Slum tourism doesn’t strike me as a pleasant concept and as I boarded a minibus to travel to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro I was worried that was exactly what I was about to take part in. I had no stomach for visiting a human zoo yet a couple of people whose judgement I trust had suggested I visit a favela with this company, ‘Be A Local’, so I wanted to approach it with an open mind.
The term favela refers to a shanty town; illegal housing built by residents and the name comes from the favela plant which is common in the northern Brazilian state of Bahia. One of the first favelas was built by soldiers returning from the civil war in the state of Bahia and they nicknamed their shanty town Favela Hill after the plants they had been familiar with during their army service. The name stuck. Favelas are a significant part of life in Rio with around 1 in 5 of the population living in one and Rocinha alone is thought to house around 250,000 people.
Rocinha’s streets are far too narrow to be negotiated by a vehicle, so the Be A Local tour travels through on foot. This is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with people that many of the population of Rio considers to be nothing be criminals. In fact this isn’t true. Although the favela itself is controlled by the drugs gang Amigos do Amigos (friends of friends) and you can see the gangs tag, ADA, around the favela, the majority of Rocinha’s residents are ordinary, decent people who have low paying jobs and are trying to raise a family.
Once the tour got underway, my apprehensions drifted away, and I felt really privileged to get an insight into a warm and friendly community. The housing, although illegal, was clearly permanent and our guide Daniel told us that many of the inhabitants of Rocinha worked in the building trade so share their knowledge and skills with their neighbours. That was quite a common theme of our walk through the favela, the community felt strong and it was clear that adversity brought these people together rather than driving them apart. Daniel, our guide seemed to know everyone we passed and had a kind word, a hug or a handshake for them all.
The first of the community initiatives that we visited was an artists’ collective where a number of the favela’s artists displayed and sold their work. There was some really incredible art on display and prices were very reasonable. Many of the people on my tour made a purchase. As we travelled through the favela we passed a number of small stalls selling homemade jewellery and friendship bracelets. It was great to see these small businesses benefiting from our visit. We also stopped for a snack at a bakery making delicious cakes and donuts.
Towards the end of the tour we passed the childcare centre which Be A Local helps to pay for. This centre allows residents to go out to work in the knowledge that their children are safe, getting a decent meal and have access to healthcare. This project is also supported by Planeterra, the not for profit community development organisation created by tour company GAP Adventures. You can actually come and volunteer at the day care centre, and there is a community owned bed and breakfast next door where volunteers stay. This is a great way to really experience life in the favela and to help make a difference to the residents.
By the end of our tour I was certain that I had benefited from the experience. This didn’t feel like slum tourism to me and I can’t help but think that more people seeing this community and then sharing their experiences can only increase understanding of the favelas. I was concerned about how much the locals benefited from our visit though. I tried to buy a little something from the businesses we passed, a lot of their products were really nice and I managed to get a number of presents for people back home. It felt a lot better than buying holiday gifts from a tourist tat shop. But what if I hadn’t bought anything?
I asked Daniel and he told me that just by doing a Be A Local tour of the favela you can make a difference. The price of your tour helps the company to support the community through projects like the childcare centre. This makes it really important that before taking a tour of the favela you do some research and choose the right company. Although there may be other good companies, there are certainly bad ones too. Daniel told us of a company recently that was taking tourists in to meet the drug dealers who control the favela and encouraged visitors to get their photo taking with gun men. We saw guns when we were in the favela, but our tour focused on the positive rather than seeking out criminals. The company has to respect the rules of the gang on what visitors can take photos of, but none of your money will go to the dealers. I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the favela, but make sure you do it with a company that is helping to solve the problems this fantastic community faces, not one that makes them worse.