Community September 14, 2016

Senior Projects 2016 – Educating the Favela

Living and working in a Brazilian slum
Editor’s note: From a simply educational point of view, high school senior projects provide an opportunity for students to apply skills and knowledge they have acquired over four years to achieve a specific goal. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that they often inspire students to pursue their true passions, some they may not have known they had before embarking on a senior project.
In a series of articles, we present excerpts from some outstanding projects of the 2016 graduating class.


High school: Community School

Post-graduation plans:
Bowdoin College

Project title: Educating the Favela: Living and Working in Brazil’s Slum

For his senior project, Max Tanous lived for nearly a month in Rocinha, Brazil, the largest slum in South America. With a population of 200,000, the favela sprawls across the hills above Rio de Janeiro and exists with few and intermittent public services such as drinkable water, electricity, and waste disposal. He taught in a school established by the nonprofit group Project Favela, as well as at a community center in the heart of one of Rio’s biggest drug-trafficking gangs, Amigos dos Amigos (ADA).

Excerpts from Max’s presentation (which included these email dispatches to his teachers):


After 36 hours of travel, I arrived in Rio yesterday and got to my apartment in the favela. I have just been getting settled in, trying not to get run over by moto-taxis, and meeting the other volunteers. I am the youngest by five years and the only American in my apartment. I’m living with three people from the UK, one from France, and another from Belgium.


Rocinha is the largest slum in South America, with almost 200,000 people living with intermittent public services. Much of the favela is controlled by drug-trafficking organizations such as Amigos dos Amigos.


… I teach math and English classes from 3 until 8:30 p.m. I am starting to understand the ups and downs of teaching … the kids can be difficult, I’m trying to teach in a language I don’t really know (although my Portuguese is improving), and living in a slum-like environment can be pretty taxing on the mind and body. However, the ups make it all worth it. When a kid finally understands and hugs you and is proud of what he’s done, well, that’s a really good feeling.

Rua 2 Area:

… Rua 2 refers to a place in the favela where I have been teaching English classes. It is in an “unpacified” region of the favela: one still controlled by a drug-trafficking gang, specifically, Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) … The streets are only wide enough for one or two people to walk at a time. There are open sewers everywhere, trash and drugged-out people lying on the streets. We often see traffickers … walking around with machine guns and radios. Some of my students at the main school live here. It is extremely sad. To see and experience it is shocking, but I am grateful to be able to see it. The people I teach are very engaged and want to learn.


… We lost all water in our section of the favela for two days. That was interesting—no showers, no flushing toilets … you get the idea.

I, along with a few other volunteers, gave out mosquito nets to pregnant women in Rocinha to help combat zika … Most of the girls were very young: 15 or 16. I spoke with the mother of one of the pregnant girls. She was lost, and knew that her daughter’s life was over. It will be impossible for them to pay for raising a child … By now, I have become used to traffickers with machine guns, drugs, and wads of cash. However, yesterday I saw a new level of it … one of the traffickers was a boy. He could not have been more than 12 years old. He was carrying a gun that was up to his chin, standing with a group of older traffickers guarding the street … Many of my students live in areas like these, and they are the same age as this boy.


… In teaching this week, I have seen tangible progress with a lot of kids. … It is hard to imagine what it must be like to grow up in an environment like this. The constant noise, smell, and home dynamics are very difficult to live in … However, some of my brightest students live in the most impoverished areas. I did the math Olympics with them and finally got traction with kids who otherwise scream, shout, run away, punch, etc. It was so satisfying!!! Talk about learning people skills! Working with them, in conjunction with living with six other people from around the world—it is awesome!!

I took a walk this morning down Rua 2 Street and came to the point where the police presence ended … I kept walking and saw two guys on either side of the street with AK-47s watching who came in and out. By now, the traffickers know who I am … and do not pay any attention to me … I turned the corner and there were six or seven traffickers sitting in a circle guarding the alleys … I asked in Portuguese where the community center was and explained that I taught there. The traffickers all nodded and smiled; one of them said, “Come with me, I’ll show you the way.” So, I found myself walking with this trafficker, introducing myself, shaking his hand (his other preoccupied with his machine gun.) He showed me around the streets; I told him who I was, what I was doing here, and things like this. Then once we got to the center, I thanked him, he thanked me (in English for the first time) and went on his way.

… As the Olympics draw near, the violence gets worse and the nation becomes increasingly unstable, we are all left watching and waiting to see what happens to this amazing, beautiful country.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.