Sweaty gloves, Muhammed Ali and toxic femininity


Since I started boxing, I’ve suggested it to quite a few women I know. New people who sign up have usually had it recommended to them by friends who have already done a white collar event. White collar fights are usually aimed at professional people who have never boxed before. Some told me they were put off, not by the fear of being punched in the face, but because they had tried boxfit or similar classes before, and didn’t like putting their hands into sweaty gloves and pads which had been used by other people. One said to me she thought the hygiene was too poor in the fight gyms she had been to.

Muhammed Ali once said that it isn’t the mountain ahead to climb that wears you down, it’s the stone in your shoe. I think he was trying to say that it’s the trivial bullshit that can prevent you from achieving what you want to in life. Nothing is more trivial than being too concerned to put your hand into someone else’s sweat to ever feel that feeling of some greater force flowing through you as you punch the pads, to get strong and fast and fearless.

I do have sympathy for people with OCD, which is a mental health issue. However, I have listened to too many conversations in groups of women where they each try to outdo each other over the issue of cleanliness. Like competitive dieting, or judging others for their sexual behaviour, it is a form of a fixation on purity. If I’m the cleanest, that makes you dirty in comparison, just like if I’m skinnier than you, that makes you fat in comparison. Much is made of so-called toxic masculinity these days, but these are examples to me of toxic femininity. At its worst, it not only prevents the individual themselves from really living life and enjoying it, but attempts to inhibit the lives of others. Do not not do things because of other people’s sweat. It’s a bit rank, but you’ll soon forget about it when you’re learning how to slip and roll and deliver a killer upper cut (I still can’t do any of these things well, but I am trying).

This is a picture of my gloves. They don’t smell too good after a training session. I never knew it before I started boxing, but hands can sweat just like feet, and the odour is similar. They are also fucking awesome and I just don’t care.

When sparring makes you cry

Tuesday night I was walking down Camden Road in tears. They just fell down my face and I cried openly, with no real motive. No motive that is, unless you count the blood spewing from my nose and mingling with those tears, the dull ache in my head and the pain in my forehead every time I went to raise my eyebrows.

Once, in a job I had a long time ago, a colleague was telling me he thought another colleague was unstable. Erratic behaviour, extreme demands and shouting at others were all invoked as evidence, and then we came to the piece de resistance: she had been known to cry at work. To him, that was proof she was a loon. I wanted to tell him that on numerous occasions, I had been inconsolable in the toilets. Sometimes that was due to conflict with other members of staff, sometimes it was personal life stuff, sometimes it was just a release of tension and stress. But I couldn’t admit that without tacitly admitting I too was unstable.

The belief has stayed with me. The first time I sparred in my white collar boxing group, people apologised every time they made contact. Some punch too hard (you are only supposed to use 60% of power in sparring, which is practicing your fight skills without getting injured), drunk on the cocktail of fear, outrage and adrenaline. Some people get upset when they get hit in the head, and some cry. It takes some getting used to.

I have surpassed that stage, but it can still be a shock. I recently sparred on a Sunday morning with a formidable partner. Still sleepy from the melatonin I had taken – and I don’t want to face up to the fact that fighting might aggravate my insomnia rather than ease it, because I CANNOT give it up (I’ll save why that is for another blog) – I took a lot of punches from her, and they hurt. Right about that minute, I knew I was going to cry. It was like a dam bursting, and I couldn’t contain the water anymore. The shock and pain merged with all the residual self-doubt in me and I felt like I was hurting because I deserved it. Yes, there was self-pity in there too.

Then I looked up, and saw a quote from Mike Tyson on the gym wall. “Never show weakness,” it said. I went to the toilets, again, to blow my bloody nose and sob a bit. I came back smiling. When I came back, another woman who had been sparring was openly in tears. Why did I feel like I had to hide it?

When I was in Brazil, the first foreign correspondents I met were generally men. They talked about the choice to move to Brazil as a relatively untapped market which was to be the venue for two mega sporting events, the World Cup and the Olympics, and as an exciting and beautiful place to be. They never mentioned it might be difficult to be away from home in a dangerous country. If anyone thought that, they kept it to themselves.

Then I met a young female correspondent who was arriving soon before I was leaving. She wanted advice, so we agreed to have a drink one evening. I thought it would be about the practical stuff, like how to pitch a story, how to keep safe, etc. And the first questions were about that. Then, “How did you manage your emotions?” she asked. It took me by surprise. Nobody ever asked me that, but of course it mattered. Tyson was right that you can’t show weakness in a fight, or your opponent will take advantage of it, but that’s not the whole story.

