At the end of the opening day of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, I felt as if I had completely assimilated myself into 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, even if undergoing traumatic times in recent years, the most pulsating samba music and 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 cryptic 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 out a form about my experience at the embassy, I checked 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 official opening ceremony, 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, 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 aeons 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.
Unromantic side of Rio
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. His protests, made in a voice of utter desolation, would have shattered any heart. In the rawest practical terms, I had been initiated into the unromantic side of Rio and its Olympics.
Thus, I was wiser on the day the world trained its eyes on Brazil. I joined my house mates (all of us interns with Agencia Publica, our hosts) for the morning protests held on Rio’s famous Copacabana beach.
By the standards of any East African country, the protest was massive, but we were told it was small in Brazilian terms.
“Oh,” Lara, my American house mate, told me, “this is nothing. Protests here can be huge.” Lara is at Princeton University.
Massive or not, it was what the protest was about that drove home the message that romantic Brazil and beautiful Rio de Janeiro are but one side of the coin. There is another. I read the placards written in English. They told a story of alienation, marginalisation and of being discarded as a lucky minority, the rich and powerful enjoyed the good life.
The messages were poignant:
“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 on 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 on 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 flier that read: “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 stuck a placard in the sand and when she saw me approach, she wrapped herself in a Brazilian flag and stood behind it as I took a picture. The placard read: “To impress you, we have lost our homes.”
I knew 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 by city workers wherever they were dropped. The place remained clean. People on the beach were having a party, August 4-5 having been declared a public holiday by Mayor Eduardo Paes, himself the target of harsh criticism.
Paes has been at Rio City Hall for about 20 years, first as deputy mayor and then as chief executive. His fingerprints 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 ceremony. In all Olympic Games, organisers keep a tight lid 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. Santos-Dumont is to Brazilians what the Wright brothers are to Americans.
A minority of Rio’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 and growing, and despite constricted economic fortunes, it remains optimistic.
Then there is the huge majority underclass. To many of these people, the Olympics don’t even exist; they are too occupied with survival to have much to do with the Games.
These are the three classes that I saw on the day the Olympics began and with whom I will interact until the closing ceremony. Rio is still romantic, but now sobering.
Roy Gachuhi is currently in Rio de Janeiro on a scholarship as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica.