivalent to Ghana. And yet, life still goes on.


The swanky Sheraton Hotel is right in front of the favala


The Transhumanist said...

I also find the favela more lively.

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