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Last Updated: 09/29/2003“Tómale la mano y dale una salida” (take by the hand and show a way out)
Catherine Bellamy sits ringside to witness one NGO’s work to bring pride and hope to the violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
The spiffy, orange-colored room – outside Maré, one of the more violent favelas in Rio de Janeiro – is empty, minus a boxing ring and a modest crowd. I am in one of the seats of honor, reserved for a group of researchers on children and youth in armed violence (from Colombia to Nigeria to the Philippians) gathered for a three-day seminar, organized by Viva Rio, a well-known NGO in Rio de Janeiro. Many of the participants in the meeting are human rights advocates, working with young gang members or former children combatants in their respective countries. And here we sit in the gym, an adult fieldtrip – to see a boxing club in action, one of the projects of Viva Rio – waiting for young men to compete on who can doll out speedier, or perhaps more deft, hits to his opponent.
The first favela that I visited in Brazil was Rocinha, explained to me as the largest slum in Latin America, or 200,000 inhabitants, which I had seen photos many times before – set in the side of the mountains, near the sea. Lucien was showing me the first internet café in Rocinha, that provided internet access and computer classes. Currently run by Viva Rio, he and a friend hoped to take it over one day as their own enterprise. Lucien was proud to show me the two banks that had opened in Rocinha, and talked enthusiastically about the festival that evening down the street. Slowly forgetting the notions that I had about favelas from City of God, we went to lunch in what I thought could have been any struggling neighbourhood in Latin America. That is when the gunfire sounded. (I am not an expert, but I would have guessed AK-47s). My companion barely took note, saying that it was only the young kids the next block over – which I quickly learned was known for drug pedaling – warning that the outside (or military) police were approaching, or that a new shipment of cocaine had arrived.
What surprizes me about the favela is the level of intelligence of the organized drug factions. Stealing or other crimes are not common in the favelas (unless committed by the drug lords) as the guilty are quickly and severely punished by the drug factions. In the more conflicted favelas, the movement of foreigners or outsiders is closely scrutinized and regulated by the leaders of the factions. I also find the level of violence difficult to comprehend. Far exceeding the levels of gun homicides in other countries, 40,000 occur yearly in Brazil – much of which is in greater Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo (among the most violent cities in the world). From 1997 – 2000, Rio de Janeiro had more recorded firearm deaths than battle deaths in Colombia, Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Uganda and Israel. And the battle between the police and drug factions is no longer relegated to the poorer communities: while I was in Rio de Janeiro a grenade had exploded in a middle class mall, and shootouts and burned buses began to infringe upon the wealthy neighbourhoods. However, much of the violence continues to rage in the favelas, where families sometimes have to sleep on the floor due to the nightly shoot-outs between rival drug factions, or the police that come in shooting.
But tonight the kids from the favela are fired up to watch the boxing matches. The bell starts, and I expect to be disinterested and maybe upset at what follows (my only experience of boxing was when I watched Mike Tyson bite the ear off his opponent – even on TV it was enough of a turn-off not to try again. Or, at least, until now). Although my understanding of the Spanish word for ‘left hook’ is a bit rusty, my Ecuadorian colleague begins to explain the art of boxing to me. Within a few rounds, I am absolutely entranced. Luke Dowdney, who coordinates the research project on children and youth in armed violence for Viva Rio and also heads the boxing club, arranges for the guests of honor to present the prizes at the end of each match. I realize that it is not an easy task to remain graceful when getting into a ring, and am fascinated by the emotion displayed on the faces of the winner and loser (not to mention the amount of sweat).
In the time that I have since returned to New York, where I am developing curriculum on youth and the prevention of violence, I have often thought about the boxing ring. I recently went with a friend to listen to the reading of a new book, which on cover equated boxing to “living right and preparing to go the distance”. One passage that he read that stuck with me:
There are lessons to be learned at the ringside…You must learn specialized boxing knowledge to make sense of what you see in the ring, but the consequences of those lessons extend far beyond boxing. The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many lessons – about the virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially about education itself: boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.
Cut Time: An Education in the Fights
Of course, boxing cannot be the answer to the problems of the favela or of the greater society from which the favelas have been marginalized – the result of a long process that has taken generations to come to fruition. Much of the discussion of the seminar that I attended on youth and children in armed violence centralized around two questions: how will youth exposed to and participating in violence put down the gun? And what happens next? Marlon Carranza, a researcher at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas”, San Salvador, expresses the dual challenge in a perfect phrase, “tómale la mano y dale una salida” (take by the hand, and show a way out). Holding a gun means more than the money – it is a sense of power. Promoting a change in attitudes and non-violence, and offering a sense of identity through recreational or educational alternatives is only the first step. The economic opportunity that the gun affords – which is sizable in many developing countries or depressed areas of the developed world – must be addressed if the guns are to be left behind. Yet, as a spectator – and I would imagine for the young boys and girls that step into the ring – the sense of purpose, order and the trill of the challenge during the dance of boxing was satisfying. Or, if I dare say, an engrossing first step away from the violence of the favela and shoot-outs.
Catherine Bellamy is developing the Children and Youth programme for the University for Peace. She is based in New York.