Sanctuary for children of the favelas
- By The Global Fund for Children on December 17th, 2012
- Category: Featured, Financial Times, Latin America and the Caribbean, News
By Joe Leahy, Financial Times
December 17, 2012
Most people’s mornings begin with a cup of coffee or tea. On the day the FT visited her, Leidimar Alves Machado’s breakfast was interrupted by a gunfight between police and the drug traffickers who control her neighbourhood.
“I was woken at 6.50am by the sound of firing right at my doorstep. I thought I was dreaming,” says the community worker in the Nova Aliança favela, or slum, in Bangu, western Rio de Janeiro. “When I came out on my veranda, I saw police on the corners of all the streets.”
A few hours later, the heavily armed gangsters in the area were still tense after the confrontation, in which one of their members was apparently killed. But things already seemed to be returning to what is regarded as normal in a neighbourhood that could not be geographically or spiritually further away from the tourist paradises of Copacabana or Ipanema in Rio’s south.
The only reminder of the beach here in this dusty inland suburb is a battered surfboard that inexplicably occupies a corner of Ms Machado’s office, the Nucleo Socio-Cultural Caixa de Surpresas (Jack-in-the-Box cultural centre). A charity providing cultural and sports activities for local children to build up their self-esteem and confidence, Caixa de Surpresas is supported by the Global Fund for Children, the FT’s partner in this year’s seasonal appeal.
With a grant of $8,000, GFC, which funds grassroots organisations that work with vulnerable children, is funding a programme here known as “constructing citizenship through creative arts”, enabling 150 children to take part in two-hour classes combining creative arts, therapeutic exercises and human rights education. Caixa de Surpresas is also innovative for its emphasis on women’s issues and Afro-Brazilian musical productions, important in a country in which more than half of the population has ethnic African roots.
“This is like my second home, where I have peace,” says Lenilson Oliveira Nascimento, a skinny 18-year-old with a carefully spiked Mohican hairdo, who started with Caixa when he was 13 or 14 years old. Now a teacher of hip-hop dancing at the centre, he comes to Caixa “by skateboard” from another favela 20 minutes away to deliver his classes.
“I can’t dance at my home over there in the favela. There is no space and my mother says there’s no future in it,” he says.
In a region the government has forgotten, and where the main role models are the drug traffickers, Caixa de Surpresas is not just a charity but a source of everything that is missing in the wider community – education, a sense of family, pride, even hope itself.
The group’s founder, Waldemir dos Santos Corrêa, says Bangu’s favelas were the product of a government resettlement programme that also led to the creation of Cidade de Deus, made famous by the 2002 movie known in English as City of God. The idea was people would work in nearby factories, but when these shut down social ills set in – drugs, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence. Meanwhile, the number of prisons in the area increased.
“If you don’t educate you must build prisons,” says Mr Corrêa.
The average income in the area is about one or two minimum wages, or R$622-R$1,244 ($300-$600) per household, according to Caixa. This compares with Brazil’s per capita income of about $11,800 a year in 2011. Often this income is cobbled together from government grants and social welfare schemes. Single parent homes are the norm.
“Lots of the boys I have worked with over the years have been shot. To do social work in the community in which you live is very painful, more painful than rewarding,” Mr Corrêa says.
A feature of Caixa, which was formally registered in 2003, is the children’s sense of ownership over the centre, an old government building they occupied in 2007. One star student is 16-year-old Daniela Tavares. Now an under-17 state judo champion, she enlisted in the various classes at Caixa, such as percussion and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, before eventually settling on her passion, judo, which she now teaches to students with the help of a grant from GFC.
This voyage of personal discovery would have been impossible at the local school, which has little space for extracurricular activities and is often the scene of shoot-outs.
Daniela’s pride is evident as she introduces her prize student, Mateus. The 13-year-old started learning judo with her in April and has already come third in a major competition.
“He used to come here after school to play ping-pong. He saw judo and he liked it,” says Daniela, while Mateus, who looks younger than his age, gives a sheepish grin.
Two more local stars are Dayana Conceicao and her sister Dayane, twins aged 22. Dayana grew up at Caixa and now teaches theatre, while Dayane teaches dance. Dayana’s troop has performed around Rio and in other cities, including São Paulo.
“Many times we have performed in communities controlled by rival drug factions,” she says.
The activities at the centre give children the confidence to explore the world beyond the favela, Dayana says, disrupting the cycle of poverty in which they are trapped.
“We are breaking the psychology of ‘you are born here and will die here’. You are not limited in your story. You don’t have to be a gangster, or use drugs or leave school just because the local society says so.”
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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.