Looking ahead: August, the Olympic month

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Sporting complex at the top of Comunidade Guararapes, a favela located just below the Christ the Redeemer statue. The mural on the wall depicts the faces of three girls who died on this site, during a landslide that destroyed their houses.

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, but if anything this indicates the sheer volume of activities that I have been up to! I have danced as an extra in a Brazilian music video filming, I have taken a Muay Thai class, and I have visited a Festa Juninha at the top of the favela of Santa Marta. This week I moved out of the Cosme Velho “Repûblica”, or shared house, in which I was staying and into the favela of Babilônia, located at the northwestern tip of Copacabana beach in a neighborhood called Leme. Needless to say it’s been a crazy time, and to compliment this, the Olympic Games are starting! The city is full of tourists and feels like a different place than what I became used to over the last month. Thankfully, I have been spared the brunt of this madness thanks to the location of my two separate houses. The one in which I am currently staying is right at the edge of the touristy Copacabana beach, and every time I descend to the “asfalto”, or non-favela neighborhood, I get a dose of Olympic energy. People have started to assume with increasing regularity that I am a tourist only here for a week, and consistently react with surprise when I begin speaking Portuguese. I have been meeting a lot of interesting and new people from all over the world—some from Brazil, some from other countries. Surprisingly, I have met very few Americans! I have no doubt that I will, particularly as the city heads into full Olympic swing in the next few weeks. Today is the official start—incredible to think how long I’ve been here and how much has happened since my arrival!

Last night, I attended a discussion panel of sixteen Brazilians who have been personally affected by the Olympics as part of an event series called Os Jogos da Exclusão, or the Games of Exclusion. It was all conducted in Portuguese, and was an excellent opportunity to hear more about the experiences of citizens whose vulnerabilities were exposed by these Games. Panelists included a woman from Vila Autôdroma, the favela that was razed to the ground to make room for an Olympic facility, a trash worker from the Rio municipality, several indigenous people, and many more people from all walks of life who shared the common interest of exposing the injustices of the Olympic Games. Collectively, these people raised many issues for discussion that ranged from the flaws of capitalism to the need for more respect for women to the lack of housing security in Rio de Janeiro. It was an impassioned forum, of which I understood about 50%. I still greatly appreciated the opportunity to be around other activists who are speaking out against the Games, and only wished that more people had been in attendance of such an important initiative.

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A new t-shirt to celebrate the Olympic Games: translated, the message reads “Rio 2016: The Games of Exclusion”.
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The somber night somewhat predictably ended with a bonfire and band performance, which was accompanied by beer, singing, and smiles among those in attendance.

The work I have been doing over the past week has largely concerned other projects outside of the LINEA research. I have done translation work, photographed events, and done more work in fundraising. I hope to return to my literature review as the office hours reduce and the busy work subsides.

Last week, I helped document an event in the favela of Guararapes, located above the historic neighborhood of Cosme Velho and just below the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Promundo runs a program in this community that teaches children from the community about team work and cooperation through sporting activities. Thus, children go to the community sports complex after school to take part in team-building activities, football games, and small group discussions about the importance of inclusivity and working together. I went to document the visit of the German Olympic medalist in fencing, Britta Heidemann, who came to visit and participate in the community program to generate publicity for her bid to become the Olympic Embassador of Sport for Development. While it was not made exactly clear what this position was, it seems to be some kind of title given to an Olympic athlete after the Games, and generates a lot of press and public attention. Ms Heidemann’s visit was coordinated by both Promundo and Cooperação Almã, a sustainable development organization from Germany that works in Brazil. Together with several other photographers hired by Cooperação Alemã, I documented several hours of activities that Ms Heidemann took part in alongside the children from Guararapes. It was an enjoyable experience: I got to interact with the German entourage that came with her, take photos of the children in the community playing football and drawing, and made plans to return to take part in the weekly girls’ soccer game next week.

Although the environment in the sporting complex at the top of Guararapes was one of safety and security that allowed me to freely use an expensive without fear, small reminders surfaced from to time to remind me of our location and the danger faced by residents in these communities. For instance, at the very end of the visit, I was strongly cautioned by Marcão, a coordinator from Promundo, not to walk down to the base of the favela by myself, and had to wait an hour until the other photographer (an older Brazilian man) was ready to descend before I could begin the 5-minute walk to the main road. As we descended through the favela, the scenery was striking: sporadic brick houses dotted dirt hillsides that had been strewn with trash: colorful plastic bags, food containers, and all sorts of other litter was scattered across the landscape. Dog poop underfoot caused our group to take a slightly more winding route on an otherwise straight pathway. Amidst all of this, UPP soldiers with machine guns regularly greeted us at street corners with tight lipped expressions and squared jaws. Their presence did not make me feel safer: rather, it made me acutely aware of the ongoing conflict between two sides that, in the perspective of community members, in many ways resembles a war of occupation. This is daily reality for the residents of this place.

Other than working as a photographer in events related to Guararapes, this month I will be volunteering for the Olympic Games as part of a human rights initiative in which I will be involved in ensuring that children’s rights are protected. According to the email with instructions on our volunteer duties, we will be in charge of guaranteeing the protection of children during the Games. Several other colleagues from the office have also signed up to take part, and although we have received schedules and a basic description of our duties, we all agree that it is still extremely unclear what we are meant to be doing. Perhaps we will be patrolling for instances of child labor, such as in the case of a child who is working as a street vendor at an Olympic Venue. However, as Vicky was quick to point out, this idea holds the potential to be problematic: how are we, as foreign-born, wealthy Olympic volunteers, supposed to tell a child selling candy on the street to leave the task that his caregivers undoubtedly set him to do? Furthermore, in many times the instances of child labor are much less clear cut. For instance, what about a family who is selling candy on the street with their kids by their side? What if the child happens to be helping out a bit, for instance by organizing the products for sale? All of these points of obscurity are important questions to ask when identifying child exploitation or child labor. Today was meant to be the first day of volunteering for this child protection initiative, but late yesterday afternoon I received an email that we were no longer expected to come. It is not the best omen when the first day of Olympic human rights volunteers is cancelled, but I hope that the initiative gets off the ground in spite of whatever setbacks it may be having. Hopefully the other days I have signed up to volunteer will take place as planned.

Finally, during this month I plan to ramp up my involvement in Rio On Watch, the online human rights blog that is based in Rio and run by the NGO Catalytic Communities. Right now I am working on an article about the findings from my undergraduate thesis on the representations of favelas in the context of the Olympic Games, which will be published on the blog once it is all done. After I complete this article, I hope to work as a research collaborator on research initiatives related to media representations of the Olympic Games, as well as other important projects. I have long thought about working in journalism, and this will be my first chance to dive straight in! I am excited and a bit nervous—reporting stylistics differ greatly from academic ones and I have almost no experience in this manner of writing. I can only give it my best effort and accept the critique of my peers.

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