RugbyWorks coach Tom is in Brazil working alongside rugby for development organisation, UmRio, to share his experience and learn from their incredible work in Rio's favelas.

I’ve been very lucky to play or coach rugby in many incredible places, but I never thought I’d count Brazil among them. Brazil is the Vatican of the church of football, worshipping the beautiful game and idolising its pantheon of Pele, Garrincha and Neymar on a level that must be seen to be believed. From the outside, Brazil appears an impenetrable prospect for another sport like rugby. So when I travelled here to visit UmRio, a social project using rugby to empower young people and divert them from the relentless pull of the drugs trade in Rio’s favelas, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve found that rugby not only has a foothold here, but that it lies at the heart of a counter-culture with a passion and belief in the ethos of the game that is truly humbling. Creating a bastion of rugby amid the occasional gunfire of Morro Do Castro epitomises the defiant attitude of UmRio and its people.

I’ve found that rugby not only has a foothold here, but that it lies at the heart of a counter-culture with a passion and belief in the ethos of the game that is humbling.

Leading this charge is the project’s founder, Rob Malengreau, a British Brazilian who launched UmRio in 2013 after researching social integration in Rio’s favelas at Oxford. Asked why he set up in the favela of Morro Do Castro, his ambition is clear to see: “An easy view of Rio’s favelas is to see them as a single entity, sharing the same characteristics as one another. In reality, it’s far more complex. Many  favelas that are within sight of the wealthy apartments and tourist trails can’t escape the notice of the government. There, access to services such as health care and good education come with the territory. We wanted to go deeper with UmRio, to the out-of-sight communities, where the government’s offering to the people is often brutal and unforgiving.”

In short, UmRio exists as a lifeline in a community where residents have come to expect no favours from the government. This was made clear to me last week, when we were trying to get some film of the students in their community to promote an upcoming 28 hour touch rugby match. After a while searching for a quiet spot, we finally gathered in a side street to begin filming, but my relief at finding the right place after a sweltering search was shortlived. It wasn’t the lighting, noise level or setting that was the problem this time though, but how we might appear to the police. Two months before, they had swept through the community and committed a series of revenge killings. If they were to return now and see a group of young people gathered in a quiet street, it's not likely they would presume our innocence and this could have unthinkable consequences.

 Unfortunately, they are the most likely to join the traffickers; 98% of those entering the drug trade are between the ages of 13 and 21.

The young people of UmRio, aged between 5 and 18 years old, are constantly fighting against these preconceptions. Data shows that 98% of those entering the drug trade are between the ages of 13 and 21, the same age range that Umrio is working with. With little or no access to quality education and healthcare, the wealth and status of gang life is an understandably attractive prospect. I can see close parallels with some of our own RugbyWorks young people, who, though in much smaller numbers of course, become involved with gangs through this same lack of a viable alternative.

But the chance to play rugby and receive support with their academic studies, employability skills and pre-university entrance exams through UmRio is changing perceptions, most importantly amongst the students themselves. In 5 years, some 400 young people have engaged with the programme which has seen marked improvements in school performance, interpersonal skills and levels of hope for the future. Now, many take the labels the rest of the city might have for them with a pinch of salt. Through their own engagement and hard work, many aspire to careers through which they will ultimately give back to their community. One such young person is Mattheus:

On the 3rd and 4th of August, I’ll be joining the UmRio team as they again turn the table on what is 'expected' of them and their hometown, attempting to break a world record for the longest continuous game of rugby. Whatever the outcome, the very thought that this record could be set here in Brazil epitomises the truly limitless ambition that lies at the core of UmRio. As founder, Rob, puts it, “at a time where fear surrounding favelas and their residents is at a high, the 28 hour game of touch is more than a record attempt. It is a statement against this culture of fear which is only deepening the social barriers that limit opportunities for our students.” Watch this space!

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