Poverty. Drugs. Violence. These are all common synonyms when one mentions the word favela. A favela is a common term used for the slum areas in Brazil. In Rio they are the informal communities that have grown up the hillsides, home of millions of people in Sao Paulo. From one perspective they are a haven for informal markets, unregistered housing violence and the center of drug trafficking. Although this perception of favelas is accurate to some extent, it is also a home to thousands upon millions of people, working hard to earn a living, contributing to a diverse culture and the intricate stronghold of a dichotomized society.
On my recent stop through Rio de Janeiro, I was in contact with a start up NGO, Two Brotherâ€™s Foundation, to teach English in the largest favela in Brazil, Rocinha. I had done a lot of research on favelas for my Latin American classes at George Washington University and internship with the Brazilian Embassy. I had spent over a year studying in Bahia, and learned the syndicated realities beyond the drugs and violence of favelas. I learned that in these areas of some of the most extreme poverty, people are vibrant, happy and have more zest for life than anyone. Unfortunately, I was only passing through Rio, acting as a tour guide for my brother and his girlfriend on a Brazilian tour and was unable to commit my time to volunteer with the organization. However, I did get the chance to enter Rochinha, and witness with my own eyes, the beautiful and vibrant way of life in a place often written off by the â€œsophisticatedâ€ or â€œeducatedâ€ world.
Along with an influx of NGOs, the communities have also started to convey their messages beyond violence and drugs. An organization called Be a Local started up as a tourist friendly tour of the favela. Their target is primarily in the hostels of Rio, young travelers who are looking for real contact with Brazilian culture. Be a Local has a very good reputation for safety, as they advertise for your to bring your camera. Inside the favela, the normal government and police have written off jurisdiction, the drug traffickers are usually the ones who take on the role of governmental issues. They maintain order, and the well known code of the favela is that there should be no crimes committed inside the community. The Be a Local tour is run by someone high up in the food chain of the intricate system of informal governance, thus the community respects the tourists, and have a great reputation.
The typical tour starts at the entrance to the favela where you ride a motorcycle taxi to the top of the hill. There you can appreciate the views of Rio from a vantage point not many people see. The tour guide takes you down the main drag of the favela, to their main attraction, a daycare center. A portion of the money from the tours goes to the daycare center, to help it grow and expand as the demand is ever increasing. The tourists are encouraged to play with the children, as well as learn about where their contributions are going and see what kinds of projects the community has set up to help its people in need. Many tourists, when interviewed afterwards have dubbed the experience â€œOne of the most rewarding things I have done in my life.â€ There are not many tours in the world that offer such an up close view of often forgotten populations. The efforts of Be a Local, as well as the work of many non profits are dedicated to change the common stereotypes of favelas, help its people overcome poverty and create a better, positive and open minded life for everyone.