I arrived in the Rio de Janeiro airport early one morning in June of 2016. I was greeted by the sound of angry police officers on strike, one of whom was holding a sign that read in English, “Welcome to Hell.” Less than a month before I arrived, a human hand had washed up on the shore of Copacabana, just blocks from where I would be staying.
I had heard these gruesome stories and seen that infamous sign while watching CNN at home in Massachusetts a week before; More than once I had considered canceling my plans to spend a month in Rio, where I was to study an NGO’s sports-for-development program before starting medical school that August.
Concerned, well-meaning family and friends offered their best advice as I prepared to go:
“Watch out for Zika! Bring insect repellent.” (I used it twice.)
“Don’t swim in the water!” (Scientists had traced the development of a ‘super bacteria’ to sewage from hospitals leaking into the city’s waterways and to Rio’s world-famous beaches. So that one I actually took to heart.)
“Leave your phone in your apartment!” (Not a chance.)
“Don’t wear fancy shoes!” (I only wear fancy shoes once or twice a year, why would I do that in Rio?)
“Call someone if you’re afraid!” (How would I do that if I left my phone in my room?)
But at least I speak Portuguese, right? “They don’t speak the same Portuguese as us,” my dad said in our closed-mouth, Portuguese accent.
And finally “Deus te abençoe,” or “May God bless you.”
But all of those preconceived anxieties were extinguished that first day, when a Brazilian taxi driver, who, in addition to saying my Portuguese was funny, said, “Don’t worry about all that stuff. The problems in Rio are the same things they’ve always been.” And we’ve been doing just fine he implied.
He found comfort in that, and I guess I did too.
Really what had been bothering people in Rio were the 2016 Olympics. They were to start that July and the citizens of the city were ambivalent at best— like they are about most decisions made by their politicians. On the sands of the city, in the restaurants of the streets, and in the cabs of taxis there was general confusion: Why are we spending money on this, the Olympics, when those millions of dollars could be put to better use?
Millions of dollars that could be used for things like healthcare, so that the city, the country, and the northern half of continent could not only be eradicated of the threat of Zika, but have a healthcare network robust enough to care for the pregnant mothers and children who were plagued by it.
Or money towards the infrastructure of the city, to keep the super-bacteria out of revenue generating Rio’s beaches.
Or towards funding for education and jobs to ameliorate the gap between the richest of the city and the poorest– Rio’s infamous wealth inequality.
A lot of this debate seemed to mirror what was and is going on in the United States. Despite the different contexts, similar problems had arisen and the same questions were left to be answered: How do we distribute resources like wealth, healthcare, education, and access to opportunity?
For many, it seemed, the question was not how to distribute resources, but if it should be done. Or at least that is the message portrayed by more conservative politicians.
And in that political limbo, lives are forgotten.
The greatest disgrace is that some lives are forgotten more than others, and that they tend to be forgotten more consistently. To put it another way, there are some lives that are forgotten more systematically than others. Like those living in the favelas, or slums, of the city.
For many, the real confusion stemmed from this systematic neglect: Why aren’t we putting this money towards the favelas?
Instead, favelas were being displaced to make way for new hotels to accommodate world-traveling sports fans. Indeed, the discord that erupted were acute exacerbations of a chronic division between the wealthy elite and the urban poor, one with a history of a refusal to recognize communities of people as citizens, of denial of adequate healthcare and education, and of violent eradications of residents— a history at odds with the country’s banner motto: Ordem e Progresso (order and progress).
Despite this friction, however, most Brazilians still seemed to look forward to watching the Olympic soccer team lead by Neymar (who would go on to score the goal that would bring a glimmer of gold at such a tumultuous time for his country).
It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of this beautiful game. It is evident from the coffee-scented streets of Ipanema in comfortable cafes with Wi-Fi, and in snack shops of the sloping, colorful hills of the favelas: nothing bridges that gap between wealth and poverty quite like the bounce of a ball at the feet.
In Brazil I witnessed what I like to think of as an inoculation—or sociocultural vaccine— an intervention or project that can instill change in a community by fortifying innate passion and resilience against the sociopolitical injustices that engender poverty; those injustices that have been passed down through generations of those cast from away from communities and robbed of resources.
In this case the patient population was a group of sixty to eighty children, ages as young as 6 and as old as 18, living in a favela in the shadow of Cristo Redentor (Brazil’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue).
The vaccine? Soccer, of course.
It was administered twice a week in two different settings: the first, classroom sessions addressing sexual health, gender stereotypes, and violence; the other, organized soccer scrimmages led by a “coach” named Leonardo. Leonardo himself had grown up in the very same favela at a time of more unrest and disorder than today, but he was able to leave and pursue a degree in physical education and return to his community to give back.
At around 3 pm on Fridays, groups of children would arrive at the quadra, a fenced-in soccer court of cement with goals at either side.
“This kid right here is the biggest frangueiro in the favela,” my guide Marcão, (another “coach”) joked with me within earshot of the goalie as we arrived. In Portuguese the term frangueiro is a goalie that often allows easy goals, a frango a goal that should’ve been saved. (Frango also means chicken— I never understood the connection).
The boy guarding the net heard Marcão’s taunt, turned his eyes from the game to reassure me that he was not in fact a frangueiro— just as the ball flew behind him into the goal. It was then that I knew that I could trust Marcão’s guidance.
Marcão explained to me what Promundo, the NGO, was up against. Although the favela was “not as bad as it used to be when Leonardo lived here,” the children often came from fractured homes and schools where teachers would often simply not show up. As a product of this disorder they would often see their friends look to the dangerous world of drug trafficking for income or for a sense of community.
But Promundo built them an alternative: they come for the soccer and stay to learn from the classes where they have a community to return to, twice a week. If Rio’s solution to solving crime is to quarantine favela residents, Promundo’s is to build change from within those confines.
Often times these children come face to face with outside stigma. But rather than facing it themselves, they have a community of support behind them. Marcão told me about two children who were confronted by a bus driver who was to take the children to play soccer against children in a similar program in another favela—in an effort to expand the children’s horizons beyond their own community. Not believing the two children’s reason for being on the bus, the driver ordered them off, until Leonardo stepped in to vouch for them.
“These children know more or less what the city thinks of them,” Marcão told me. It was Promundo’s job to make sure these children did not become ensnared by that stigma.
During my three-week stay, the children came to welcome me, happy to see me each time. They made an effort to make me feel comfortable, even giving me a nickname– gagos palavras, which I later learned was not actually a nickname but a jab at my Portuguese, translating roughly to “eating words.” But despite my different, difficult to understand accent, soccer brought us closer and I grew to know some of these kids in between the games’ victories and defeats.
They were polite and inquisitive, wondering why I had a different accent, what America was like, and asking which players and teams I supported. If these were the children the world was afraid of, I didn’t see why. One kid summarized it nicely: “Here the reaction [instead of violence] is to talk face to face… I was always picking fights with everyone. I’ve changed a lot.”
By Promundo’s own metrics, 90% of the children enrolled in their program no longer use violence with their colleagues. And when violence and lives of crime are no longer options, real change can happen: two of the older children chose to follow in Leonardo’s footsteps and apply to college for physical education.
My last day at Promundo ended with the youngest of the children having their turn on the quadra. Boys and girls ages six to ten split into two teams, while some of the older children stayed on the sidelines to watch and hang out with Marcão.
Six-year-old Bruno stood at least a head shorter than anyone than any of the other kids his age, but he had the most fans on the sidelines. He was a small boy with a loud, almost aggressive voice and an intimidating facial expression to match. My impression was that he had felt like he had to act tough because he was so small– a fact which made him an instant fan-favorite.
When he got the ball, Marcão yelled “Vai Bruno!” while the older kids on the sideline joined in. Bruno got the ball in front of the goal– and scored. We all went wild, and Bruno cracked a modest smile.
But then he scored again.
To the glee of everyone watching, he ran to the other side of the court—this time unable to contain himself to just a modest smile— and slid onto his knees like Neymar in the Olympics. His face had changed completely: he was grinning from ear to ear to the chants of his name– his own little moment of glory.
That moment was emblematic of the work that Promundo does: empowering children and bringing them, right behind, a crowd of people who care.
Soccer became a constant to these children in the disorder they have been left in. It became a ritual onto which, with supervision, they could latch onto as they grow into who they might become.
Constants, in a young life, bring Order. Order itself implies that there is someone who cares enough to put it there—hopefully somebody who cares about the right things like Promundo and other organizations that prioritize the needs of the communities in which they serve.
And with a bit more Order, the chance of Progress.
Bryan Rego is a second-year medical student. If he hadn’t committed to becoming a doctor at age 17 he would have been a professional soccer player.