A Favela Maravilhosa

Every year, the hedonistic lifestyle of Rio de Janeiro attracts a multitude of tourists from across the globe, seeking to experience the buzz of the ‘marvellous city’. However, for UoN student James Gorey, Rio was a slightly different place. His experiences living and volunteering in Rocinha, (arguably the largest and most dangerous slum in Latin America) were a world away from simply uploading a generic selfie with Christ the Redeemer to Facebook or sipping caipirinhas on Copacabana beach. James tells Impact Travel about the favela of Rocinha, infamous for gang violence and poverty, and his home for the last two months of his year abroad.

Upon arrival at Galeão, the International Airport of Rio de Janeiro, I was somewhat concerned that I had thrown myself in at the deep end; my last minute research of favela life revolved around re-watching the film City of God and recalling countless hours playing Call of Duty’s exaggerated representation of favela violence. After jumping in one of Rio’s yellow taxis and trying to convince the driver that I definitely wanted to go a slum, I eventually reached my final destination. My first impressions of Rocinha are blurry, mainly due to the fact that I was jetlagged and so overwhelmed by the sheer size of the slum. I remember the bustling ambience of the marketplace, consisting of endless stalls selling fake Brazilian football shirts with ‘Neymar’ crudely stitched onto the back.

After a short walk up a steep hill that was drenched in a brown stream of water, (later turning out to be raw sewerage) I reached the shared volunteer apartment. The volunteering organisation at that time boasted around 40 members from all across the globe, but was predominantly made up of young Brits and Americans. Although having been absolutely knackered from the flight, I was convinced to take part in the birthday celebrations of one of the American volunteers. The alcoholic drink of choice in Brazil is normally lager or cachaça, a spirit comparable to a mixture of vodka and white rum. Interestingly, the cachaça that evening was infused with the pale corpse of a crab contained inside the bottle.


‘Project Favela’, the non-governmental organisation I volunteered for, focused on providing free education and extra-curricular activities for families who could not afford to send their children to school. The volunteers were able to take part in various projects across the slum, including: teaching English and art lessons; assisting with training at a football academy complete with a 3G pitch; looking after children at a crèche and even menial tasks such as cleaning and moving furniture. After a short while living and working in the favela I began to feel comfortable with my surroundings and the sense of impending danger seemed to subside. As worrying as it may be, I finally felt a sense of belonging when I could easily distinguish between the bang of fireworks and the crack of the gunshots flying overhead. Despite the inherent dangers of living in a favela torn apart by the constant gunfire between the police and drug traffickers, Rocinha retains a strong sense of community, which is often lost to the modern world in which we live.

Moradores da Rocinha (1)

As cliché as it sounds, after spending time in the favela I finally began to realise how privileged we are to live in such a safe and organised society. The most positive part of this opportunity was that it allowed me to give something back to those who are less fortunate in the world, whilst at the same time improving my Portuguese language skills in preparation for my fourth year at university. Whilst the idea of living in relative poverty may not appeal to everyone, I would personally recommend this experience to anyone looking to take part in something out of their comfort zone.


 James Gorey

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Images courtesy of  ‘Memórias do PAC’ and Steve Martinez via Flickr and James Gorey.

3 Comments on this post.
  • Anonymous
    3 February 2015 at 21:37
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    I spent 3 weeks in August 2013 volunteering with Project Favela and shared your experiences and emotions. I taught English to a group of students using resources made by my students in England. It was the most amazing experience of my life. I would strongly recommend it to others!
    Cheryl Drury

  • José
    10 February 2015 at 19:26
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    Brazil is not a slum. These slums exist because of historical reasons, specially because the drug traffic kidnapped this part of the city during the 80’s (a period of deep economical crisis) and maintained that part of the city without any access of the State. The public services simply couldn’t enter inside the favelas because these criminals didn’t let them in.
    Unfortunately, this issue is explored by some journalists in a very superficial way, with many generalization and sensationalism. To explain the reality about it and give the real dimensions of the problem, I made this video –> I made a video explaining why it happened, if you want more information –>


  • James
    22 February 2015 at 12:38
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    José, this article is not calling Brazil a slum, it explores the favela of Rocinha in Brazil.

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