A British student volunteering in a ‘favela’ in Rio de Janeiro

Article by Paul Finnerty

The first thing you need to understand when you are in a different culture and in a new environment is that there is no reason to be scared.  Without challenging yourself, being prepared to adapt to something different, you won’t progress, and you certainly won’t learn anything.

I spent five months working with a voluntary project living in Ladeira dos Tabajaras, a favela (shanty-town) in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro. I’d say they were the most enjoyable, rewarding, eye-opening, fun days that I’ve ever experienced. The superlatives could go on…

When I first got to Brazil, I was a little disillusioned.  I hadn’t planned anything before arriving; I’d simply bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro in the Months before setting off on my Year Abroad from university, convinced, rightly it happened, that something worthwhile would turn up if only I remained positive.

Being a languages student, the aim at the bottom of it all, I suppose, was to improve my Portuguese. But I’d learn much more about life and what really matters…

I arrived at Galeão airport in Rio, taking a definite step into the unknown. It was only the third time I’d flown. Luckily, Willy, the father of my Portuguese teacher (from England), met me on arrival. He showed me round the city and helped me adapt. He then set me up with a friend of his, and I lived with this guy in his apartment for a few weeks, my University Portuguese seeming a different language, and feeling useless and unoccupied. I had tried finding voluntary work in language schools and with friends of Willy, but nothing came to fruition. I spent a lot of time googling the various permutations of ‘Rio’,  ‘project’, ‘voluntary’, ‘school’, but all I got was the search-engine dominant, hugely immoral agency websites which sell voluntary placements to naive gringos at expanded prices, with hardly anything filtering through to the actual projects. Blatant exploitation. I urge anyone reading this to NEVER pay to volunteer. It’s wholly hypocritical. Everyone who I’ve talked to that is involved with genuine community projects has told me that they find it despicable that these companies exploit poverty and that they run charity as a lucrative business. Any foreigner that pays to volunteer is for me an idiot, trying to bribe their conscience.

So after a few weeks I eventually find a bona fide project, and I contacted the guy who set it up, Leandro, and we arranged to meet. The address being listed as Copacabana, I naively thought that I could find it alone with my newly acquired map and said to him that I would be fine getting there. So on the day I’m asking directions to such a street, and I’m directed up some very steep stairs, on an extremely rainy day, so I’m unable to properly see where these stairs led to. Walking up, I felt more and more like I was leaving the city. And I was. All of a sudden I emerged in a different world, favela. I won’t go to the lengths of making vast descriptions or comparisons at this point, but to say there is a huge difference is an understatement. The honest truth is that I just wandered in there, almost oblivious, but strangely not scared. It turned out that on that day I didn’t find the school, because it wasn’t an actual building, it was a few tables and chairs huddled under a corrugated roof. This was CALLERJ (www.callerj.com). I arranged the following week to meet Leandro again, and I found him.

The school was run in a simple way. English lessons effectively took place on the street from Monday to Wednesday, there was no timetable, between 6 and 10 students turned up when they liked and teachers often taught spontaneously. On the first day I landed in the deep end, but found in me what must be a natural teaching ability, and rattled off a lesson to my first student Conceição. There were also art classes for children, and later there were drama classes, and martial arts. The project was very informal. It was less of a classroom, and more of a mutual cultural exchange. Lessons weren’t dictated out of textbooks. For the more advanced students we just had conversations and gave hints and oral translations. An amazing story is that of Arão. He’d never learnt English in a formal environment, but on the beach where he sold food and drink, and in the street, he’d picked up bits and pieces listening to tourists, and had fine-tuned it with CALLERJ. He spoke excellently, and was an example of what the project was about. Letting people learn something that they enjoy, not for lucrative reasons, but to for self-esteem and to be able to communicate with people from other cultures.

And it was certainly more than just an English class. I felt like part of something special after just a few days. A week after my first class, I decided to move out of my house in the city, on the ‘outside’, and moved ‘inside’ to the favela, sharing it with Leandro and other volunteers. Outside of class, we all spent every moment together, eating, cooking, going out, or even just chatting. My days quickly became 9am to 1am without a moment to myself, and there were only three hours of teaching daily. Whilst in the favela, I never read a book or a newspaper. There was internet but we rarely used it. People actually communicated with each other, we must have talked for hours. I spent a lot of time with Valter, whom I later named my Brazilian father, though he was more like a brother. I was 20, he was 35, but it didn’t matter. We were inseparable. In the favela there was a huge community spirit. Everyone always wanted to be with their friends, there was a need to be close to one another. The house we lived in was no more than the size of a British person’s bedroom, and at times five of us lived there, sleeping in bunk beds. Some days there was no running water and we had to shower with buckets. The toilet didn’t flush so a bucket of water was again needed. But material things became immaterial. More important are people, and at the end of the day, riches and flashy possessions doesn’t bring happiness and profound, genuine friendship.

Rio de Janeiro is famous for its crime rates. The irony which people don’t realise is that the favelas are the safest parts of the city. You will never be mugged or attacked, whereas strolling down the beach is the worst place to be at night. There are unwritten favela rules, determined by the gangs that run the communities. Many are strictly no-police zones. Not wanting to glamourise the notoriety of the favelas, I won’t say much more than that ‘security’ inside is eye-opening. Again, there are no immediate dangers as long as you watch how others behave and take advice from friends within the community.

