Inside the favelas. My experience as a volunteer.

Twelve miles away from one of the most quiet and peaceful beaches in Rio, two police officers are guarding the entrance of a favela. They each have IMBEL FAL and Colt M4A1 assault rifles. So these aren’t your average pistol police.  Both weapons can shoot 700 bullets in 60 seconds, which  is  an  even  more  miserable  statistic considering the officers  were smiling at us. I shudder at the sight of their beaming faces and wonder what lies behind them.

Inside the favela a lawless theme park is waiting. The armed teenagers within carry the same weapons as the guards outside, so if it wasn’t for the uniforms and toothy grins it’d be impossible to tell who’s who — Although something suggests those inside have got a lot less to smile about.

The day had started at a miserable 6am, when a bus pulled up looking like something out of a 1960s trip. It didn’t have any suspension, as the government don’t want to invest in the buses that go to the favela. But of course, it doesn’t matter as long as the tourists don’t use it, because that is what really matters.

The view from the bus was like a scene of Lawrence of Arabia: bright, exhausting sun, sweaty people and a landscape both desolate and impressive in the arid loneliness of the steppe. It’s hard to imagine that this area was once a forest until the Portuguese explorers came to Brazil 500 years ago and destroyed the landscape.

The favelas near the tourist areas and the beaches are painted with bright colours but as we moved towards the outskirts of Rio, they became grey. By the time we got off the bus it was a completely different world.

Gone were the luxury apartments of Ipanema or the well­ decorated neighbourhood of Leblon.

Then my mind went off and I thought about Cleide, a middle aged woman who runs a little school in the favela of Vila Kennedy, where I was going to work. She started a project on her own when she realised the children in the favela needed help and someone to help them stay out of drugs. “I moved to this favela after I lost everything I had. My 14-year-old son had been run over by a car and I lost all my money trying to save him. Then I realised I couldn’t let myself down because there are people here that need me too.”

In  2001, Cleide decided to start a school for the children whose families couldn’t afford an education. Teachers work as volunteers tutoring everything from maths class to dance class. There are English lessons organised by volunteers from abroad who come to Rio through an international volunteering organisation.

The paving on the road ended. The air was full of sun and dust. It was hard to breath. The buildings contained so-called ‘shops’, complete with hand drawn signs that signalled towards conspicuous pharmacies. Cleide was waiting for at the bus stop to let the gangs know that we were with her.  They respected her, and under her influence we’d be respected and protected too. Police cars were constantly patrolling the area. They would slow down and smile at us while checking us out, like dogs waiting for a nice treat.

We finally got to the little school we were going to be work on. The paint on the walls was old and unfinished, with patches everywhere as it was painted by volunteers. Cleide kept telling us “When I started here I was scared but I had to find the courage to help entire families who needed someone to keep  their  children  away  from  drugs  or  from  robbing.  But sometimes that doesn’t happen as they see thieves can get money way quicker than humble workers.” She opens her heart to tell us the broken paradise that lays in Rio.

Not long ago there were a few siblings from a very poor family at her school. She would feed them after the lesson and that’d be the only meal they would have a day. One day, one of them said to Cleide that he had decided to become a criminal in order to feed his family. He said “Cleide I wanted to be an engineer, I really did, but it’s actually quicker to rob someone.’”  Today, that boy is dead  and  one  of  his  sisters  has  a  severe  drug addiction. Unfortunately, the project doesn’t always work the way we want to.

The volunteers that come from abroad pay a small amount to help the project and that’s how they finance it. Cleide and her nephew are there, working very hard on fixing an old piece of furniture. That day we don’t have enough students, as there was a shooting the day before and stray bullets killed two children that were playing on the street. This is very common in the favelas; bullets kill a worrying amount of people a year.

As we don’t have students I’m doing a massive painting on one of the kitchen walls. Another volunteer is helping out moving and cleaning furniture and another one is getting the English lesson ready in case any student shows up.

It’s worrying to see how low on means we are. The government doesn’t fund projects like this one, as there is a risk of fraud, and supposedly not enough money.

Funny how there isn’t enough money but they keep selling the Amazon to Ikea. They won’t protect indigenous people’s homes, it’s more profitable to sell their land.

They will shout that they are diverse, and that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil, but 80% of black applicants are rejected from university. They say they are a potential growing economy, but they have sweatshops owned by European fashion companies like Spanish brand Zara.

They say they are producing new jobs, but prostitution is on the rise every year because women can’t find proper employment. The government cannot afford supporting educational projects or antidrug programmes. Extortion and gangs are the kings of the favelas. Malnutrition and child poverty is on the streets. Brazilian police are essentially non-existent when it comes to enforcing laws to protect the population. The judicial system is a joke and there is usually no recourse for the citizen who is robbed, cheated or otherwise harmed. People live in fear and build walls around their houses or pay high fees to live in gated communities. Meanwhile the government spent shit loads of money on road works and new installations for the Olympics in 2016.

Yes, wonderful paradise. It just needs a whole new government, administration, new laws, more investment in education, science, gun controls, fight against racism and corruption.

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