Everyone who has watched the film 'City of God' knows that guns are commonplace in favelas. But to witness this for yourself is a different matter.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and the sky was threatening rain. I was on my way to Music class at the community centre, walking as usual through the grimy alleys of the favela. Only the community seemed lifeless and still, somewhat ominous. The habitual greetings were nowhere to be heard. Instead of the usual friendly faces were a group of sullen faced men who stared at me demandingly as I walked by.
Class starts. Six gunshots sound. I jump out of my skin and stop playing the guitar. The class is laughing at me - they are not gunshots, they're just fireworks, they all tell me. How can they be so sure? I check with the adults of the community centre, and yes, apparently they were fireworks. The fact that these children know to differentiate the sound of gunshots from bangers is in itself disturbing. It happens again. I jump, they laugh. We volunteers felt uneasy leaving the centre, but the adults assure us that all is fine.
It is raining. I head up the main alley, past the bar. And then I see it. It shines up at me, polished, gleaming. It is visibly positioned mid-lap. I sneak a look at the owner. A new face, and not a pleasant one. He is tough, old and black. His eyes are red and glazed - perhaps crack, perhaps alcohol, perhaps life. He is sitting importantly on an office chair under a green gazebo, walkie-talkie in one hand, the other fondling the gun on his lap. He looks like he means business. Stunned, I didn't know whether to greet him or nor, and frankly don’t remember if I did. His eyes burn into me as I walk up the hill.
That Wednesday afternoon, the bubble burst. The small community that had seemed so pleasant, so peaceful, so much preferable to those monotonous tower apartment blocks in the land of the 'asfalto', became a favela.
During subsequent visits I started seeing things that I had previously either chosen not to see, or had not existed. Walkie-talkies guard the upper and lower entrance to the favela. The group of men who hang around the bar outside the community centre have huge transparent plastic bags stuffed with balls of cotton wool, which they dole out in broad daylight. Spliffs are no longer hidden.The gun has changed hands, but is ever-present. Male volunteers have it pointed at them, demanding who they are and what their business is. Females get the greedy glare.
We ask about. No one in the community knows – or is willing to tell us – exactly what has happened, but there is certainly a change in the air. The cleaning lady, who has lived in the community the best part of her life, walks an extra mile to avoid the gun. Speculation is that the old bandido is back in town and, after serving his probably minimal time in jail, is back to mark his territory.
Two weeks later I have re-adjusted. The gun is now part of my daily routine. I greet and joke with its holders, even take a picture with one of them - a smiley middle-aged black guy with a podgy crater-marked face. Is he the same man as before? The mind is a powerful tool - perhaps the old, scar-faced man with red eyes was a figment of my imagination.
It is amazing how malleable we humans can be. What had shocked me two weeks earlier had ceased to do so, and, like the children, I simply accepted drug-trafficking, guns and bandits as part of everyday life. But that, for me, was a temporary life. These children know no different – they grow up under the law and order of the traffickers, idolise their I-pods and women, learn that being a criminal is easier and pays more than an honest day’s work. Having known and worked with these children made this harsh reality strike home. Let’s just hope that they see the alternative. Let them be the drummers, singers, Capoeira maestres, actors and football players that they have the potential to be; anything but life with that gun. And let us all remember that ‘reality’ is not always to be accepted.