Over the past few weeks and months, the eyes of the world have been turning towards Brazil where the game of football was made magical and the sound of samba and celebration echoes through the streets.
There has been a great enthusiasm for the delights of the country – from the beauty of the Rio skyline to the mystery and depth of the Amazon rainforest. It is a country of marvellous contrasts, wonderful vistas and friendly people.
But it’s also a country of dark contrasts. Most markedly between rich and poor.
In Rio, the wealthy hold the power and stroll through the neighbourhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, soaking up the sunshine, enjoying all the good things life has to offer. However, as recent BBC documentary Welcome to Rio has explored, the city of Rio (like other Brazilian cities) is full of favelas -Brazilian slums of hundreds of thousands of people.
These people are discarded by their government who seem uninterested in inclusion. Over the past few years, the government’s special armed forces have ploughed into favelas to “pacify” them ie take them out of the hands of drug lords and bring them back under state control. The reason? Not out of care or compassion for the people. Rather, so that Brazil does not look impoverished or scarred as the watching world tune in.
Back in 2006, my good friend Dennis and I visited Brazil and had an amazing time. The trip ultimately turned out to be a remarkable signpost on my journey to true faith as a Christian, but as a non-Christian at the time, I took in a visit to the favelas. The following is a recount from my diary of a visit to Rocinha – where the England football team spent some time on Monday.
Initially, I did not want to visit the favela at all. Both Dennis and I felt that the hostel tour was a chance for rich westerners to poke their noses into these peoples lives and then swan off again.
Thursday July 27th – “we both disagree with the tour of the favela as it makes it like a zoo. These are people, and however much you dress it up it is still a way of simply going to peer in on the deprived and making a show out of it.”
However, I changed my mind and, with a bit of money saved by the useless hostel not letting me go hang-gliding, I was able to afford the trip.
Tues Aug 1st “I had originally thought the trip would be like a zoo. But this wasn’t the impression the two Becks’ and Chloe had got from it. On the contrary, they gave the tour glowing reviews. I convinced myself it was something I needed to see in order to understand so along with the others I signed, 65 Real but 60% of the price went towards the favela community.
Rocinha is a favela of 250-300,000 people, many of whom officially don’t exist due to lack of documents and therefore there are no reliable statistics. We were transported to the top of the hill by a motorbike and my “whatever you do, don’t touch the driver” driver.
What struck me most was the sheer scale of this place. Houses built on top of each other, inches away from each other with just one main road and hundreds of cramped narrow little alleys. Extremely easy and not at all advisable to get lost there. We, as Gringoes, stuck out like sore thumbs.
We visited a shop and I bought some batteries for my increasingly unreliable camera. They were dead within ten photos!
Surreally, although the surroundings were deprived, we still passed houses of kids playing Pro Evolution while simultaneously watching Sky TV and the prices in the post and craft store we entered were very high.
The people are so resourceful and skilled at making the most of their situation and even though they’re in a poverty-stricken world controlled by drug lords, they appear to have adapted remarkably well.
Here I experienced cachaça for the very first time – the alcohol that packs a punch in the wonderful Brazilian cocktail caipirinha. On this trip, I fell in love with these drinks, but cachaça was the vilest and most fiery drink to have to take neat. Yuck!
At the school, the kids ignored me and Jonty. There wasn’t a huge clamour of “Photo! Photo!” as we’d been told to expect.
At the bottom, on streets that tour guide Danielle described as every shop selling drugs, me Jonty and three lads bartered to get some football shirts, eventually getting a fake Flamengo one for the equivalent of £8. Nice!
My journey to the favela was tremendously eye-opening. I saw mind-boggling poverty combined with genuine, pure happiness. I gained a far greater understanding of what it means to these people to have little to nothing to live on but survive, cope and carry on with life. I was moved by the sturdiness of the people there and I was so pleased I went to visit it. And, despite a prevalence of AK47s, I did not feel unsafe. Maybe it would have been different without the presence of our guide, but it is still a fair point.
I have a hope and a prayer for the favela communities of Rio. I sincerely hope, of course, that the government will seek to raise living standards. Not by some crow-barred pacification process to stop the favelas reflecting badly on the country, but out of love and concern for the people there.
However, far more important than that, I pray for the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring true hope to the people there. I pray that their cultural understanding of Christianity will bring them in touch with the foundational message of Jesus’ salvation. Finally, I hope that they will know that, regardless of whether or not their government cares about them, the millions of people who live in favelas will know that they are loved by God, which matters infinitely more than anything else.