I don’t know how far I’ll get yet, but I’m interested in these questions: do men and women deal with these emotions differently (in boxing and in life)? What can we learn from each other? What is true strength and courage all about? I don’t know the answers yet, or if I ever will, but for now I know that I can deal with it if I cry sometimes after sparring.

Fighting and writing

This blog is now dedicated to boxing. I’ve been home from Brazil for two years now and fighting is the most interesting thing I’m doing with my time. It would be misleading to even say I am an amateur boxer, as that implies someone who still trains full-time. Most of the time, I am sat at a desk like a sack of potatoes, and at 41 boxing will never be my main occupation.

Nevertheless, after taking part in my first fight on May 24 2018, I am addicted. There is something about boxing which attracts writers, even though it might be said to be the opposite of a cerebral activity. Maybe because of that in fact. You are never so much in the moment as when you are being punched in the face, and fighting for your life as it feels at the time.

A little part of me feels guilty that focusing on any sport and its inner ramifications for the player is neglecting what’s going on in the world, like a kind of navel-gazing. Maybe there will be time to reflect on those things too. Maybe my age makes me think this is the last time I will be able to throw myself into the purely physical, and I have to rage against the dying of the light with a pair of gloves and a bloody nose.

Another reason I wanted to do this is because some of my favourite fighters have not been known for their ability to articulate themselves, at least not in words. Obviously Ali is an exception. That might be why the sport attracts the likes of Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to do it for them. So much goes unsaid, and I want to try and say it.

Yet another is a thought which has been ruminating since I read A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan some time ago. It’s a good introduction to combat sports around the world, and also explores the compulsion to fight. While I find myself nodding along to a lot of it, there was very little in there about women fighters and quite a big focus on masculinity and the desire to join a pack and prove yourself. It struck me that for women doing this, it is not so much about belonging as transgressing. Women are supposed to nurture and heal, not compete, show aggression, and fight. Yet the sport appears to be becoming more and more popular among women. I want to explore that here, talk about some of the emotions it throws up and what it means to women to fight each other physically.

Let battle commence.

Heroes and villains – Jose Junior

Jose Junior (photo: Andre Santos)
Jose Junior (photo: Andre Santos)

There is a saying that Brazil is not for amateurs. I don’t think it was referring to foreign correspondents, but it certainly could be applied to reporting here. Corruption and a kind of promiscuity between organisations and individuals, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, mean that it isn’t easy to tell simple narratives of heroes and villains. How to tell a story of an ordinary person standing up to crooked authorities, for example, if that person has colluded with those authorities and even unofficially accepted money from them? What about drug lords who are sorely missed, religious figures who are involved in organised crime, and people indicted of terrible crimes, only to be released some time later? Perhaps there are still heroes and villains, but the context must be understood. These are muddy waters, more so than the Guanabara Bay itself.

Things are often not what they seem. Polarised politics are common everywhere now, perhaps a symptom of the dominance of social media. It creates a pressure for news stories to conform to often naive interpretations of reality. Where favelas have been removed and residents have been evicted, for example, it is common to find new families occupying the shells of those homes, often claiming to journalists and the authorities that they have lived there for years so as to claim the right to be rehoused. They aren’t telling the truth; but perhaps the wider truth is that housing is a problem here, particularly for the poor, and the trend for squeezing them out to the peripheries of the city with the miserable public transport system being what it is here has the knock-on effect of these occupations. It’s a reporting challenge.

This need for nuance was on my mind when I interviewed Jose Junior of AfroReggae, an organisation originally formed in the Vigario Geral favela which has worked to help young people escape from organised crime for 23 years. He negotiates with gangsters who want to hand themselves in, recently interviewing Brazil’s most wanted man, Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, also known as Playboy. The photos appeared in the right-wing news weekly Veja; Playboy was shot dead in a police operation soon after. A Brazilian version of when actor Sean Penn interviewed Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn was also blamed for the subsequent capture and death of El Chapo, a responsibility he refused to take on board. Penn said he had just wanted to open a debate about the war on drugs, though he admitted the Mexican authorities must have felt humiliated by the publicity.

With Celso Pimenta, Playboy (foto Alesandro Rocha 2015)
With Celso Pimenta, Playboy (foto Alesandro Rocha 2015)

Sitting behind his huge desk in Lapa, downtown Rio, Junior is even more unashamed. “The police had no way of following me into the favela. Plus, everyone wanted to do that interview,” he said. It’s undeniable that Playboy’s flamboyant behaviour, provoking the authorities with ostentatious parties and brutal violence, along with his middle-class background, all made him a compelling figure.

