As the ground moves further and further away, the Christ Redeemer statues appears in all its towering glory, the bay comes into view and the blue of the Atlantic ocean glistens in the distance.
I travel higher listening to the sound of people conversing in a language I can barely comprehend, passing colourful, shanty buildings with graffitied walls. The cable car reaches a standstill and the broken glass door opens. I am high above the city in Santa Marta favela, Rio de Janeiro, and about to experience life in one of Brazil’s favelas.
It’s no secret that Rio used to be ashamed of their favelas. Before the 2014 World Cup, families were allegedly being pushed out of their homes as a pretext for ‘social cleansing.’
There are more than 700 favelas in Rio. The largest one is Rocinha which has approximately 70,000 people living there. Santa Marta has roughly 8,000 residents and was placed on the world map when Michael Jackson came here in 1996 to film part of his controversial music video ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us.’
In fact, favelas are becoming so hipster that apparently David Beckham has even bought a house near one.
A lady who I just met in the cable car gives me a warm hug and a kiss on each cheek before disappearing into the narrow streets below. Fatima used to live here and proudly told me how much the favela still feels like her family. She’s come back for a visit and we pass her again sat in the street chatting and laughing with others.
Admiring the view as Sheila, my guide gives me a rundown of the history of Santa Marta, stopping to point out a toucan which flies over the higgledy-piggledy houses. Standing at the top entrance, the favela seems peaceful and I instantly feel at ease here.
But it wasn’t always this peaceful. Santa Marta was once one of the most violent slums in the city and the first to be pacified by the Brazilian government.
The steps I am standing on is where many people died in bloody gun wars. Bullet holes line the walls of a former day care centre, now the headquarters of the Pacified Police Unit which controls the favela.
In November 2008 the police kicked out the drug dealers and reduced the violence of the inner drug wars. Instead, confrontations took place between the police and the drug dealers when the dealers refused to pay the police’s bribes.
During pacification they introduced social projects and offered courses such as electronics and hairdressing to young people, giving them an alternative to drugs. But the courses were empty.
“Most projects here aren’t what people want,” says Sheila. “The communication between the government and the local population isn’t that good. They don’t ask us what we want. The government has to give us the tools to help us, to change, to make the change. We need support, people, investing, believing in us.”
“They may have reduced the risk of innocent people being killed in crossfires but the people here now feel suppressed. Somehow we are trying to find ways to keep surviving.”
I carefully take photos as we begin our descent through the community. Sheila has already briefed me on the ethics of taking pictures here; to ask people’s permission for photos and to not take any of children. I still ask with each one.
Satellite dishes perch precariously on top of houses, and I hear the sound of chickens clucking as we delve further into Santa Marta.
“The heart and spirit of favelas are in the people,” she says as we wander past shanty-looking houses, most of which are made by the people. The brown roofed houses the ones built by the government. The paths are narrow and I spot a railing which is hanging off.
“They are making improvements but there’s no follow up,” she says.
The higher up you live, the worst the conditions. There is no infrastructure to collect the trash and rats come into the house at night. There is a risk of skin disease and some of the residents have lung problems.
“In the past people from the healthcare system came here to try to understand the diseases,” she says. The urban process isn’t equal. Lots of people are still living like they were in the seventies and eighties.”
Chickens and dogs wander around strewn litter and a child walks past with no shoes. I smile and say “Ola.” One of the only Portuguese words I know. They smile back.
We pass clothes hanging on makeshift washing lines, wooden houses that look as though they are on their last legs. Two women sitting on the steps politely move to one side to let us pass. One looks distressed and Sheila stops to speak with her. Not understanding any Portuguese I wait to hear her story.
There are jobs inside the favelas. Small shops provide employment for some of the residents. Many are paid to carry things up and down the steep hill. Some are lucky to get a job in the city and work outside the favela. Child labour is now illegal but children of 14 work delivering pizza in the evening then go to school the next day.
The lady who we stopped to talk to has just lost her job. She was working as a cook and has just been sacked. Her successor a white woman who lived in the city. She sees it as an injustice but as Sheila explains “Local people aren't self-confident enough to fight.”
I ask if there is anything that she can do.
“People don’t feel proud and have low self-esteem,” Sheila says sadly. “They feel ashamed that they already live in a favela. They just want to live with dignity.”
She points out a pile of trash partially covered by a large piece of cloth. One of the resident’s attempts to clean up their backyard.
“We shouldn’t feel ashamed that we are doing things on our own,” says Sheila. In the twenty-first century we shouldn’t have this situation.”
We pass by the bakery and I stop and buy some coconut bread for us to enjoy later.
Around the corner is a little square with a bright orange wall painted by the Netherlands football team in the last World Cup. A giant mosaic of Michael Jackson dominates the space. A statue of him overlooks the rest of the favela and I pose for a photo with the man who brought joy and hope to this colourful community.