I possibly arrived at a good time. Liliana, a volunteer from the US, really had her heart in the project and delayed her flight for a month to help the project grow.  We put up posters and had events to raise awareness. The attendance crept up, and with that came a need for extra volunteers. Having handfuls of students of different levels, turning up at different times, wanting to learn in a different way, was challenging for just two of us, but I thrived on the challenge and tried to accommodate everyone, who knowing the classes to be voluntary, were patient and appreciative. Soon after Liliana left, a lot more volunteers became involved, and we began to network. More people knew about CALLERJ. Everyone had lots of ideas to help the project grow and reach many more people in the community of over 15,000. Through contacts we arranged to hold classes in a community building, and at one stage there were over 15 volunteers, Brazilians and foreigners alike, doing many additional classes, offering their skills and teaching capoeira, art, yoga and many more things.

When I had to leave the project I realised the need to carry on a chain of volunteers. It had had such an effect on me that I wanted to it to continue to strive as much as it could in my absence. I contacted friends and university colleagues who were contemplating going to Brazil as part of their Year Abroad and since I left, approximately 15 more students from the University of Nottingham have been involved with CALLERJ.

We had high hopes, and even pondered turning the project into an ONG, which was a disputed issue. People had different ideas for the project and maybe we were a bit naive and expected too much of the project and wanted to expand too quickly. There were plans to incorporate more classes, which would be timetabled and organised more strictly, to fit in all the volunteers and get the community more involved. But that’s where some conflict within the group began. What had been a simple affair, classes in the street, teachers and students both flexible, now assumed a large degree of responsibility and was making a commitment to the community. At the outset we had an excellent core group of volunteers and Brazilians from the favela, led by Leandro, who I must point out worked full-time and studied as well as being involved in the project. The major issue was whether the project could be sustained in the future, as many of the volunteers could not stay forever. To take on a responsibility within the community needed a constant flow of committed, focused volunteers to follow us, which didn’t necessarily happen.

Volunteers can easily be distracted by the charms of Copacabana beach and the carioca nightlife, and some forget that they went to Rio de Janeiro to do voluntary work first and foremost. The project suffered a little through this. Teachers sometimes made commitments to teaching hours and didn’t follow them through. The knock-on effect was that students became disillusioned and maybe wouldn’t return. When we first moved to the new building in January 2009, shortly before I left, there was an encouraging response. The classes were filled, 30 kids doing capoeira and Jujitsu, three English classes with about ten students each, and a new syllabus which we had designed for the classes. Due to what I principally believe to be a result of uncommitted and dishonest volunteers, numbers dwindled, but there are still classes today, maybe not as many, perhaps with less students than anticipated.

It’s important to have realistic objectives in voluntary work and not get too carried away with growth. In hindsight we might have taken things more slowly and had more patience. After all, it’s not about numbers of students and statistics, it’s about maintaining a safe and trusting environment in which community comes together and people have the opportunities they may not have otherwise had. Ultimately, you can’t change the world, but if you can change one person’s life, convince one child that education is worthwhile, that they are worth just as much as everybody else, that they can turn their backs on the lucrative lure of organised crime, then the objective is complete.

There will always be major challenges with any favela community project, you have to remember that you’re dealing with people from a different culture who have certainly endured more difficult lives than the average overseas volunteer. Things won’t always go smoothly, but you have to be tough and work through difficult experiences. In my opinion, some volunteers weren’t strong or committed enough, and were in some cases selfish. Thankfully, the Brazilians behind the project are wholly committed to the cause, and there have also been plenty of hard-working volunteers that have made valuable contributions to it. It will keep going on strong and needs continuity and commitment. The ethic remains the same: bringing cultures together through a mutually beneficial exchange.

This isn’t to detract from the necessity for volunteers with these projects. It’s just a simple warning that volunteer work is serious, and not something on the side. Anyone who becomes involved with community projects like CALLERJ is extremely lucky to have that opportunity. Voluntary work is one of the most rewarding things that you can do.

More information about CALLE can be found at www.callerj.com

I also worked with another wonderful project in Rio de Janeiro for the duration of my stay, but fitting its details into this article would complicate it further. Their website is www.ciacac.org.

Another article that I compiled on the new phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’, gives a further insight into volunteering in Latin America and things that would-be volunteers should consider, and can be found at: http://www.theargentimes.com/socialissues/development/voluntourism-holiday-or-help-/

3 Responses to A British student volunteering in a ‘favela’ in Rio de Janeiro

  1. Tanmay Davé says:

    Hi Paul,

    Your article was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it since I have been trying so hard to find out more about CalleRJ over the past two months. I cannot seem to access the English translation of the website and I’ve been trying to contact Joan (i.e. the name of the contact person given on worldwidehelpers.org). I have many questions about Calle b/c I’d like to do some work there (short-term) for about three weeks in May.

    About myself: I live in Toronto, Canada and I’m 26. I am a current student in Education who will be certified to teach for elementary education in August. I have a Bachelor’s in Science and a Master’s in Environmental Studies. My Portuguese is not that great (beginner’s level at most), but my Spanish is okay as I’ve been taking some classes for the past year. I made a trip down to South America in 2008 to do some work in Ecuador at an orphanage, so I’m familiar with the idea of volunteering in a new country and culture, but I’ve never been to Rio.

    I admire your committment to such a program and it’s disappointing that some of the volunteers were not as driven to work as you may have been. I just wanted to get a better sense of the program though. Here are a few of my questions:

    1. Do they have room for short-term volunteers like myself?
    2. I know you pointed out the accomodations are modest, but if there is no more room to stay at the volunteer home are there affordable hostels nearby?
    3. What are the costs for the program?
    4. What are the requirements?
    5. Perhaps most important, who is/are the primary person(s) to contact and what is the best method to do this?

    Paul, I don’t even know if this message will get to you or not, but I really appreciate your blog info and your assistance. Please do respond to the address I’ve provided when you get a chance. Thanks again and hope you’re doing well!

    Sincerely, Tanmay Dave

  2. Hi if you want to volunteer in Africa-Kenya please check out http://www.mapdinchil.org
    Or write to mapdinchilvolunteer@gmail.com

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