As is Junior himself. Covered in eight tattoos which are a collection of different religious motifs, from Shiva to a Jewish star of David, his sports luxe dress sense puts him firmly with his favela roots. Yet he is hated by many on the left, who see him as an establishment figure. Junior supported centre right candidate Aecio Neves in last year’s election, another fact he is unrepentant about. “We were proved right – today most of the country is against the government,” he says of Dilma Rousseff’s leftist Workers Party. His eclectic approach to tattoos and politics could seem like the typically carioca tendency to make deals with people regardless of your principles. Yet Junior insists this is down to integrity and loyalty, and he certainly displays that with his unapologetic defence of out-of-favour ex-Governor Sergio Cabral, for example. These are personal loyalties, and they span all classes, races and walks of life in Rio, the famously divided city.

On that big desk are photos of friends he has lost to Rio’s violence, a mixture of AfroReggae colleagues, childhood friends and police. Another controversy has been the organisation’s decision to work with police, met with bitter responses from favela communities grieving loved ones taken out by police violence. “I don’t have one side or the other. It’s very important for me to retain my principles,” says Junior.

Unsurprisingly in this most compromised and compromising of cities, accusations of corruption have flowed. It sometimes seems as if people are more offended by open conversations between different sides than behind-the-scenes collusion we all know goes on. Or perhaps people just assume brown envelopes are exchanging hands because it’s so often the case. Junior’s response? “I could be a very rich man if I wanted.” The accusations and even death threats do not appear to phase him, though what lies beneath the bravado is hard to fathom. Health problems including chronic pain have been diagnosed, showing that it does all take its toll.

“I’m not afraid of dying. I am afraid that people close to me will die as has happened many times,” he says, glancing at the photos of his long lost friends as he speaks. “I confess I’ve thought about killing myself a lot. But not out of fear, it was like I was missing a place which I had never been to. But I have to live, I’m the first person in Brazil who has confronted organised crime and hasn’t left this city or this country.”

A biography has just come out in Brazil of Jose Junior with intentions to turn it into a film. A regular on the nation’s powerful Globo TV, he is a kind of celebrity here, with a fan club as big as his anti-fan club. In the book, he admits he misses physically fighting with people, and it’s at that point I wonder if all this is just macho bravado. So many men will bore you here with tales of their street fighting adventures. Being seen along the country’s officially most dangerous man could be a kind of game, just like the dressings down Junior says he has given countless drug bosses for employing children or killing liberally in their communities. Rio is addicted to violence and it hardly seems to matter whose side you are on at times. This version of masculinity is king.

I had difficulty with the interview. Notorious or unpopular figures can be very telling about the society that produces them. But how to explain this mixture of naivety and knowingness, self-hatred and narcissism, honesty and artifice, mysticism and pragmatism, that is so typical of this place?

I ask him about admitting in the book that he had homosexual experiences in his youth, surely a tough thing for any macho man to admit.

“Everyone had them, that’s the reality for my generation. It wasn’t as easy with girls in those days. In my days, it was normal to have sex with an older man instead. I told anyone who knew me about it, I wasn’t being brave [in admitting it],” he says. That was my macho theory debunked. Suddenly, the Sean Penn/El Chapo saga looks very simple indeed.

Why are people calling for a return to Brazil’s dictatorship?

Thousands wearing Brazil's colours protest in Copacabana
Thousands wearing Brazil’s colours protest in Copacabana
I wasn’t here in June 2013, when protests took over Brazil. I remember being quite surprised by the scale of them, especially as Brazilian friends had often told me that the nation wasn’t really the protesting kind compared to neighbours such as Argentina.
This weekend, hundreds of thousands were on the streets again all over the country, but it appeared very different. While military police were criticised for their violence in the June 2013 protests, which were notably young and had an anti-establishment feel, they were cheered at the one I was at in Copacabana. This time, an older and more affluent crowd – predominantly white – were protesting against the government under President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party (which I expect none of them voted for in any case).
Some, though not all, want the President impeached, though this will be a tall order seeing as there is no smoking gun linking her directly to the Petrobras graft scandal. The investigation is still ongoing, and the Worker’s Party’s treasurer has been implicated in it today. Nevertheless, even those calling for impeachment admit it is unlikely at this stage.
The most disturbing element I saw was the number of people calling for a military coup. Brazil’s military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, and while it is often viewed as being relatively benign in comparison to Argentina’s, for instance, the numbers of disappeared are almost certainly higher than the official figure from Brazil’s Truth Commission of 434 disappeared or killed. Sunday in fact marked 30 years since the country became a democracy, yet many want to go back to the past.
Rita Souza wants a military coup
Rita Souza wants a military coup

