A Visit to Two Favelas:
O Morro do Borel and Indiana, Tijuca
18 June, 1996
Walking through a favela can often overwhelm the senses. Gaudy, bright store signs and multicolored soccer shirts glare in stark contrast to the worn concrete, faded paint, spattered mud and all too frequent dark heaps of garbage around the mouths of twisted alleyways.
Music and another soccer game blare so loudly from radios on windowsills and store counters that most of the words are rendered incomprehensible. A gaunt, possibly drunk, possibly insane old man rants from a narrow corner while venders in stalls and through the alleys hawk their goods as you pass by them. Children, laughing, crying, shouting, dart past in cramped passageways, occasionally brushing up against or even running right into you. The smell of smoke from burning garbage, grilling meat and diesel fuel exhaust, of untreated sewage flowing through a gray, rubbish-choked stream of urine and cheap perfume, of rotting discarded meat and produce, of simmering feijoada, freshly-baked bread and cakes and hot Brazilian coffee blend together, creating, at least for me, the most potent reminder of where I am. Nothing, and by no means is this intended to be derogatory, smells quite like a favela.
Such was what filled my senses as I walked through the labertine alleyways of one of Rio's larger--and more violent---shantytown areas, the favelas O Morra da Borel (Borel Hill) and Indiana, located in the barrio Tijuca. I was with Paulo Correa, General Director of Roda Viva's Projecto Comunidade Construindo O Futuro (Community Constructing the Future Project) en route to visit two of the projects that Roda Viva, in conjunction with local government authorities and other Rio-based education NGOs had organized with local community members.
Created in 1988, Comunidade has evolved into a series of innovative community-level education projects aimed at the children, adolescents and adults forced to live in the extremely adverse and frequently violent conditions of Indiana and Borel. At present, the project is comprised of three different programs designed in conjunction with community members to meet the diverse needs over 600 children and adults living in these favelas. "Programa A" provides a comprehensive elementary education program from grades 1-4 for the most economically disadvantaged children of the community. "Programa B" trains local community members to participate in the creation and implementation of art education programs, again aimed at children grade levels 1-4 from the lowest income families. Finally "Programa C" is training local community members to develop sports and recreation programs for the children and adolescents in the community keeping them playing "basquetebol" or "futebol" and out of trouble.
Perched on a long concrete plateau at the foot of Borel is the spacious, airy somewhat weather-beaten building in which many of Comunidade's activities take place. Officially a municipal public education facility, the building is now used jointly by municipal authorities, Roda Viva staff and various other NGOs involved in educational programs aimed at Rio's most economically marginalized children. In addition to helping to provide a staff of competent teachers trained in modern educational techniques, the building facilities include textbooks, VCRs and educational videos, and even computers to help the staff carry out administrative tasks.
After meeting the faculty and sharing a few words of English with some inquisitive 2nd graders, a staff meeting was held with the teachers and representatives from Roda Viva that had arrived after us. Later Paulo took me through yet another series of contorted alleyways (how anyone ever finds their way around the favela is beyond me) to meet with another teacher and her students that held class in a facility outside of the main building. Located on the second floor of one of the countless narrow houses that line the alleys of the favela, the class was comprised solely of one room with cinderblock walls painted bright blue and plastered with maps and colorful pictures that the students had cut from magazines or made themselves. In roughly a dozen battered desks sat the students, a cheerful bunch of youths aged 10 to around 16, all intensely curious as to why "um Americano" was visiting them.
Before I could muster up enough Portuguese to explain who I was and why I was there, they all began to clamor around me, asking what each of their names were in English. After having more luck translating some(Patricia) than others (Geraline?), we started to exchange popular American and Brazilian phrases. Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short when Paulo, who up until that time had been talking with the instructor, said it was time to go. I asked the class to write a list of popular Brazilian phrases for me, and when I came back to visit I would have a list of American phrases ready for them. "We'll be able to speak English then, after you come back?" asked Jacqueline a round-faced girl around 13 years old. "Well almost," I answered, grinning. "Legal!" (roughly Cool!), she said, grinning back.
After Paulo promised the class that he would bring the Americano back in the near future, we walked back to the school building, met the other Roda Viva representatives and piled into a car that one of them had driven to the favelas. As we pulled out onto the main road, we passed an elegant but imposing colonial-style building surrounded by well-tended grounds and high security gates. Earlier that day, before going into Borel and Indiana, Paulo had pointed the building out to me. It was the "colegio" of Sao Jos?, one of the most expensive private school in all of Rio de Janeiro. 0 I Couldn't help but note the cruel but somewhat comic irony that this huge symbol of wealth and privileges sat no more that a few blocs from the foot of Borel, starring directly into the favelas. But then again, irony is something that never seems to be in short supply in Rio.