By Roy Gachuhi
Roy is currently in Rio de Janeiro on a scholarship as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica.
At the end of the opening day of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, I felt as if I had completely assimilated myself with Brazilian life. I felt a part of both its dimensions, the happy and the sad.
Like many foreigners who have not been here before, my view of Brazil was always romantic – the happiest football, if undergoing traumatic times in recent years, the most pulsating samba music, the best barbeques.
This idyllic otherness was reinforced during the visa application process in Nairobi. Embassies are stiff places where, after filling forms online and talking to answering machines, you finally get to come face to face with the frigid stares and crypt questions of consular staff. The Brazilian Embassy in Nairobi is the first one I have gone to where, the strict adherence to visa requirements notwithstanding, there was surprising informality.
“You have fulfilled the conditions,” the consular officer told me in folksy tones and a warm smile, “you are going to Brazil!”
When I was later asked to fill a form about my experience with the Embassy, I checked in all the “excellent” boxes.
So, even if I had heard the term favela and was reasonably educated about its meaning, I came to Rio de Janeiro a romantic. I arrived two weeks before the opening ceremonies so I had sufficient time to slow-bake and record my impressions as I travelled by bus, train and taxi to different parts of Rio. I had seen enough pictures of the city to conclude that from a purely topographic point of view, this is a beautiful place. But no picture could have prepared me for what I saw.
This city is insanely beautiful and every day I wonder about the volcanic dance and fireworks that took place here eons ago to create it. It doesn’t seem to me that such movements of the earth, when they were finally done, left anything that could be improved on.
But rapidly, I got into the spirit of things, the purpose for which I came to Rio. I witnessed the destruction of a man’s house to make way for a parking lot for the Olympic Park (here). His protests, made in a voice of utter desolation could have shattered any heart. In the rawest practical terms, I had been initiated in the unromantic side of Rio de Janeiro and its Olympics.
Thus, I was wiser on the day the world trained its eyes on Brazil. I joined my house mates at Agencia Publica for the morning protests held in Copacabana beach.
By the standards of Kenya where I come from, the protest was massive but small in Brazilian terms.
“Oh,” Lara, my American housemate, told me, “this is nothing. Protests here can be huge.” Lara is at Princeton University and is in Rio as an intern with Agencia Publica.
Massive or not, it is what the protesters said that forcefully drove down the message that romantic Brazil, beautiful Rio de Janeiro, are but one side of the coin. There is another. I carefully read all the placards that I could, those written in English. They told a story of alienation, of marginalization, of being discarded as a lucky minority, rich and powerful, enjoyed the beautiful life.
“Olympic Legacy: 10,000 families homeless.”
“We are not in this fight begging for a home. We had homes but they were taken away from us by the state. That is why we are in the streets.”
“I want to come and go in the favela where I was born.”
“As you read this, another person dies in a favela.”
“In order to make you happy, the Government is killing us.”
“While you are enjoying the Games, we are dying in the favela.”
I spoke to a few protesters and they echoed the message in their placards. Their protests, while directed at city, state and national government authorities, were predominantly designed to catch the attention of foreign visitors.
A woman gave me a rainbow coloured flyer reading: “Our democracy is threatened and we don’t have anyone to appeal to. We cannot trust the judiciary, and most of the media is corrupt and biased. Help us by reporting our situation in your country!”
Another one placed a placard on the sand and when she saw me approach, she wrapped herself in a Brazilian flag and stood behind it as I took the picture. The placard read: “To impress you, we have lost our homes.”
I know there have been violent protests in Brazil and I was on the lookout for such an eventuality. But it never came to pass. The Copacabana protest was carnival-like. There were banners and flags and thousands of leaflets, which were dutifully picked up and trashed by city workers whenever they were dropped. The place remained clean. People in the beach were having a party, Thursday and Friday having been declared a public holiday by Mayor Eduardo Paes, himself the target of harsh criticisms.
Paes has been at Rio City Hall for about 20 years, first as deputy mayor and then as chief executive. His finger prints are all over any welcome or detested measure the city has experienced during this time. Protesters briefly obstructed traffic but police, ever so conscious of the world’s attention on the Olympic city, responded with extreme restraint. Evidently, they were under orders not to make news.
Other protests with similar messages took place near the Maracana Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.
And then it was time to sit down and watch the upbeat side, the opening ceremonies. In all Olympic Games, organizers always keep a tight lid of secrecy on its content and this was no different. But it went largely as I expected it would. I knew it would be rich in Brazilian cultural life and history and I was impressed with the images of micro-organisms like spiders, which represented the beginning of life.
And as an aviation buff, I applauded the recreation of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s flight. It drew a massive response from the crowd. Alberto Santos-Dumont is to Brazilians what the Wright brothers are to Americans.
A minority of Rio de Janeiro’s six million people are very happy. They are the single digit percentage that controls the destiny of everybody else. A big middle class is robust, growing, and despite constricted economic fortunes, it remains optimistic. Then there is the huge underclass majority. To many of these people, the Olympics don’t even exist; they are too occupied with worries about survival to have much to do with the competition.
These are the three classes that I saw on the day the Olympics begun and with whom I will interact until the closing ceremony. Rio is still romantic, but now sobering.