“We have to do what we can to get rid of this red wave,” Paulo Alberquerque, 48, told me. He was representing an organisation called Movimento Unificado and calling for a coup. “Just to clean it up. And clean is exactly the word. They are destroying Brazil, especially our organisations. Communism is not for Brazil.”
While the political scientist David Fleischer explained to me that this group is at best a fringe, mostly headed by retired military officers, there were also many individuals at the protest in Copacabana such as Rita Souza, 60, who saw military intervention as an effective interim measure to deal with Brazil’s persistent corruption problem.
“I’m here on my own,” she told me. “Impeachment won’t take out all the corrupt politicians for good. We need the military to take over for 90 days, then to hold another election.” Some I spoke to mentioned Fernando Collor, a former president impeached in 1992, who nevertheless returned to politics and has been implicated in the Petrobras corruption scandal recently.
Many have forgotten that as with other regimes, the promises of a temporary, provisional government and no restrictions on freedom of speech or the opposition were soon put aside the last time the military took over here. My initial reaction to these placards was shock, though a friend said perhaps it is a sign that Brazil’s democracy is in good health if people are able to take to the streets and openly ask for such a thing as a military coup. It seems as though often in Europe or the US, certain topics can’t be broached at all, which populist right wingers such as Nigel Farage take advantage of. Saying the unsayable has an appeal all of its own, and certain views have more power if they are seen as forbidden.
Across town, in the less affluent northern suburb of Meier, an “aulao” (big class) was held that night by history professor Wolney Malafaia. A group gathered in a circle to listen and debate the legacy of the military dictatorship. It was exactly the sort of gathering that a democracy allows you to have, which would not have been permitted under the military regime. I was reminded of how fragile this democracy is here, and how recently the reality was very different.
“We are not in a democracy, with the media, justice system and police that we have now,” Malafaia said. With institutions such as the military police still in existence, and Amnesty International’s recent finding that 82 young people are killed every day in Brazil (77% of whom are black), it is hard not to agree that the transition has been slow, and troubled. The impact of the dictatorship was felt more among favela residents, indigenous people and those in distant rural locations than the well-off, educated student protesters who everyone remembers, people at the gathering pointed out. These groups are still the ones who experience violence and discrimination today.
The plummeting Real, unemployment, deeply embedded corruption and the high cost of living here are all legitimate complaints, and it would be a deep disservice to describe everyone who took to the streets on Sunday as a far-right loon motivated by hate, or just rich people who don’t want to see concessions made to the poor. When the economy starts to crumble, people feel this in their pockets. A friend of mine who works for the federal health department is still waiting for her salary from three months ago. These are real issues, and it is no wonder people are unhappy with Rousseff (who has exacerbated matters by seeming distant and aloof in any public addresses she has made). I hope Brazil finds a path to political reform to address these issues, with or without Rousseff at the helm, starting with a clean-up of Petrobras. The worst thing that could happen would be to go backwards.

Surprising truths about drugs and life on the streets in Sao Paulo

cracolandia nov 14
I recently went to Sao Paulo to write for the BBC about a Facebook page, Sao Paulo Invisivel (Invisible Sao Paulo) which tells the stories of homeless people on the streets of Sao Paulo and photographs them. It has been a huge success, with some people reuniting with their families and moving into rented accommodation purely as a result of the page and its 140,000+ supporters.

While I was there, I also visited the area known as Cracolandia, Sao Paulo’s Crackland. I found out about it during my first stint in Brazil, during which a massive and violent operation cleared out the area. The resulting photographs on a US news site were like something from a film, crumbling buildings eerily lit by police lights, painfully thin people who looked like zombies scattering as the police descended. I went for the first time for an alternative football event held there during the World Cup, and then it was during the day, as well as the fact the area was swelled with people from various NGOs and the municipal authority. Hardly the zombie apocalypse I had been expecting, but perhaps not a normal day there (if such a thing exists). A visit on my own later on revealed some surprising facts about the place and its hundreds of inhabitants. This was after those inhabitants had been wheeled out for lurid World Cup reports on the dark side of Brazil that beamed out all over the world. Here are a few of those things, in random order, which I found surprising (but true) about the zone of Sao Paulo which has been taken over by drug users and their dealers.

