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Day 55: Rio de Janeiro

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Giant graffiti on the wall of an abandoned warehouse in the old docks area, now finding new life as a cultural quarter.
Michael Palin - BrazilOur minders arrive, and once again we're warned to keep the windows of our vehicle open. This time there'll be no police to help us. Our safety is in the hands of whoever runs the favela. It's best not to ask too many questions. In fact Maré looks a lot more solid and substantial than the favelas that overlook Copacabana. Maybe it's just that it's built on the flat, maybe because it's been here longer. Favelas are not a new phenomenon. The first shanty town grew up here at the start of the twentieth century when they drained the swamp, and a lot of the workforce who built Rio's airport were settled here. The houses are of brick and plaster rather than scraps of wood and tin sheeting, and there are busy streets full of shops and businesses.

At the far end of the network of streets there's a patch of green open land, on one side of which runs the road to the airport, screened off by a high fence. The last building before this is the smartest in the favela. Tall, modern, with a curved metal roof and walls painted and tiled sky-blue, the legend 'Luta Pela Paz' boldly picked out on the front. Even before I go inside I can hear what it is that makes this particular charity so different. It's the sound of trainers squeaking on the floor and the thud and smack of boxing gloves. The door opens into a small lobby off which is a sparkling clean, state-of-the-art gym full of sparring couples. There are a number of girls among them. All wear expressions of serious concentration as they duck and jab and swing. There is some fast and very impressive punching. In amongst these almost entirely black faces is a tall, rangy white man. Luke Dowdney is in his mid-thirties. He is a boxer himself, a British Universities Middleweight Champion. His face looks as if it might have taken a few blows, but he was undefeated in eighteen amateur fights. Restless, ambitious and articulate, he runs through the history of this place as we sit together on the side of a boxing ring.

A dissertation on street kids for an anthropology degree at Edinburgh University first brought Luke to Rio in 1995. He came back to work for a big Brazilian non-governmental organization and was frustrated at how hard it was to get through to children involved in street violence. 'If you walk out at night-time here, you'll see kids holding automatic weapons. They're working for the drug trade.'

From his previous experience of the sport, he had the idea that a boxing club might be an ideal way of luring these children off the streets, without expecting them to change their lives overnight. 'Boxing is about fighting, but without guns,' he says.

Created in 2000, the Fight for Peace formula proved its worth. Not only did the mix of boxing and martial arts offer an alternative to the drug trade, it's also been a success in itself. Last week they won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Brazilian National Championships and they have one man currently in the Brazilian Olympic team. And the boxing instruction comes with a commitment to education. Fight for Peace is not just a short-term diversion, it's a long-term attempt to change damaged lives. In partnership with the Brazilian Ministry of Education, they run courses in primary and secondary education, job-training and youth leadership. At the moment they have 275 people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine studying here. Success has brought in funds from charities like Comic Relief and Save the Children as well as company sponsorship from British Airways and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

When Luke takes me up on the roof and points out the realities of life here, it all seems slightly surreal. Maré was the only favela in Rio where three of the city's four main drug factions had a base. He points out streets not far away – 'just over by that school' – where the walls are riddled with bullet holes, simply because it was on the front line between rival gangs' territory. One of the achievements of Fight for Peace has been to open outposts of the main building in other parts of the favela, so children can take advantage of what they offer without having to cross gang lines. Maré, like many other similar favelas, is being rebranded as a bairro, a community, but Luke says it'll take more than a new name to change the old image. The task, first and foremost, is to get the street kids away from their weapons.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 55: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 226

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