In the months leading up to Rio 2016, Brazil’s capability to host the 31st Olympiad had come under immense scrutiny. Concerns over water quality, fears over the Zika virus, the unbearable state of the Olympic Village and worries over the city’s security measures forced many athletes to withdraw from competing before the Games even began. There has, however, always been a greater issue facing the country’s second most populous city. The divide between the rich and the poor has been an ongoing problem since the late nineteenth century, and the announcement that Rio de Janeiro would become the first city in South America to host the Olympics has done nothing to patch up this bitter relationship. As the Brazilian government poured money into making the city an adequate place to stage the world’s most renowned sporting event, areas in greater need of assistance were, as they always have been, ignored and forgotten about.
During July I experienced life in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela. Situated in Rio de Janeiro, it is reportedly home to well over 100,000 people. As the city’s preparations for the Olympics continued, the negative media spotlight that existed at the World Cup two years ago returned to criticise Rocinha again. A hotspot for threatening drug traffickers and a violent reputation for crime, the favela was branded a dangerous territory, an area to be strictly avoided by tourists. In reality, this could not be much further from the truth.
A determined and proud community, Rocinha has a history of cultural diversity where everybody is of equal value. Most residents are hardworking, caring and honest, going about their normal lives despite living in a difficult environment. The busy, energetic streets give the place its own identity, and the constant party atmosphere gives character to what is already an extraordinary favela. From the day I arrived until the day I left, there was never a dull moment.
I came to Rocinha to volunteer for Project Favela, a non-profit organisation. Operating a school that provides an Early Childhood Education Program, as well as coaching football to children in the area, the project aims to create opportunities that have the ability to transform realities. Giving something back to a community that needs it most, as well as coaching the world’s most famous sport to the kids of Brazil, was an unforgettable experience.
Referred to by the locals as a gringo (foreigner), I always felt safe. The inclusion I received from the community was unique and unlike any other place I have ever visited. Although certain areas of the favela are controlled by drug traffickers, I never felt uncomfortable or in serious danger. Crimes committed inside Rocinha are very rare and are frowned upon by the community. Tension and conflict are almost non-existent.
From my four weeks in Rio, I realised quite quickly that I was much safer inside the favela than I was outside in the main city. In Rocinha I felt welcomed and the residents knew exactly why I was there. In Rio’s main tourist areas, such as Copacabana and Lapa, I felt like a constant target for criminals.
The residents of Rocinha suffer from deprived living conditions, many live without the most basic services but despite this, the community still takes pride in keeping their favela as clean as possible. Banks, supermarkets, fitness centres and pharmacies make it a city within a city where everyone serves a purpose. The damaging stereotype this community continues to suffer from seriously undermines the hard work and perseverance of the thousands who live there. Many are striving to better their lives and they deserve to know that not everyone perceives them in a negative light. Rocinha is a special place and it needs to be recognised for that.