They’re not zombies
alexandre cracolandia
Alexandre, 40, who has been in Cracolandia for half his life

I can’t pretend that what I saw there isn’t sad and shocking, because it is. People scrabble in the dust on the ground for bits of the crack rocks which might have broken off. This is in a place where a rock costs just R$5, or £1.25. Some are dressed bizarrely, or partially dressed, with the ravages of drug abuse clear on their bodies. However, like alcoholics, there are varying degrees of this ravagement, and just like alcoholics, some have jobs. I spoke to Alexandre, now 40, who has spent 20 years of his life in Cracolandia. He has now been off crack for four months, and participates in the De Bracos Abertos scheme (of Open Arms) which gives people living there some money in return for doing some work for the municipal authority. The work Alexandre is doing now is mainly street cleaning, but interestingly he worked almost all of the time he was in Cracolandia. I’ve worked with alcoholics and people with cocaine problems before (what journalist hasn’t), and while their work might be affected in some cases, many still function to some degree while some will ultimately be lost forever. Crack may appear a world away, but the same rule applies.
“My father kicked me out of the house because I’m gay,” Alexandre told me. He gravitated towards this cheap, transient part of the city firstly as an adolescent because he didn’t have anywhere to live. “The community is good here, I made friends. At first, I only smoked marijuana or drank pinga [pinga is a slang term for cachaca, the sugarcane spirit made in Brazil],” he said. After a while, he experimented with crack as the people around him were doing. He is under no illusions about the effect it had on him. “It was total degradation,” he said, as only a life without inhibitions, conducted entirely on the street, could be. Yet there is still always a person inside that zombie shell. “I lost my self-esteem. People treat you like an animal, but were are still humans,” he stressed.
Some people, whether under the influence or not (people who have been heavy users of any type of cocaine, of which crack is a byproduct, seem to have that fast, intense way of talking to you at all times, I’ve noticed) want to tell you about their previous lives. It is poignant, because they are often convinced they will go back tomorrow and leave Cracolandia behind, but in many cases that will never happen. A man approached me in Rio’s version of Cracolandia carrying a laptop bag, and gave me his email address, although there was no laptop inside, he was not working and was squatting in an abandoned, half-demolished house. These stories may be a form of drug users’ denial but they are also a reminder that family, love bonds, work and individual interests are inside us all. To have slipped into this twilight zone for a while does not mean they have been totally forgotten.

They’re not all on crack
rita roseane
Rita Rose, Cracolandia’s community leader, with police officer Roseane

During the day, behind the band of crack users and makeshift tents they have assembled, there are a team of NGOs and a community base where the police have a permanent presence. All of this means there are various people who are in the transitional stage of trying to leave the crack life, as well as all the workers there. The most incredible person I met was Rita Rose, 48, the community leader. Yes, Crackland has a community leader. Though not an addict herself, she arrived in this place in 2009 to find her husband, an addict. “I slept here at night on the floor with my arms round him, I took him to hotels when I could, I fed him,” she remembered. “I fought it all, but he’s in prison. It’s a strong love. I don’t want to lose him like I lost my first husband, because of crack. I have to believe we can win.”
Rita now mediates between fights – which have been known to end in the death of one or more of the participants – and speaks up on behalf of the residents to the authorities, among other tasks. She puts her ability to resist the bacchanalia all around her down to her strict upbringing. It’s hard not to imagine that she has seen and experienced the worst of drug addiction too, and that has put her off, but then again maybe such rationale has no place in this world. If it gets you it gets you. That’s true of any drug.
“This place has a name. Don’t call it Cracolandia, this area is Campos Eliseos,” she implored me. The area known as Cracolandia has moved over the years, but Campos Eliseos is the official name for where it now stands. Looking around, how could anyone see anything but a Crackland, I thought to myself. But Rita sees Campos Eliseos, and maybe I should try to do the same.

Government schemes have been a success – but that has not reduced the population
The de Bracos Abertos scheme is nearly a year old now, and it has been hailed as a success. Alexandre, the 40-year-old rejected by his homophobic father, was one of its success stories. It has been coupled with a police approach which has officially been softened. While notably brutal in the past, the policy is now to only arrest drug dealers, although this is sometimes a grey area in Cracolandia, where users will carry drugs or sell them in return for tiny amounts.
The problem is that this hasn’t reduced numbers, which can go up to about 1,500 people at night. Quite the contrary.
“I have realised that the population is getting bigger. People know that there is the opportunity for treatment here,” Sergeant Herrera told me. Another reason is that the users feel safer together, as well as the fact that they know they can buy drugs there. There is also speculation from the municipal authority that the homeless population in Sao Paulo is increasing generally.
As I was leaving, the NGOs working there were about to have a meeting to decide what to do about the increasing population. Maybe part of the problem is that the more enlightened policies of the past year or so are not being enacted in other parts of Sao Paulo state. A more joined-up approach would definitely seem a better idea. Sadly, Brazil’s healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with all these addicts. These few islands of assistance, such as the Bracos Abertos scheme, are all they have, and that won’t help everyone.

