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Day 51: Rio de Janeiro

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Tabajaras is one of those shanty towns (favelas) once run by drug barons and now being rehabilitated. Children learn face-painting and making costumes, but basic services are still struggling to cope.
Michael Palin - BrazilIn a favela called Tabajaras, not far from Copacabana, we go to see a symbol of future hope in its most dramatic form. A building high up on the hillside that used to be the headquarters of the drug dealers is to be opened as a Community Centre. Entering a favela is not like crossing the road. Downtown, where the favela meets the rest of Rio, there is a lot of razor wire about, which creates an initial, threatening feeling of entering a community under siege. Then there are certain formalities that have to be observed. You must travel with a local contact and if in a minibus you must keep the windows open so people can see who's inside. Tabajaras, like many of the favelas in the south of Rio, is built on the side of a hill, and the narrow roads are steep. As we climb up the hill, where no one has property valuable enough to protect it with razor wire, Tabajaras becomes like any other poor area. Lively bars, small, crowded shops, lean dogs scavenging at uncollected garbage. Recently erected yellow signs hang from walls and posts, part of an initiative to give the streets names for the first time. It's thought that if they have names they'll be better looked after and therefore less dangerous. And presumably it'll be easier for the police to identify where people live.

As part of the celebrations for the new Community Centre a group called Abrašo da Paz (Hug of Peace) is running a programme of street activities. Face-painting for children, story-reading, drawing, balloons and of course food and drink. 'You must give them something to eat or they won't come along,' one of the organizers tells me.

Juliano, one of those who started Abrašo da Paz back in 2004, long before the place was pacified, is a tall, youngish man with dark floppy hair. He's a designer, white, in his thirties and grew up at the bottom of the hill. His group was set up after a particularly bloody period of gang warfare, in an attempt, as he puts it, to heal the wounds. They now work closely with the UPP, the specially trained police sent in to stabilize the pacified communities.

As we walk together up to the Community Centre he tells me that the most important thing is to bring communities like Tabajaras back into the mainstream of city life. To break down mutual mistrust that's grown over the years. Music is a good bridge-builder. He's brought 'very white' bands up here and they've been well received. He's persuaded a friend of his who's a chef in some smart downtown restaurant to come up to exchange ideas on food and cook with the locals. I ask him how all this has gone down with the favelados, the people who live here. He gives me a slow smile. 'The community is hugging us.'

We turn off the road and begin a long, steep climb up steps receding into the distance ahead of us. Favelados do this twice a day. Many of those who live on the hill take an hour or more to walk to work in the city below. They still have no mains water. A system of pipes collects water off the mountain and distributes it to blue plastic tanks on the rooftops. Unless these are kept securely covered, which they often aren't, breeding mosquitoes spread dengue fever. There is no sewage disposal system at all. Just open drains and gravity.

Two hundred and twenty steps later, we've reached what was once the hub of drug distribution in Tabajaras. From this eyrie, with its bird's-eye view out over the inchoate mass of shanty housing to the high-rises of Rio and the spectacular coastline beyond, a community of many thousands was run by the gangs and their leaders. Today this shell of concrete roofs and walls is full of the noise of children who've never had space like this before, shouting, chasing and eating, whilst well-intentioned charity workers try desperately to interest them in more constructive pursuits. Nothing confirms the change of ownership more starkly than a police band, solemnly dressed in their blue uniforms, belting out jazz and samba at one end of this concrete cavern.

Outside, Rio looks forlorn in the ceaseless rain, but inside, all is hyperactive. It's as if no one can quite believe that they have this new home, and that it's no longer a place to be feared. A group of actors has taken to the stage and they're trying to engage the young audience in participation. Unfortunately someone has just given out whirling rattles. For the moment, anyway, exuberance has the upper hand over education.
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Tabajaras is one of those shanty towns (favelas) once run by drug barons and now being rehabilitated. Children learn face-painting and making costumes, but basic services are still struggling to cope.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 51: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 214

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  • Miscellaneous
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  • Day 34 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 22 
  • Pole to Pole