Life in a favela in Rio, for Froh Magazin

A personal account of the first year of living in a favela in Rio

The article “Greifbar Fern” (original english title: 399 steps) was written for the Bewegung (Movement) issue of Froh Magazin, from Germany. It is a personal essay about how I ended up living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, what I was trying to do there, and what were some of the experiences and challenges of the initial year. The English version below was shared at Medium.

399 steps

life in a favela in Rio

Original text published in Froh Magazin (2013)

it’s 5:30 am and I was awakened by a very strong sound. It sounded like a deep-bass blast rippling for a couple seconds, and it automatically made my heart freeze. I hadn’t heard this specific type of gunshot in the 7 months I’ve lived here. It’s one of those moments that make me question everything I’m doing. Am I safe? Is it all worth the risk? The gunshots repeat about 15 times, superimposing a very loud sound of ‘brazilian funk’ coming from a community party.

Noise is present here 24 hours a day — it becomes a company and you learn to go to sleep regardless of what is playing, or how loud it is. There’s no stillness, there’s always something going on, and you need to keep up. But at the same time a certain inertia takes control and it feels like although everyone is always on the move, we’re not going anywhere.

Just beside my house there’s a jukebox located in a bar and it is activated day and night by the dealers who are working on a drug sales point. Sometimes I get positively surprised by what gets played, although for most part it is the popular songs with crime-inciting or sexual lyrics, very often the “proibidão”. The music sets the mood, or better to say, the mood sets the music. I have learned to read the cues that the environment give me — the noise and the music tell me when I should be cautious.

It’s been 7 months since I’m living in this slum in Rio, and honestly I feel exhausted. It’s not only the physical exhaustion of always being on the move and trying to keep up with what goes on in the community — connecting with people, facing long bus rides to go to work, going from south to north in the city, going up and down the stairs, changing clothes to and from work so I don’t stand out — but it’s also a mental exhaustion of living in different worlds and absorbing so much information. During the day I work for big companies, I design and present strategic recommendations often for boards of directors. At night I go back home and watch tv with an unemployed neighbor, or chat with an acquainted crack addict on the way. The information overload makes me fatigued, and when all this information doesn’t translate into actionable projects, frustration comes around.

It’s really hard to put things on the move, specially in an environment like this, with so many obstacles and needs, and that’s when inertia wins for a few moments. When I realize that I’m dealing with people’s lives, with a complexity of relationships, desires and needs, I start rethinking over and over again. It’s not just a project, where you can fail and fail until you get it right. Of course failure needs to be embraced, but I need to be very conscious of the consequences of anything I do here.

What moves me is the will to create change, to use my skills to make someone else’s life better, and this inquiry is what made me move to a favela. My long-term dream is to build a citizen innovation hub in the community, to empower citizens with certain tools and methods that could be useful in generating solutions for existing problems (i.e. strategic design), and to produce artifacts and means that would give them more visibility and voice. The hub is meant as place for co-production of solutions and knowledge exchange, configured as a social business. It could act as an intermediary among people from the community — who have needs, ideas and can benefit from learning new skills — and enterprises, who want to understand and shape products and services for this emerging market in Brazil.

Implementing something like this in a favela being controlled by drug dealers isn’t an easy task, I’m well aware of, so I decided to start with smaller projects that wouldn’t jeopardize my safety. Even though, any movement brings with it a load of questions and fears: how will the drug dealers react to the projects I’m coming up with? Will people engage? Am I capable of actually creating change? Do I have structure to go through with this? It’s a constant assessment of what I’m doing, for whom, why, and when.

I still have that dream, but I have put it on hold for now. Living here has given me so many different perspectives that it became impossible to try to install something like that here. I realized that if I had come up with any project at the beginning, it would have been a failure, for the simple reason that I didn’t understand the community that well, or didn’t have enough bonds here for it to work. I also realized the enormous potential there is here, and in many other underprivileged communities I visit, from where really amazing things can come out of. So instead of trying to implement what I wanted at first place, I started to figure out what people wanted and to see how my skills could serve them. This has been my main pursuit: instead of coming up with more ideas, I want to be the person who supports this process of each one finding out their own way and having the confidence to put their ideas, desires, projects forward. It’s a sign of respect as I see it.