Meet Rio’s new forensic police officers

graduation women

Today, I watched 100 new Civil Police forensic experts get sworn in for the first time, after training at the police academy. It’s a cliche to say that police are getting younger (when in reality, it’s me that’s getting older) but also I noted that so many of them are women. “The presence of women is increasing every time. We have no quota policy, but more women are entering every time there is a new course. The image of the police today is totally different to what it was before,” the Civil Police boss Fernando Veloso told me afterwards.

Brazil’s police force is made up of Federal Police, Civil Police and Military Police, which makes it sometimes complicated to understand who is responsible for what. Civil Police investigate crimes, while the Military Police are on the streets, and the Federal Police are responsible for things like policing borders, as a simple explanation. In general, the Civil Police in Rio are pretty well-represented when it comes to women. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on police operations and in police stations here, and while I was expecting a macho environment, it was good to see the respect for the female deputies and officers. One such deputy here in Rio was used as the inspiration for a novela character and has become semi-famous. She was referred to as the “poderosa chefona” (powerful female boss, is the best way I can translate that) by the mainly male officers in that station. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to women in the Civil Police. Its cover photo is a pair of high-heeled, crossed legs, with a pink handbag and its contents strewn around it, which include a pistol and a pair of handcuffs. “Far from being the fragile sex!” its strapline announces.

It’s a good thing to have more women in the police not just because it’s always good to have women in positions of power and responsibility. A survey in 2003 found that 70% cariocas, or residents of Rio, believed that having more females in the police would make them less violent and more respected overall. It has certainly been part of the policy for the police pacification units in the favelas of Rio. Privately, some cops have complained that women join and don’t want to act on the streets or even carry guns, but are attracted by the security of a government job. Change takes time.

At the graduation, both the Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao and Rio’s security boss Jose Beltrame spoke of the challenges ahead and the progress which has been made in terms of valuing the profession of police. In a city which has been so dogged by violence for many decades, and with the almost daily reports of police brutality or abuses of power, the profession itself had become somewhat denigrated. You have to hope that a new generation, one that is not exclusively male and macho, will ring in those changes. I really want to look at those fresh faces and believe in that.

“Public security is starting to be valued as a profession. Brazil is learning in the cruellest way possible, through loss of lives, but it is starting to wake up,” Beltrame told the expectant new recruits. “You will encounter difficulties in your work, you will find deficiencies. You will resolve these like the head of a family, working out your priorities at the end of each month, and solving one thing at a time.”

graduation pezao
Rio’s Governor Pezao gives a certificate to the one of the new female recruits

Pezao, who was re-elected at the beginning of this month, also stressed the challenges ahead. “I look at Rio de Janeiro eight years ago and I look at it now. We’ve got a lot to do still but we have achieved a lot so far,” he said.

Later today, across town in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, a vigil was held in memory of Hugo Leonardo Santos Silva, 33, who was shot by Military Police in 2012. His family said he was a builder who was shot when approached by police and searched, while the police at the time claimed he was involved in a shoot out with them. It was a reminder that the issue of policing here remains extremely contentious. Many of these protests are about the pacification units and the Military Police action in favelas, but in a country which had 56,000 murders in 2012 it is clear that violence is still a severe problem. That’s something these new recruits, male or female, will have to face on a daily basis. Good luck to them.

O menos mal

"Presidenta" Dilma, by Alexandre Vieira
“Presidenta” Dilma, by Alexandre Vieira

O menos mal means “the least bad.” It was a phrase I have heard a lot in the lead up to yesterday’s elections, as Brazilians told me they were voting not for their ideal candidate, but the one who wasn’t quite as bad as the others. That was especially true here in Rio, where they were voting for the governor between a powerful figure from the evangelical church and Pezao, who represents the previous hated governor Serge Cabral’s regime. In the end, Pezao won, another example of people voting for continuation rather than change.

