What are the images that come to mind when you think of Brazil?
If you are like me, then it must be the beaches of Rio, pretty women in bikinis and Caiprinhas.
Yet there is another side to Brazil that travelers understandably avoid.
Crime is almost an epidemic in this country. Crack, a cheap drug, is a menace. The murder rate(no of murders per year per 1,00,000) is a shocking 25. Some estimates put it beyond 35. Compare that with 3.5 in India, which isn’t exactly the safest place on the planet.
Another major issue is underage crime.
Last year, two youngsters committed ruthless murders days before they turned 18. These incidents sparked a huge discussion on whether the age for crime conviction should be brought down to 16.
As the country debates this possible legislation, I decided to visit children where they are said to turn into criminals – the favela.
Difficult economic circumstances, lack of opportunities and addiction to alcohol or drugs is said to push teenagers towards crime.
My friend and music teacher, Mario Pam, invited me to a favela called Calabetão in Salvador, Brazil.
Here is what I saw.
The morning we drove towards the favela, it was drizzling. The weather is unpredictable in Salvador and it can rain anytime, anywhere.
We were headed to Centro Cultural Oficina Reciclável.
This not-for-profit was started in 1996 by artist Valtércio Santis. The idea was to engage kids between the age of 4-17 in art and cultural activities. This in the hope that their tough conditions and family issues don’t drive them towards drugs and crime.
The word reciclável means recyclable. The founder was an artist who used plastic and other recycled materials to create art. The centre imparts those skills to kids, hence the name.
As soon we arrived, we were greeted with this smile.
Then we were greeted by two smiles.
‘Ele é meu amigo’ she said, introducing her friend.
Then it was time to bring out the drums and other musical instruments.
Remember, I mentioned that my friend is a music teacher. He visits this centre every friday to teach music to these little angels.
The centre operates pre or post school hours for kids, depending on what time they go to school.
Mario, then got into action.
Making the kids recite a song about Calabetão, the locality they belonged to.
And our accomplished singers, sang along.
‘Nao, nao, nao‘ – No, no, no…
Then one of them, wanted her song to be recited.
‘Professor , me escute.’
‘Teacher, listen to me.’
And then, it was time to play drums.
Some reactions, as Mario taught them the beats.
At least one of them was performing for the camera.
Then it was time to hold hands and sing some more.
Then we were all tired. We needed some rest.
Some of the art works prepared by kids of the centre. These have been prepared only by using plastic and other recycled materials.
It was time to say goodbye.
‘Tchau Sachaaaaaaa’, yelled most of them.
I didn’t mind, though actually my name is Sachin.
Smiles, songs and innocence is what I saw in the future of Brazil.
Like most developing countries, Brazil too has complex problems. That bringing down the age of criminal conviction will solve the crime problem is an illusion.
Brazil will have to work much harder than that.
In Calabetão, I realised that kids in Brazil are like kids anywhere else. Full of joy and hope.
As an eccentric traveller in love with the country, I hope that Brazil will protect these smiles. This country deserves them.
(Write to me if you would like to visit this centre for kids, or volunteer here and/or donate to them. I might be able to help you)