Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (I)

We’ve all heard of the Rio Carnival and most of us probably even have it on our Bucket List – one of the most exotic places in the world, in the middle of one of the most exotic carnivals in the world. Who wouldn’t want that?

Few of us know though how the Carnival has originated and who we have to thank for its continuation. When the word “favela” comes up, we generally have images of dangerous places, dirty and poor, with uneducated and violent inhabitants, with junkies and criminals. We have no idea that image represents merely a handful of people, a minuscule percentage of the overall favela population. We have no idea the majority of people are like you and me, honest and hardworking, looking only at how to make each day a better one for themselves and those around. This we don’t know. We also never associate the people in the favela with the glamour of the Rio Carnival… even though these are the people creating that spectacular show. The people in the slums are the people creating this international craze. What an idea, huh?


The history of the favelas

The favelas originated about a hundred and fifty years ago, when the slaves who had just been liberated were sent out there in the world to… nothing. They needed to settle down somewhere and they did wherever they found the space. The favelas knew their second wave of growth in 1897, when 20,000 war veterans were brought from Bahia to Rio but not given any proper place to live. The third growth happened during the housing crisis in 1940, and the fourth, the appearance of the “modern” favelas, 30 years later when people from the country side started their migration to the city. The favelas were built generally on the hills, in the forests, and the word “favela” itself comes from the name of the native trees of these places.

The situation is pretty ironic, as now the best views of the city are from these hills, and in other metropolis these would be the most expensive and sought after spots. The people of the favelas see spectacular sunsets and sunrises and have beautiful views of the beaches and the city. In some places there are huge condominiums springing up overnight close to the beach, hence blocking the view from up the hill. The people in the favelas are not happy about it. After all, they were there first! 🙂

In any event, at first nobody was too concerned about the appearance of the favelas, as they were not thought to last very long. Soon enough though it became clear they were not going anywhere. They started to grow more in number and size, and they soon took a life of their own. The acute need for money made it so easy for drugs to penetrate and drug cartels soon became the controlling forces in the favelas. “No rules” turned into “our rules”, and “our” was the drug lords.

We read and heard many facts and figures about the drug lords and their terrible ways of ruling the favelas. The money some of them make can go up to 6 digits a month, and the atrocities they commit to punish and set examples are akin to scenes from some of the most violent Korean movies. Unfortunately the situation does not look like it might change soon. Many of these lords are wanted by the authorities and there are big prices on their heads… but as we have been told, “they are hiding in plain daylight. People know where they are, yet no one dares to talk. What are they gonna do? Denounce them and then take the money and fly straight to NASA to get on the first racket out to the Moon? Cause there’s no way they will be able to continue living on this Planet again, there is no rabbit or snake hole they could hide in and not be found.”


The favelas today

Rio de Janeiro presently has over 500 favelas, with the largest of them, Rocinha, hosting no less than a quarter million people. If in 1950 only 7% of Rio’s population lived in favelas, the percentage now has gone up to 20. The people living in the favelas usually work in the city, doing housework or other low paid jobs for the city people. Some of them work in the favelas themselves, in shops, schools or other small enterprises offering products or services.

To this day new houses are being built in the favelas illegally. The land belongs to the administration but anyone who wants a chance at the big city can built a house in an empty spot in the favela. And when the family grows they just build another floor above for the son and daughter in law. Or, if they’re some of the lucky ones who have a yard, they build another small house in the yard. This has led to the places being so crowded and crammed that the streets are only wide enough for pedestrians and motorcycles, and this makes it a real problem when an ambulance has to get through. There is generally one wide street big enough for cars, and that works perfectly for the drug lords as the favelas are much easier to control that way.

Water and electricity are still used illegally in most favelas, with people hooking their own cables and pipes to the city networks. Some of them are choosing to put on a meter if they need an address for the bank or their job. But even if they put the counter in, they keep using the electricity illegally.


The public opinion

The situation is not pretty and many out there are still trying hard to fix the “favelas problem”. Ideas have been flowing heaps, from displacing the people to educating them to supplying them with all they need to cover their basic needs to showing them another way of life to legalizing drugs or somehow making the drugs and the dealers all go away. Unfortunately all of these solutions are far from simple, or even realistic for that matter. Some people we have talked to have said straight “There is NO solution to the favelas problem. We’re in way to deep. That’s just it!”

Most Brazilians are frustrated with the favelas and their inhabitants and never go there, for any reason. Firstly because they feel they have no reason to, and secondly because they are afraid. They are not at all welcomed as the favelas inhabitants know what the city people think of them, hence see no reason why they’d pay them visits. “Let them stay out there, in their neat and wealthy little lives”, they think. These guys don’t even refer to the people in the favelas as Rio citizens and would love it if they could wake up one morning and all the favelas would be miraculously gone! Others have a completely different attitude, they not only acknowledge the existence of the favelas but get involved as much as they can in helping out. When they hear what we as foreigners know about the favelas, they recognize “It’s our media that has created this image of the favelas, especially internationally. It’s so clear… and it’s such a shame because that’s so not the reality, there’s so much more to it than that…”.


How can you visit

When we first got to Rio we knew we wanted to see a favela, but didn’t know how we’d be able to do that. The one thing everyone tells you is not to do the stupidity of going there alone, especially if you’ve never been in one before. Other options are going with someone who lives there or booking a tour.

A tour??? I thought this was a joke when I first heard of it and the idea of going there like on a field trip to the zoo sickened me. We were not going to do that, we decided. We were also not going to go there alone, so the option we were considering was finding someone who lived there who was willing to accompany us. We tried this option but it indeed proved to be a not so easy thing to accomplish in a few days.

As we initially were only going to stay for a week, we soon realised that if we wanted to see the favelas we’d have to do something about it fast. Meanwhile we had met quite a few people who had done the tours and told us how educational they had found it, how it wasn’t a “watch and go” kind of thing but it allowed for interaction with the locals and it felt natural, like any other tour of a city or neighborhood. Then they said the people in the favelas are the ones asking for these tours because they want people out there, especially foreigners, to see the reality as opposed to settle for the image the media provides. That was when we finally gave in and agreed to a tour. It was not a cheap endeavor either (65 Reais), but we did what had to be done.



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