In the case of the president Dilma Rousseff, 51 per cent of votes is hardly a resounding endorsement. After such a nasty campaign on both sides, that comes as no surprise. It wasn’t unusual to see fights and arguments in the streets here between fans of Dilma and her challenger, PSDB’s Aecio Neves. Television debates focused on character assassinations and generally inaccurate scaremongering rather than policy. Social media was full of vitriol from both sides, with Aecio supporters blaming voters in the poor north east for his defeat, even while the majority in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the well-off state which Aecio is from, voted for the Workers’ Party and Dilma.

It is fair to say with an abstention rate of about 20%, in a country where voting is a legal obligation, that many were disillusioned. It is still quite difficult to believe that this is the country where millions took to the streets to protest in 2013. Many people I know who voted for more radical, left-wing candidates in the first round transferred their votes to Dilma for the second round, as the “menos mal” option. They saw Aecio as a step into the past, a representative of Brazil’s elite and a spoiled playboy. A cutting resurfaced of an interview from his student days in the United States, in which he said that all Brazilians had maids, and joked about never having made his own bed. The project of social inclusion which many see as beginning in earnest under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government was one they couldn’t turn their back on.

Critically, the economy boomed under Lula and it has stalled in recent years, leading many in the business community to back a change under Aecio. But it seems that Brazilians haven’t forgotten the advances of the Lula years. In case they were about to, Lula himself was a constant on the campaign trail, appearing in the TV propaganda and even on the Dilma stickers supporters wore. He was side by side with Dilma for her victory speech last night. Many think he will run again in 2018. People often talk about social issues as being totally separate to the success of the economy, but with inequality comes instability, and invariably crime and other issues. Having large numbers of people who are unable to participate in the market stalls growth, and when a small group of people run everything it is hardly an incentive to become more competitive and efficient. Perhaps voters recognised this.

Nevertheless, Brazil’s interminable bureaucracy is in dire need of sorting out, and people are tired of corruption scandals. Dilma said in her speech that she doesn’t believe Brazil is a divided nation, but the viciousness of this electoral campaign suggests otherwise. While 95 per cent of Brazilians own a TV, only 57 per cent have access to proper sewage. It is a country with one of the biggest rich poor gaps in the world, where those who enjoy its riches are impatient to see Brazil reach its promise, forgetting about those who are lagging behind. While the markets are already showing their disapproval of Dilma’s victory, the next four years will reveal if the choice was really the “menos mal” for Brazil and its citizens.

Something Brazil’s election candidates aren’t talking about

Jandira Magdalena dos SantosPicture: Jandira Magdalena dos Santos, 27

Today 57 people (so far) have been arrested for being part of a secret abortion gang in Rio de Janeiro. The police revealed they had performed abortions on girls as young as 13, one of many facts which was uncovered in a 15-month investigation in which 80 women gave evidence. It is a crime to have an abortion in Brazil, except in exceptional circumstances such as rape, if the mother’s life is in danger or if part of the foetus’ brain is missing. Yet it is hard to understand why a 13-year-old girl should have to resort to an illegal abortion clinic to get a termination. Police point out illegal abortions in Brazil are a moderate moneyspinner, with gangs making an average R$300,000 per month (that’s about £79,000, or $125,000). We don’t know what motivates each individual (including doctors and lawyers) to participate in such a scheme, but the scale of it inevitably points to a demand which is not being met legally.

Now we are in the second round of Brazil’s elections, it is worth remembering that the two presidential candidates are against changing abortion law. That includes the Workers’ Party incumbent, former guerrilla (and still a woman) Dilma Rousseff. In the last election in 2010, she actually denied being pro-choice when it comes to abortion. Her rival Aecio Neves has reiterated several times he will not change the law if elected. Other social issues have taken centre stage, including gay rights which I wrote about here. But despite two recent horrific deaths of women whose abortions went wrong, both of which have been major news here, the topic has not lit up electoral debates. I have read many impassioned editorials, even in the mainly conservative Brazilian mainstream press, asking for a change in the law, but the public has not got behind it as a cause. Why is that? Well, it could be something to do with the fact that a survey in 2010 found that 82% of Brazilians don’t believe abortion law here needs to be changed.

Brazil is famously the biggest Catholic country in the world, and even if that is gradually changing, no doubt those attitudes still have a strong influence, seeping into the culture over time and invisibly shaping morals and beliefs. The trouble with criminalising personal choices is that the wrong people can suffer as a result. Jandira Magdalena dos Santos was 27 when she disappeared in August. Four months’ pregnant and desperate, she had told her father she wanted to get an abortion. He talked to her on the phone, reassuring her, telling her that they would go together to find a clinic. That phonecall was the last time they ever spoke. The burnt remains of her body were found two days later, missing fingertips and teeth, inside a car. For whatever reason, Jandira went alone to the clinic, and something went wrong during the operation.  Those responsible, fearing repercussions for their involvement in an illegal business as well as her death, had done everything possible to disguise her identity. While police were able to make a genetic match on her body, Jandira was still buried without being officially identified due to the measures they took. “The worst thing is that they mutilated her,” her father said at the funeral.

