Letter to the Editor

Gabriel Borda – 22 years old – an activist

When you enter Rio de Janeiro, you might encounter a wall that has been built. A tourist might never know what this is for. In South Africa, one might observe a similar structure while driving from the airport in one of the cities.

‘The Government is erecting a wall to hide the slums or ‘favelas’ from the discerns of the tourists,’ Gabriel Lombardo Borda, a 22-year-old youth activist from Rio de Janeiro that I met at the 5th World Youth Congress in Turkey earlier last month told me.

‘There is definitely pressure to hide them and forget about their existence,’ he added. When he was narrating this story, my mind couldn’t help but wander off to a similar story that Danielle Alyssa Bowler – another youth activist I met in Turkey – from South Africa told me.

It is this reason and many others that prod Gabriel to engage in the plight of helping the kids in one of the biggest the slums of Brazil, Rocinha.

When one meets Gabriel one cannot help but experience his strong sense of humor, and his ever-smiling persona. I remember the first question I asked him was whether he dances samba. ‘I don’t dance samba. I am actually terrible at dancing,’ muttered Gabriel while laughing.

‘During the carnival I normally go to the countryside or the beach to relax. However, I normally dance my samba on one leg,’ added Gabriel while showing me. And so he became the one-legged samba boy.

Pursuing a degree in law, he is the Secretary-General of the United Nations Association of Brazil (UNAB). After attending a summer semester in Quaker United Nations Office, and upon returning to his home country, the United Nations asked him to lead UNAB.

At the age of 22, he has immersed himself in youth activism in the area of education to underprivileged kids in the slum ‘favelas’ of Brazil.

‘I coordinate a couple of projects under UNAB, the main one being the ‘Human Rights for All’ which focuses on youth leadership in poor communities,’ said Gabriel.

However, Gabriel owes much of his activism to his parents. ‘From such a young age, I remember my parents used to work on mobilizing medical assistance to the favelas. My parents also used to work on raising awareness on health and other issues facing the favelas,’ added Gabriel.

At the tender age of nine, Gabriel, while wondering in the slums during one his parents’ projects, he came face to face with a drug dealer, ‘I told him to go to a tent where my parents were carrying out a certain campaign,’ said Gabriel.

‘I was too young to have the fear for such brevity. Actually the drug dealer went to the tent,’ added Gabriel. He would later work with Pathfinder International in doing social work.

Speaking of his ‘Human Rights for All’ course, Gabriel works on identifying and educating kids between the age of 12 and 18 from the favelas concerning their human rights and how to fight for them.

‘First we need to identify the favela that we would want to carry out the program,’ said Gabriel. At the moment UNAB is working with the slum of Rocinha.

Then he works with the NGOs that already have a presence in the favelas to identify few kids that will enter the program. ‘Mostly we identify the kids that are already working with other NGOs in areas of choir, capoeira, soccer, theater etc,’ said Gabriel.

‘You have to understand that working in favelas comes with its dangers and most of the time collaboration with people already working in favelas is important in order to smooth things out,’ added Gabriel.

He further told me that it is important to get kids that will be able to inspire other kids in the slums when it comes to the implementation of different projects.

After identifying the kids, Gabriel would then work on getting these kids out of the slums for a give period for the course to start. Apart from the course, he takes them to museums, schools, government agencies and universities to talk to different stakeholders concerning their plights, thus creating a platform for a collaborative process.

‘For example we have taken them to UNICEF to bridge the gap between people making decisions on these kids and the kids themselves,’ added Gabriel.

According to Gabriel, it is important to take them to these places in order to open their eyes to the numerous opportunities they have of becoming all that they can.

‘You see one problem we face is the fact that most people living in favelas believe they won’t be accepted by the people living outside the favelas. We are trying to break that by bringing a message of hope and showing them that there are people willing to help them,’ added Gabriel.

After education has been provided, Gabriel then listens to what these kids want to pursue or the different projects they would like to carry out. ‘For example, there are two girls interested in football and another boy interested in learning capoeira. Then we work with different stakeholders to see how these projects can be brought to the surface,’ said Gabriel.

Why a course?

‘I call it a course because there is an element of learning from each other that exists between UNAB and these kids. We learn from their experiences in order to help them and they learn from our projects and course to become what they want to be,’ said Gabriel.

On the other hand, Gabriel is working to make sure that there is collaboration between the different slums. ‘We try to bring together kids from different favelas to work together and share experiences,’ added Gabriel. One way Gabriel is doing that is through a soccer match between the kids from the different favelas.

How unsafe are the favelas?

‘First of all you need to know that it is complicated working in these areas. Sometimes we need to get the permission from the drug dealers for the kids to take part in our program,’ said Gabriel.

‘You see, most of these kids are working for these drug dealers and taking them away jeopardizes their business so they don’t like it. This poses a very serious challenge to us. However, we circumnavigate that through working with the NGOs that are familiar with these drug dealers,’ added Gabriel.

‘Recently when we took the kids to another favela, a gang fight broke out and we had to sneak the kids out as fast as possible to guarantee their safety,’ said Gabriel.

Then, why favelas?

‘Aren’t you afraid that you are putting your life in danger by working in these favelas?’ I asked him. ‘I don’t care if I will be gunned down. When I first met these kids, I couldn’t simply ignore them. They are a part of my life,’ said an emotional Gabriel.

‘These kids have my Facebook and my phone number, and they call me and I call them. I am like a big brother to them. I just can’t leave them,’ added a teary Gabriel.

‘It makes me so sad when I see tourists in their safari cars taking photos of favelas as if they are in a zoo or something. It’s sad and infuriating,’ Gabriel told me.

Apart from working in the favelas, Gabriel who is also a songwriter is using the power of music to further create awareness concerning the problems facing the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

By Stephen Obed Swai


  1. The “wall” the author reports about in the initial part of this piece hardly “hides” anything. Similar walls can be found around the world. They are build to shield the people that live behind them from the continual noise of the highway. Every few panels, a Plexiglas panel is inserted to assure that people can see both ways. Pleas look for yourself before making up an opinion:
    It would in fact be quite useless to hide the favelas from tourists as there are nearly 700 in this city and most can be seen from a distance.


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