The majority of my time studying abroad has consisted of doing things I never would have considered before. That's not to say that I have been taking every absurd and dangerous risk set before me--;)--but rather that I have the opportunity to do things I never would have imagined.
On our plane ride to Rio de Janeiro, my friend Bonnie and I tossed around the idea of visiting one of the city's notorious favelas (slums). I suggested going at the end of the week, so as to not "dampen" our spring break vacation...My expectation of the favela could not have been more off the mark.
Our visit into the Rocinha favela was an unforgettable, eye-opening experience. Most people are familiar with the images of sadness and violence in the favelas thanks to movies like City of God. The truth is a much more complex situation that defies all expectations.
We opted to forego the awkward Jeep rides that show tourists the favelas at a "safe" distance from locals, and instead chose to take a walking visit with a long-time favela resident. Our guide, Zezinho, gave us a straightforward look into life in the favelas. He showed us the behind-the-scenes workings of everything from community standards, infrastructure, water, energy, social services, transportation, police-resident relations, to the role of drug trade in the favelas. Every detail was more surprising than the last. For instance, we learned that crimes like theft, sexual assault, and non-drug related killings are exceptionally rare within the community due to the eye-for-an-eye punishment policy enforced by the residents. Also, services such as public transportation, medical clinics, and commerce all exist within the slums, and in fact, function quite nicely. Most importantly, we learned that only a scarce amount of government funds end up in the favelas, despite their high density of residents. Instead, favela residents fund, build, and maintain their communities semi-autonomously. They build their own homes, paint their buildings, and pave their own sidewalks. Zezinho suggested that this is where Rocinha's residents get their sincere respect for their community.
This is not to say that the favelas are perfect--they certainly have their struggles like any community. Zezinho clearly explained to us what the upgrades the community needs and wants: safer infrastructure, cleaner/safer sewage systems, and more spaces to come together as a community to enjoy activities like sports, music, arts, and learning. Through seeing what obstacles exist within the favelas--as well as those that don't--I feel much more prepared to help in efforts to provide the residents with what they need and want.
Support an effort to paint an entire favela in Rio de Janeiro--