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Lessons from the Favela: Sport and social exclusion in Rio de Janeiro

Copyrights: Daniel Guinness

Lessons from the Favela: Sport and social exclusion in Rio de Janeiro

For youth in Morro do Castro, rugby provides a community and brings opportunities and identities not otherwise available.

The mere presence of thirty-two children from a Rio de Janeiro favela at the head office of Novavisão (all names are pseudonyms), a leading Brazilian architecture firm, encapsulated the inequalities of Brazilian society, even as it offered a momentary transcendence from them. The children’s stories of growing up in a favela without sewerage or paved roads seemed to come from a different universe than the tenth-floor meeting room with its view of the sleek luxury yachts and elite lifestyle of Botofogo beach. Like most favela residents, the vast majority of the children identify as preto (“black”), pardo (“brown, mixed race”), negro (“black”, but a term which refers to both preto and pardo) or one of the many other Brazilian designators for those who are not branco (“white”). Like most professional offices, the Novavisão firm was staffed almost exclusively by branco Brazilians. Yet for that afternoon-long meeting these two parts of Rio de Janeiro society that rarely interact outside of public spaces – spaces filled with fears of crime, violence and social segregation – came together to imagine futures that bridged the two groups.

The visit to the Novavisão offices was part of the Eu Quero Ser (“I want to be”) career planning project offered by UmRio, a sport and education NGO based in one of Rio’s northern favelas. That afternoon, four professional architects sat and listened as the children one by one gave an account of their dream jobs. Ronaldo, 15, sought to start a bakery in his community. Eva, 12, envisioned designing houses for Rio’s elites. Juliana, 17, wanted to study languages at university. Neilson, 15, hoped to be a lawyer to protect his community from instances of unlawful persecution by the police. These varied aspirations defied the presumptions about favela children, who are often characterised, even by some older residents of favelas, as interested only in music, parties and gang culture. Instead, the architects were taken aback by how confidently and articulately each youth spoke of their plans for futures that defied traditional expectations. For one afternoon, the divisions seemed not to matter.

UmRio is one of the many NGOs that are emerging to deal with the social problems faced by children in one of Rio’s approximately 1020 favela communities. Founded in 2013, it offers children in one favela, Morro do Castro a range of programmes, which focus on providing health, education and other services otherwise largely absent from their neighbourhood. Here, local politicians use concepts of civic duty and responsibility to encourage unskilled residents to build their own roads and infrastructure, leading to disasters, collapsing roads and burst pipes. The urban frontiers that divide Morro do Castro from surrounding (more affluent regions) are decidedly dense.

UmRio’s attempted solution to these problems is unusual in several ways. Firstly, it works in the more isolated favelas of Greater Rio, which are normally neglected by state initiatives and NGOs. Secondly, UmRio is centred around the sport of rugby, which it uses to build a community and engage the children in other programmes. Thirdly, it has strong connections with Oxford University – the founder is an alumnus and dozens of former students have volunteered in UmRio over its four-year history. Overall UmRio aims to leverage the huge social and educational capital of an elite foreign university to allow a marginal group within Brazil an improved social position – utilising global inequalities to address Brazilian exclusion.

Our experiences over the past four years show the potential for a little-known sport to create a community that provides opportunities and identities not otherwise available in the favela. However, the limitations of these sport for peace and development projects have also been revealed, specifically in the persistence of social divisions that hinder UmRio participants as they enter society outside of the programme.


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Robert Malengreau and Daniel Guinness


Wednesday, May 24, 2017 - 09:29