Because it’s a favela
ESTRELAS DA BABILONIA
Rio de Janeiro | Brazil
He couldn’t find a flat in Rio de Janeiro. At least not in the “official” Rio.
- Why don’t you try in Babilonia? – asked the owner of the hostel.
- Because it’s a favela? – answered Pol stunned.
After the umpteenth unsuccessful search and consultation with other foreigners, he decided to try his luck in a place he shouldn’t even enter. You can tell a favela by moto-taxis standing at the entrance, official taxis usually refuse to drive in. Once inside, you can see lots of colors. Any wall among the tentative houses -built on one another, looking like a Tetris field when a dud is playing - is full with graffiti, pictures bursting with life, labyrinth of meanings. Most favelas in Rio are built over hills. Tourists are warned: if you see you are going up, turn on your heels right away!
It took Pol half an hour to find a flat in Babilonia, a green hill right in between Rio's prime beaches of Botafogo and Copacabana. Twice cheaper than outside. And, paradoxically, safer.
- Statistically, Babilonia is safer than the celebrated Copacabana. In favelas, if you belong you never get robbed. You are part of the community.
Each foreigner living in the favela goes through a similar process. First tension, nerves, every time they come back home. Then, a growing sense of safety; finally even belonging. After a few years Pol decided to settle here forever. He bought a house. Then, he invested in more land and together with Bibi, from Colombia, they opened a cultural center and with time also a small bar/hostel. They got to know each other a few years before, during a march for peace. They were the first couple of gringos (the white), opening such a business in a favela.
The official opening took place the 21st of September 2013, the International Day of Peace.
- We had five days to prepare everything: clean, paint, design. We invited the symphony orchestra of children from favelas. And a local samba group.
For the opening also the queen of carnival, the ambassador of Belgium and a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb were present.
- We celebrated the Peace Day together, in a favela. People couldn’t believe it.
Also, they couldn’t believe when Pol and Bibi started to clean up the dump they bought and use part of the rubbish to build the hostel spaces.
- The people of the favela didn’t give us more than half a year. Many were opening a business here, but none of them survived more than a few months.
They not only managed, they started to be more and more successful. And that’s when problems began.
In June 2014 there was the World Cup in Brazil. Although Pol and Bibi aren't really into soccer, they followed the advice of some favela’s people, they bought a projector and arranged a DJ. Every day of the World Cup they screened games and organized parties. They worked 16-18h per day, hiring 12 people during that period. Guests came from the favela as well as from the surroundings, different nationalities. During one night, on their small place, there were over 500 people from different walks of life. That was beautiful and good for business as well. Pol and Bibi managed to save some money, buy a bit more land. And that made somebody resentful.
- One day - we were living here for more than a year - nine members of the gang came with huge guns and started to ask about me in the bar. All guests disappeared within a few seconds. We stayed alone, in darkness, me and those nine guys. The boss of the gang put the gun in my head and asked: “Do you work for the cops?” At the beginning I didn’t understand what he was saying, which made him even angrier. I said: “I’m not a whistle-blower, I don’t trust Brazilian police”.
Pol was saved by his arrest record. If you have been in jail you win some points with the gang. Pol was locked up during a protest. Political reasons. But anyway they managed to find a common ground, start a relationship.
- Bibi came, she recognized one of the boys and with her Colombian temperament she started to scream: “What are you doing here? You think we are police? Are you nuts?” It helped as well.
It turned out it was a jealous neighbor to spread around the rumor. But the rest of the community was already on their side. They won the confrontation.
The amount of confrontations went up after the Olympic games in 2016 and the consequent gentrification process. Before, although kids in gangs had guns, they didn’t show them up in the street. With the economic and political crisis caused by those mega events, small narco-gangs started to take control over favelas and fight with each other. And with the police.
Each favela has its own rules. Because favelas are informal settlements that the state tried to reclaim several times unsuccessfully, law doesn’t apply here. It’s the community – or rather the local gang - to set the rules. There are around 1000 favelas in Rio, 30% of the population lives there, stuck in an economic and social limbo. There are no public services (beside the police doing “cleaning” from time to time), no trucks coming to pick up the rubbish, no workers cleaning the streets, none of the houses has its own address, there is no way to send a letter. Only a few favelas are pacified, in others the gang will firstly shoot and then ask who you are. Babilonia is one of the few which opened up. There are already some hostels inside and they managed to convince the gang that a well-functioning business brings advantages to the whole community and guns in view don’t really grease the way and make more customers coming.
Sometimes, Pol hires people from the favela. Not always – the lack of English is a challenge. But the few local shops or moto-taxis gain anyway. Integrating with the community and supporting people is one of Pol’s priorities. He wants to show the residents that they can do things differently. Change a dump into a hostel. Recycle rubbish. Respect people. Nowadays he is involved in setting up solar panels. He opened an organization called Revolusolar. For Babilonia solar panels are not only an ecological solution, it’s above all a social-economical issue, only few people have stable access to electricity.
- Some time ago the new boss of the gang came to me. I didn’t know who he was. He said: I saw you on TV, when I was in prison. You spoke about panels. I like this idea.
With every boss you have to find a new deal, build a new relation. And they are changing constantly. Each of those teenagers knows that he has a few months, a maximum few years to live. Sooner or later he will die in a street fight, killed by a rival gang or by the police. They have nothing to lose. They don’t see any future for themselves.
- The only chance is to look for alternatives. If we manage to create more jobs, with panels or tourism…
But it’s not that easy. Education in the favela is at a very low stage. The gap between the official society and the favela is huge – regarding education, economic situation, and perspectives of life. Have you ever thought how difficult it can be to live the ordinary way without documents, without an address?
- But Google came to mark our hostel on the map. It was an amazing event: an American company mapping a favela...
There are successes and there are failures. Sometimes you don't answer a call at the right time and you get the boss with the all gang at the bar with guns in plain sight. They agreed not to show them, but from time to time they feel the need to remind you who is in charge. And weapons for Pol, long time activist, is one of the most difficult things to stomach.
- Since I remember I was active, I wanted to change something. I believe in social movements, it’s them to make a difference. Without social movements we would live in hell.
His activism started from fighting against nukes. He got involved in the coalition lobbying for the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Finally, in 2017, 122 countries voted in favor of the complete ban.
Change requires time, but it’s possible. Tourists are coming to the favela. They see that people who live here are like anybody else. The hostel and other projects improve the economic situation of the residents, giving them a sense of dignity. And make them visible also to the institutions. But the most difficult points are yet to be solved: how to integrate favelas to the rest of the city without losing the sense of community, authenticity? How to convince the government to actively support all these excluded people? How to build trust in a place which, neglected by the society and attacked by the police, created a defense mechanism that loathes collaboration?
More about Estrelas da Babilonia: estrelasdababilonia.com