Last month I travelled to Brazil with the BBC to uncover a story about the dark side of the World Cup. While I was there I spent two days in Rio with twins, Samir and Samira, eight, who told me what life is like growing up in one of Rio’s most dangerous slums.
My first impressions of Maré were mixed. Home to 136,000 people, the slum has a reputation for serious drug related crime. Access is strictly controlled by drug gangs and filming or photographing anything required careful negotiations to ensure noone got hurt.
But Maré favela didn’t look like a ‘slum’ at all. Brightly painted houses lined litter free streets in what looked like an orderly neighbourhood. That was until I saw the guns, the knives and the drugs.
On street corners fold-out tables offered an array of drugs for sale. Armed men gathered in groups and gang members drove enormous, intimidating motorcycles up and down the street.
I met Samir and Samira, cheeky, fresh faced and full of giggles from school. My camera woman and I drew quite the crowd, including the motorcycles, who, despite knowing why we were there, trailed us for our entire visit.
Samira, the bolder of the two twins, was the first to say hello, apologising for her brother who “doesn’t like kisses or cuddles or anything like that!” Samir took longer to warm to us.
But armed with pens, paper, recording equipment and my secret weapon — smarties — it wasn’t long before the twins were telling me all about their life.
Childhood in the favela
“Growing up in Maré is tough” they told me. Their mum is strict about them going outside and everything they do happens inside their house, from homework, to learning the recorder, to riding their bikes in circles on the roof. Even Princess, their beloved dog, is kept on the roof, because it’s too dangerous to play in the street. And when violence breaks out on the street, which is does regularly, school is cancelled.
What struck me about these cheerful, spirited kids was that their lives were in many ways the same as kids in the UK, but lived in microcosm. When I asked them my standard questions: “Where do you play?”, “who’s your best friend?” their answers were startlingly sheltered: “At home” and “we don’t have friends in the favela because we aren’t allowed out”.
Cirlene, the twins’ mum, explained to me the challenge of keeping your children on the straight and narrow, when the threat of them being pulled into a drug gang is present every day. I believed her, having seen a ten year old boy holding a machine gun just thirty minutes before. Kids can get caught up in drug gangs from an early age – running errands, passing messages or even flying brightly colours kites to alert dealers when the police are coming.
ActionAid supports Redes, a local organisation at the heart of the favela, which provides safe spaces for kids to enjoy their childhood. Thousands of kids enjoy our classes, from cookery, music and sport, to extra tuition, to help them finish school.
When I visited the centre with the twins, it was bustling with activity. Scores of young chefs jostled up the stairwell, carrying trays of freshly cooked food and a group of excited children queued for their radio broadcasting class, while two floors up we could hear the sound of trumpets and guitars – one of Rede’s many music classes.
It doesn’t surprise me that Redes is responsible for significantly raising the number of kids who go to university from the favela. But it’s a shame that even when they have the academic credentials, children from Maré are often stigmatised. I find this hard to accept when looking at Samir and Samira, smart, well-mannered and confident. But hope that the future will hold much brighter things for them.