“The higher you climb, the blacker it gets.” The social and ethnic ladders are turned upside down in the favelas, the informal hillside settlements in Rio de Janeiro.
“At the bottom of the hills, you see white people, higher up we have mulattos and right at the top are the blacks,” says anthropologist Alexandre Nascimento. “And the blacks are the poorest.”
“There’s never been full ethnic equality in Brazil,” Nascimento explains. “After slavery was abolished in 1888, blacks were told they couldn’t live in the city’s low-lying areas; they had to go up the morros, up the hills, and see for themselves how to survive.”
The situation has certainly improved since, but prejudice remains. In fact, racial bias is so ingrained that “some black parents discourage kids from going to school, because if they know how to read and write, they will no longer be black.”
On the hilltops, there’s no running water, no electricity, no sewage, no hygiene. Public services don’t exist, police are nowhere to be seen. “For kids, there’s no school, no work, no fun, no future,” says Anouk Piket, founder and director of the Dutch Caramundo charity. “So, the youngsters get bored, many turn to drugs or get sucked up into crime rings.”
Caramundo has helped brighten up the lives and future of these underprivileged youths. It’s assisted in the lobbying process needed to upgrade the only football field and swimming pool in the favelas of Sampaio, Matriz and Sấo Joấo. It’s provided material support (soccer shirts, equipment, etc.) and advice to community leaders in their efforts to maintain the sports complex. Their local initiative has now become Rio’s largest favela football competition.
Marcấo is one of the three driving forces behind the project. “I buy the balls and the trophees,” he says. “I collect the fees from the teams, which is about five to ten reais (up to five euros), and I pay the referee. Like his fellow volunteers, Poronga and Aluiso, he’s spent most of his free time around the sports complex for the past 14 years.
There’s little financial backing and government support is erratic. “We have floodlights, but we’re still waiting for a local official to come and switch them on,” Poronga sighs. “Apparently, they’re still quarrelling at the council to decide who can get the credit.”
No crowd trouble
Meanwhile tempers flare on the pitch. With minutes left to play, Sấo Joấo has taken a 3-2 lead on the home team, Sampaio. When the referee dishes out a red card, dozens of supporters invade the pitch. The embattled ref sticks to his guns. A tense calm returns among the 200-strong crowd. The agitation doesn’t spiral out of control.
“Fair play and respect must be observed at all times,” Anouk Piket explains. “There is a strict code of conduct, which every team adheres to, even those from rivaling favelas.”
“Everyone is keenly aware of the benefits of the project. The field provides a safe haven, the matches bring people together. They stimulates commercial activity, with people selling food and drinks, and little things.”
There’s also a less visible, more lasting impact.
“This football project has inspired and stimulated people to take a different course in their lives. Many youngsters have gone back to school of chosen a job to sustain their families. Some have even started their own projects to help others.”
The latter category includes anthropologist Alexandre and favela elder Poronga. They’re contemplating creating a small plantation right on the Sampaio hilltop. Between the clay, African-style huts, there’s a small stretch of land now used as a rubbish tip, home to scores of scavenging, pigs, dogs and rats.
“We’re calling the project ‘garbage revolution’, Alexandre explains. “We’ll recycle the organic waste, turning it into fuel, the rest we’ll use as substract to support plants.”
And it all started with a football competition, the Caramundo director stresses.
“If you’re able to get people really involved in positive activities like football, art or education, then the young generation might be kept off the path of crime. And that’s the basic idea of what we’re doing, but it takes time, many years, much much longer than half a decade.”