Cultural invaders

Here’s a choice: sweat through the working week in a dead end job that pays barely enough to keep body and soul together; or flash about dripping in bling, respected and feared in equal measure, earning and spending in a day the kind of cold cash that weeks of honest labour might not raise. It’s real enough in Rio de Janeiro’s 800 _favelas_ (shanties) where a third of the city’s six million people live. With the rise and rise of drug trafficking in their communities (fuelled by the well-heeled set of this divided city), the favelas have turned into war zones.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this. Between 1948 and 1999 an estimated 13,000 people were killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In contrast, more than 48,000 were gunned down between 1979 and 2000 in Rio.

The drug peddling hierarchy is violent in itself, but its many skirmishes with rival gangs and trigger-happy police have laid low thousands of bystanders. However, the hated trade is firmly intertwined in community life. There is a constant drift of youth into the drug trafficking. And when residents need emergency cash the only people they can turn to are drug bosses.

Leida lives in Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest favelas. She doesn’t want children because she knows how easy it is for them to get drawn into drug crime. ‘You see 10-year-old kids with guns. A _traficante_ [drug trafficker] might be in a bar, drinking and hanging out, and he’ll give the kid a gun. And that kid feels like he’s something. Then they’ll ask him to run a message or deliver some money. The kid becomes an _aviãozinho_ [literally ‘little aeroplane’; a runner or messenger]. That’s it, he’s in.’*

JB, on the other hand, is an insider and he knows the toll the drug business takes. ‘Three or four years in this life feels like an eternity. You don’t sleep; you have nightmares all the time. You see 10 people being murdered all at once. You might be eating your lunch and just next to you someone is quartering a body. Kids are dying here, women there. People are executed for making mistakes. People are betraying each other. You’re being shot at by the police. Your friends are getting killed at your side. You kill police. You’re living in hell and the devil talks to you.’ Today JB has managed to quit the drug scene and is a senior member of AfroReggae, a hope in hell if ever there were one.

AfroReggae is a curious kind of NGO beast. It started work in Rio in 1993, the year that the city was rocked by two separate massacres, of street children and favela residents, in which a total of 29 people were killed. The agency’s goal is to offer gang members a way out of the violence, and to present creative cultural options for children and youth to stop them from getting sucked in to the maelstrom of gang life. AfroReggae’s members must demonstrate discipline (no drinking, smoking or drugs) and adhere to a hierarchy which can be ascended through commitment. José Junior, the organization’s co-ordinator, explains why: ‘AfroReggae consciously mimics the organization of the traffic – our clothes, our structure, even our slang – because we want to mirror what attracts young people.’ Minus the guns and drugs. But plus the self-esteem and creativity that is knocked out of the mainly black favela kids through disadvantage.

When AfroReggae enters a community, it’s after long and painstaking planning. Once they’re in, they make a point of being visible and loud, just like the traffickers, and of staying put, establishing a constant physical presence. They have also arranged meetings with police groups which they call cultural invasions, pitting favela creativity against opposition and enmity.

Music is the backbone of their success. They are fronted by a lively percussion band which has had two major-label album releases and performs all over the world. There are also 12 other groups, including dance, theatre and circus troupes, a samba _bloco_ (a group of moving drummers) and a reggae band. Members offer training to other communities. A band made up entirely of police officers has been set up. There are 60 projects up and running, the most recent being a Centre for Collective Intelligence which offers computer facilities for the community in the Parada de Lucas favela. An internet radio station will start broadcasting from it soon. The message? There is another option to violence – and it’s seriously funky! It’s a message of pride in favela culture which has already touched thousands of lives. •

  • * Quotes and information from _Culture is Our Weapon: AfroReggae in the Favelas of Rio_ by Patrick Neate and Damian Platt (Latin America Bureau, 2006), an account brimming with stories of the people making the change. Thanks to Damian Platt for updates.
  • New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
    You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

    Subscribe   Ethical Shop