soldiers on the hill

Today I was remembering this, and I offer no compulsory happy ending and not much of an analysis. It’s just a story.

One of the first times I entered a shantytown was in South Africa, and then again in Rio de Janeiro, and since then I’ve entered many more. In those spaces blatant structural violence is like a slap in the face. To be clear, I grew up around and even played as a child in lots of American ghettos on the east coast but there was something visually different on this international level. I remember a tropically warm October day in Rio de Janeiro. I was staying in a beautiful hotel at the corner where Copacabana met Ipanema. A Brazilian friend who ran an NGO inside favelas in Rio took me on a tour to see the work he was doing. We were in his car with the windows rolled down and the sun shining brightly. We sped past pretty beaches where pretty people lay under the sun. We went down highways and up narrow roads as the scenery began to change, roads began to crumble, and the structure of homes began to look homemade.  Finally, the car slowed down and rolled toward a favela entrance. I could see off in the distance that there were two young men holding what looked like long sticks. As we drove closer I realized those long sticks were actually rifles, AK-47’s, and the young men were actually teenage boys no more than 16 years old. As the boy “soldiers” walked toward our car, my friend demanded we make sure the windows were still all rolled down because they were tinted which always looked suspicious. The boys holding the rifles needed to be able to see who was inside the vehicle. I checked my window. The two youngsters walked to each side of the car, waving their rifles, and then stuck their heads fully inside to see. “I’m taking my American friend inside to see the place” my friend said as the boys peeked inside the car windows. They smiled warmly. I was nervous. They let us enter and as we drove inside slowly and I noticed another boy about 15 years old tucking a handgun into the back of his shorts. Another boy holding a rifle started talking to a girl who held a baby in her arms. The baby’s head was uncomfortably near the nose of the rifle, as if danger was not eminent. She rocked her baby and talked to the boy soldier. I asked my friend, “they all have guns but they look like nice boys, would they really shoot us?” His firm and quick response, “you better believe it!”

You better believe it. I’ll never forget that day or his response. It was like driving through a movie, but it was all too real.

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care