In 2004 I spent my first holiday in Brazil. I fell in love with Rio de Janeiro instantly. A year later I was back for more. From then on, I started to dream about living in this very exiting city. But my life didn't really change until 2011, when I returned to Rio, but this time to live in its biggest favela, Rocinha.
I would return to live in Rocinha two more times. The community has been like a teacher to me. Here are a few things that I learned from my time there:
Don't listen to the media
From the very first time I went to Rio de Janeiro, the favelas fascinated me. Everywhere I went, I could see a favela located high up a mountain hill. The media loves to talk about favelas as 'warzones', or 'no-go areas', but I did not want to accept this.
A year later, during my second visit to the city, I went to a few favelas. Although a shooting disrupted one of my visits, I had learned enough to know that the image portrayed by the media was not correct. I decided to go back once I could, to learn more.
If I had just accepted what the media, both in Brazil and outside of the country, show us about favelas and the dangers of even being near one, I can honestly say my life would not be what it is today. Never let the media decide how you feel or think about any topic.
Community is a strong word
The word community is a popular word to describe a certain group of people, both online and offline. A lot of times instead of neihgborhood people will use the word community. It was in Rocinha where I learned what this word means, and how strong this is.
A favela is a place where life can be beautiful and difficult at the same time. Beautiful because of the residents, and their outlook on life. Difficult because of the circumstances, which the residents usually have no contol over whatsoever.
This lack of control, when it comes to the gunviolence for example, creates a situation where people feel and know they need to unite. This is definitely also the case regarding the lack of basic infrastructure. What do you do when no government institution looks out for you? You come together, and build things yourself.
Tamu junt, we're together, is a popular saying used in most favelas.
People are good
If you do listen to the media too much, you'll start believing things that they show and talk about. Not everyone who lives in a favela is a criminal. Favelas, and all other communities and ghetto's around the world are home to very hardworking people and loving families.
One night in the favela of Vidigal, I was explaining to an American girl why I chose to be in Rocinha. As I was talking to her, a man passed by who noticed we were also talking about his house. He invited us up, to meet his family. Exactly what I was explaining the girl about how many people in favelas are hospitable.
People are good. We're thaught to be afraid of anyone we don't know, and to see danger everywhere. My experiences of living in a favela, and biking around South America for over 2 months made me realize how much we miss out because of this fear we have of eachother.
My second time in Rocinha, I spent living with a beautiful family who treated me in such an incredible way that I would return to live with them again, this time sharing just 25m2 among the 4 of us.
Tourism is powerful
During my second and third time in Rocinha I was working for my friend's tourcompany. He's build a beautiful business in the last couple of years, that plays an important part in the community. I know Community Tourism is a controversial subject, and I've seen the projects operate within the community that contribute to this negativity.
But projects/businesses led from the community that follow a certain framework, are very important, and play a part in community development. Thanks to tourism, my friend has been able to support many social projects within the community, and also start his own. He is also part of a network that consists out of other tourism businesses, social projects and language schools.
Favela tourism can be just about 'Poorism', and unfortunately, sometimes it is. At the same time, it is also the engine behind some very powerful developments in different favelas across Rio de Janeiro.
Nothing is black or white
Most favelas in Rio de Janeiro are 'dominated'. This means that the favela is either run by a drug gang, or a militia. You might think that living in a neighborhood that is in totalcontrol of a drug gang is a terrible place to live. There are days when this can be true. But most of the time, it's easy to forget their pressence.
Now, what do I mean with nothing is black or white? In most favelas, the pressence of the drug gang brings both good and bad things with it. Many people know about the negative part, which is eagerly shown by media and movies.
During my first time in Rocinha, the favela was dominated by Nem. He was the head of the gang back then, and was loved by a big part of the communtity. Yes, loved. Not hated or ignored by many, but loved by them because of the way he ran the favela.
Nem was known for not looking for confrontation, meaning he would always prefer to pay off the people that he needed to pay. This ment the community could leave in peace, and not always in fear of shoot outs. The gang would also take the responsibility of paying for infrastructure needs. One of the favorite examples of my friends was the Vila Verde soccer pitch.
You would expect a gang that deals in a community, and walks around with heavy fire arms to be hated by residents. The truth is, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the residents don't have another alternative but to live with this. A lot of times, having a gang that provides for the favela and is in charge of the 'security' beats the uncertanty and danger of not having them there.