Elizângela Barbosa already had three children when she fell pregnant, and decided not to have the fourth. Aged 32, she tried to take medication to end the pregnancy, but the attempts were not successful. It looked like the only option was to try a clandestine clinic. A driver admitted being told to take her to a nearby hospital after complications, though she did not make it there alive. She lost her life minutes before arriving at the hospital. An autopsy later found she still had a plastic tube in her uterus when she died.

Both deaths are horrific in their unique, separate ways. It would be impossible to say that the burnt and mutilated body, reminiscent of a drug gang murder, is any worse than the poignant image of a lifeless body arriving in a car driven by a stranger outside a hospital, too late to be saved. What is saddest of all is that they could have been prevented, always the worst thing to have to accept with any death. The huge police operation today will likely succeed in putting people behind bars who did indeed break the law; but even if 82% of people here disagree with me, I think it is high time that law was changed. What a pity there is no chance of that happening as a result of the elections on the 26th of this month.

The singing maids

It’s not too long before I’ll have been a year in the UK, but news from Brazil is never far from my mind. I noticed social media full of debate this week about new laws which are set to improve the working conditions of Brazil’s 6.7 million female maids (among many other things, as social media in Brazil is a big deal). According to some research that came out at the beginning of the year, Brazil has more maids than any other country in the world. It’s easy to believe. After getting kicked out of my flatshare, I found myself sleeping in the tiny bed (arms and legs lolling off the side) which had been built into my friend’s apartment for the maid. As many are typically from the north east of the country, they are small in stature, and this didn’t suit me greatly, as I once almost fell completely out of bed. Happy to have escaped to safety (and recovering from Dengue fever at one point) I slept in late, only to be woken by the maid. Although many families have moved away from having maids who live in the house, like a kind of slave, it is still the norm for those who can afford it to have someone who visits and not only cleans but radically tidies and often cooks. She seemed quite outraged to find me there, and virtually turfed me out of bed so she could get to the cupboard above my head where the cleaning products were. I suppose that after many years (and so many hours per week) of working in the same house, the maid can end up spending more time there than the working residents, and can feel a certain sense of propriety.

It wasn’t the first time I had found the whole thing quite disagreeable. One of the more sickening aspects of a culture which is heavily maided-up is that you will hear middle class and upper class ladies opine about how well they treat their maids – the Christmas bonuses, the gifts, sometimes even the children who are adopted or houses bought (frequently in favelas) for those who have finished their service. In fact, the maid I chatted to who worked another friend’s place in Barra de Tijuca, home of the Olympic games, said her half-brother had been adopted by the family where her mother worked, being as he was the product of a liason between the male owner and her mother as a employee. When I expressed surprise, a friend told me such stories are in fact common. There seems very little consciousness at times that it would be kinder not to have maids in the first place than to give them really nice chocolates at Christmas. It is certainly a very surreal sight to see those nannies and maids in the Praca Nossa Senhora de Paz, Ipanema, all dressed in white, in 40 degree heat, trying to supervise children while they played in sandpits and ate ice creams. Like some bizarre Gone With The Wind fantasy. I think in fact I’ve blogged before about that very sight.

It seems as if progress is being made however. I was always seeing stories in the Brazilian media about how the middle classes now struggle to find suitable maids, who are lured instead by other, better paid professions. Perhaps a good reflection of this shift can be seen on the soap operas. It is a well-known cliche that the whole of Brazil grinds to a halt for the finale of its novelas, mainly filmed in Rio de Janeiro. But while the subject of these has so often been upper class families, in grandiose settings such as the Roman Empire, the novela Cheias de Charme had roaring success last year and was a total departure. The story of three maids who form a band and find fame away from their evil employer, it is not light on escapism either (or high camp for that matter), but the choice of heroine/s was refreshing. I remember finding it odd, when watching the excellent movie Diva (starring the equally great Brazilian actress Lilia Cabral), that a pivotal scene where the protagonist tells her husband she doesn’t want to be with him anymore was conducted under the eyes and ears of the home help. That film was only made in 2009, so it can only be a good thing if maids are becoming visible at last. Change may take some time, but with this law limiting the hours of live-in maids to 44 per week among other benefits, it is definitely on its way.