A lady comes out of the souvenir shop and begins to show me every item in their family-run shop. There’s one design which stands out – a hand-drawn outline of the favela complete with Christ de Redeemer at the top, which is pictured on the t-shirts, tapestries and shoe bags. Her husband proudly explains that it was drawn by their fourteen year old son who has signed each item. I buy a bag with the design and put it over my shoulders as we continue the tour.
As we snake our way through an alleyway to the second souvenir shop, one of the ladies excitedly puts on the Michael Jackson video. “It’s me!” she cries excitedly in Portuguese, pointing to the scene where she stands clapping in the crowd.
Listening to the lyrics and watching the dance moves of one of the biggest music icons, I feel myself go tingly. Star struck somehow, that I am standing in the exact place where this famous video was filmed. I get a sense of how much it means to the people here. And I feel instantly moved and part of an aspiring moment which brought hope to those united by survival.
As we eat our coconut bread, Sheila shows me inside in the Residents Association where builders are busy on the roof putting in solar panels. Electricity is expensive here. Sheila explains that the rates are higher within a favela than they are in other areas of the city.
“If you live in the district you pay 100 Brazilian Reals versus the 500 you have to pay here. “The national salary is 900 Reals so people make illegal connections to get electricity because it’s very expensive.”
I hear a booming voice come across the speakers. The President of the Residents Association is making an announcement about a performance this Saturday. Sheila tells me that a drummer is coming to the favela to perform for the residents.
All the post for Santa Marta comes to the Resident’s Association. Sheila pays 10 Reals a month to support the association and gets access to a box for her post. I can see how the Resident’s Association plays a big part in the community.
There are elections held every four years and anyone living here for more than five years can become a candidate. Every favela has an association. They are part of one institution and also the voice and communication inside the community representing their social, political, and critical perspective.
With a lack of government projects here, social impact groups and NGOs work within the favela. Music is really important and the association even has a music room where the young people can come and bang out a tune or two, following in the musical footsteps of Olodum, the cultural group who performed alongside Michael Jackson in his video.
Giving the young people creative alternatives to street crime not only prevents them from turning to a life of drugs but also empowers them and makes them feel part of the favela. Most of the graffiti artwork I pass is their handiwork which brightens up the lack-lustre stone walls. As well as music and art lessons held in the afternoons, there is also a samba school here.
We past the lane which leads to Sheila’s house where she lives with her young son who is currently at school. Children only attend school for half a day and are encouraged to take part in a sports activity in the afternoon. Some of which is free (like football) and others such as swimming which they have to pay for.
Sheila tells me that the level of education is getting better. “I’m 45 but there are not many people here with my level of education,” she says.
As Sheila quickly pops back home I sit on the stone steps opposite a paint shop and wait; admiring the vibrant buildings that people have made their homes and businesses.
This is Santa Marta’s main square, the pulse of the favela where everything comes to life. I listen to the samba beats playing in the background, smell the charred meat from the barbecue below, and observe the rest of the locals going about their daily routines.
People smile as they walk past, a dog even comes and sits next to me. Sheila comes bounding back and we pose together for a picture, linking arms together like long-lost friends.
I can’t describe the feeling I had in that moment. As I soak up the emotions of being within such an alive organism, I realise that Sheila is absolutely right. The most important part of a favela is its people.
If a musical legend can make an impact on this Brazilian community we too can do our bit to show the residents of Santa Marta that “they do really care about us.”
Santa Marta Tours
You can explore Santa Marta yourself but I definitely recommend going with a guide, especially one who lives in the favela. You’ll get to experience the culture of Santa Marta and also learn about its history. Plus it’s a lot more respectful to the locals to be with someone who they know rather than walk around yourself and take pictures.
My tour was with Sheila from Brazilidade who was amazing. Brazilidade is community-based tourism whose aim is to strengthen the residents of Santa Marta’s identity and self-esteem and provide a cultural encounter between visitors and the community.
The tour lasted for 2.5 hours and began at 9am. You do need your trainers for the tour as it’s a walking tour and the steps are quite steep. Take some suntan lotion and a light jacket as well as it’s cooler at the top. If you want to buy a souvenir from Rio I definitely recommend buying it here. Not only does it help their community but it also gives a bit more meaning to your pressie.
* N.b. Being a storyteller ambassador for Visit.org meant that this tour was complimentary. As always each opinion is my own and I honestly loved this experience. I am really passionate about community-based tourism and showing what the world is really like. I hope this has changed your perception of favelas and has made you want to see Santa Marta for yourself.
Where To Stay in Brazil
I stayed in Rio for 3 nights at Jabanga Hostel in Botafogo. This area is really safe with plenty of restaurants. It was only a 5 minute walk to the Metro, and 30 minutes walk to both Copacabana Beach, and Sugarloaf Mountain. I stayed in a 5-bed female dorm and met some great people to go sightseeing with. Dorms start from £10 a night (£11 for the female dorm). I absolutely loved Rio and had no problems with pickpockets there.
N.b. The hostel link is an affiliate link. You still pay the same price but GatG makes a small percentage on your purchase. I give 10% of all profits to children’s charities such as WarChild. Thanks for helping x