Meanwhile, I started acting in another community with a network of people interested in sharing knowledge about open social technologies and using them to create value together with people. The challenges are different there — the State (police) has recently taken control over the territory (unlike the place where I live, which is still territorially controlled by the drug dealers), and there is less security threats now. But many difficulties remain the same. It’s really hard to engage people into anything long term; as a pattern it seems like people get scared when attention is put onto them, and they feel the need of backing off. In their entire lives, many of those people have been told they are not worth the same as other people, that they don’t have the same capacity as others, and when someone comes and proves them the contrary, it’s a scary process of discovery of this new self. All this takes time, and that’s something that entrepreneurs are uneasy about. My time is different than other person’s time, which is differente than that of a community. I just had to learn how to deal with it and control anxiety, and I’ve been working hard on that.

I must though admit that quitting has crossed my mind a few times. The first time was when I was close to my house, and I saw a man covered in blood, only wearing pants, and he was losing streams of blood from a severe injury in the head done by a riffle butt. No one dared to go help him and all I could think about was that this man was dying right there in front of me. Very likely he wasn’t from the community, he had probably done something wrong, he had been beaten by drug dealers, his family didn’t know he was there, and there is a big chance that he dies there and gets buried as a pauper. All I could think of was his family, and although my reasoning told me to stay away because that could cause me serious trouble, I stopped and asked his name and where he lived. I stayed with him until rescue came, passed on the information to the police officer and ran away. I was shaking, nervous and frightened, and I didn’t go back there for a few days, worried that someone would think I had gotten information and denounced to the police, or maybe merely that I would get punished for trying to help him and messing with things that “don’t concern me”.

A few other times I thought of quitting: the first time there was a police operation and heavy shootings just by my house — I remember crawling to the corner of my room, wishing no one would enter my house escaping from the police; the first time the police went into my house during an operation; the time I ended up, by myself, in the middle of a drug dealers reunion, being stared by them and their huge guns; and lastly the first time I was in the middle of a confrontation between police and drug dealers, and had to protect myself from gunshots behind a car wheel, sitting beside and being protected by an acquainted crack addict.

When things like this happen, I usually get scared, but it somehow fades away quickly. I feel this is a sign that I’m really up to something worth running these risks, that I do have a purpose. At the same time I understand that all these stressful moments are part of the experience and understanding I was looking for, they are part of what it is to live in a place like this, part of empathyzing. And the more I know people here, the least fearful I am. I’m realizing fear is a product of the unknown.

And all these bad experiences are totally set aside when amazing things happen. I became really good friends with my neighbour. She got pregnant right after I moved in, and our friendship grew very rapidly. One day she asked me to be her baby’s godmother — this was one of the happiest and scariest moments since I’ve lived here. At the same time that I was happy that this little child was going to enter my life, I realized I would have a bond for life with the people from the community. That’s when I realized it’s not a project anymore, it’s my life as well, and other people’s lives. Although up to now I have only talked about the bad sides, living here has been one of the most heartwarming experiences I’ve had. It’s a place where I was embraced since day one, where life is really full of expressions of joy, where people help each other, where there is always a reason to celebrate, and I wish everyone could experience that some day. All the learnings and experiences I’ve had up to now have been worth the life change I had to go through, facing family and friends who were at times frightened, at times disencouraging, and taking the risk to do something very daring and unusual.

When I get frustrated, or exhausted, all I think of are the faces of the people I’m getting to know here. I think of how our lives can be better, and how people from other parts of the city, or the world, can learn from our lives in favelas. And that we stop looking at people as “the other” — it’s people who simply grew up in different conditions, who have so much we can learn from, and who are eager to get that equal treatment, to move up.

I also want to move up. The other day I counted how many steps I take to go from the bottom of the favela to my house (yes, I have this weird habit of counting stuff!). On the last step the count was 399 and I was incredibly frustrated that I missed the 400 just by one step. I felt the stairs were trying to give me a message: stay humble and keep moving.

All Recent Work