Terere Kids Project: From the Favela to Oxford

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In 2018, Gabriele Paone could often be spotted rolling through the favela with Alexandre “Buda” Ribeiro and the rest of the crew from Terere Kids Project. TKP is a small project, but thanks to its namesake, 5x World Champion Fernando Terere, it has a huge international presence. If you search social projects and/or jiu-jitsu, you’re likely to stumble onto the small project located at the base of the Cantagalo favela in Ipanema.

Thanks to their English language blog, it’s not uncommon to find Italian graduate students conversing with armed gang members over a morning coffee. These dialogues led to an ethnographic study on the ability of jiu-jitsu to reduce gang influence in Rio’s peripheral communities. Recently, Paone was invited to a PhD program at Oxford University where he will continue his research.

His work provides much needed academic material that sheds light on the importance of community-based organizations and the obscure informal economy in which they operate. Objective academic studies are important tools for social projects and community activists fighting for legitimacy.

The following is an interview conducted with Paone after publishing an excerpt from the study. Rile and Kimono is an ethnographic study that outlines the 6 months he spent with Buda training at Terere Kids Project.

Read My Name is Buda and I’m a Fighter, an excerpt from Paone’s ethnographic study.

1. Where did you study and what were you majoring in when you conducted your study with Buda?

At the time of my field research in Brazil, I was a master student in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Bologna.

2. How did you first find out about Tererê Kids Project?

Ever since I started studying anthropology, I have always aimed to carry out research that was not only interesting from a theoretical point of view, but that could also make a real contribution to improving someone’s living conditions. Soon I became interested in the thousands of minors living in difficult conditions, and I took a master’s in African Studies, for which I wrote a dissertation about the child soldiers’ issue.

In the meantime, I had started practicing BJJ and I had repeatedly listened to stories of people who told me about its benefits. Intrigued by this aspect, I wondered which impact BJJ could have on the life of children who grow up in a harsh environment. Following various online searches, I identified the Tererê Kids Project as a concrete implementation of how BJJ can help young people who live in difficult circumstances.


3. In your opinion, what benefits did Buda and other members of the community gain from gang involvement?

There are various reasons why a person chooses to enter drug trafficking. First of all, the economic gain deriving from criminal activity is the most immediate and attractive benefit, especially in a community in which the majority of residents live with a salary below the Brazilian minimum wage.

 Crime represents here a possibility of social climbing for people who are unlikely to have the same gains — material and symbolic — in the legal world. Furthermore, the chances of advancement are greater than in a regular economy. However, money is not the only motivation.

The figure of the trafficker appeared to me as a negative hero in the community, in opposition to the positive hero represented by the BJJ fighter.

 Defining a drug trafficker as “hero” might seem paradoxical but it is exactly in this way that he appears in the eyes of many of the youngest members of the community. Furthermore, many children here grow up without a paternal figure, and I deem this absence to be one of the reasons pushing young people to approach crime, where an older trafficker welcomes him as if he were his own child. 



4. In your opinion, what influence do government agencies and aid programs have in the community?

I’m not aware of any government agency operating within the community, but there may be some of which I am not currently aware.

The reality of the community appeared in my eyes as characterized by strong imbalances and contrasts, as described in my master dissertation. Young girls pregnant and teenage boys with war weapons; religious music or funk music; underage traffickers who earn ten times more than an adult with a regular job. In all of this, the practice of BJJ, through the work of the Tererê Kids Project and the Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu project, has the ability to help the younger members of the community to stay on the right path, as I have often been told.

5. Have you seen similar programs replicated in other countries?

I have visited other BJJ social projects carried out in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of some cities such as Paris, and I am planning to visit some similar projects in Africa, as soon as the current situation allows.


6. Lastly, what influence do you perceive social projects have on the community?

There are various social projects operating in the community that provide after-school programs for children, or free classes in a variety of sports and languages. In the case of the Tererê Kids Projects (as well as the Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu project), there are many benefits for its young members.

Tererê is like a father to me”. These are the words that have been said to me by many teenagers who train in the gym and can be interpreted as the result of a family environment that in most cases is characterized by the absence of the father figure. Thus, it is precisely in this sense that the BJJ professor is identified as a father who will certainly not replace the biological one, but who at least partially fills the lack caused by his absence.

Further issues arise from the pervasive and widespread drug and alcohol addiction, as well as from having a family member involved in drug trafficking. In all these cases, I believe that BJJ can offer children a different and alternative behavioral pattern. The martial arts teacher represents for many of these children a role model as an alternative to the godfather that is acquired in the criminal world. “If you don’t hug them, the world hugs them” I have been told by Nabola (one of the Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu professors, and cousin of Tererê), and I often noticed how the BJJ professors were particularly attentive to the behavior of children and teenagers also outside the gym environment. 

Tererê Kids Project also provides children with a safe space, that of the gym, where there are no police, shootings, or drug trafficking.  Another benefit is given by the distance, even if temporary, from exposure to pornographic and sexist funk music. Instead, in the gym there are no gender differences between boys and girls, and men and women train together without any distinction, without any form of discrimination – a discrimination to which the inhabitants of the community are used to on various fronts. For example, legally, living in a favela is considered an aggravating circumstance if one is convicted of drug possession or trafficking. In opposition to this discriminatory tendency, everyone in the gym is welcome and can train regardless of gender, sexual, religious, political orientation, or origin.

Moreover, all the young children who practiced BJJ told me that they were training because they liked it and because they learned to defend themselves. The older teenagers had instead a more forward-looking vision: their goal is usually to open a BJJ academy abroad, preferably in the USA.

This goal is not a teenage dream but represents a real possibility for these boys and girls. In fact, of the more than thirty black belts that the community has produced — almost all of them initiated to BJJ by Tererê or his students — many live abroad as top BJJ competitors and teachers.

 BJJ is obviously not an alternative to school, which should be paramount, but it is a fact that the public education system attended by most young people in the community offers limited prospects for the future and more importantly, is not considered by young people themselves as an investment for their future.

On the contrary, opening a BJJ academy represents the goal of most teenagers I’ve talked to, and this may be a less utopian job opportunity than it might seem at first glance. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, as the name suggests, was created in Brazil, and Brazilians have for a long time maintained the monopoly in the most important fighting leagues and BJJ academies. Only in the last few years, in fact, did non-Brazilian athletes enter the competitive world and open their own gyms. Furthermore, outside of Brazil there are many academies where the professor is a purple or even blue belt and BJJ is taught only for amateur purposes. In addition to this, being Brazilian would give them an immediate cultural recognition in the martial arts arena.


I have often wondered what the greatest benefit of BJJ for young people in the community and I have found the answer to be stability. This is defined as “Ability to remain in the same relative place or position in spite of disturbing influences; capacity for resistance to displacement; the condition of being in stable equilibrium.” 

The reality of the community appeared in my eyes as characterized by strong imbalances and contrasts, as described in my master dissertation. Young girls pregnant and teenage boys with war weapons; religious music or funk music; underage traffickers who earn ten times more than an adult with a regular job. In all of this, the practice of BJJ, through the work of the Tererê Kids Project and the Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu project, has the ability to help the younger members of the community to stay on the right path, as I have often been told.

You can find out more about Terere Kids Project on their website and make sure to follow them on Instagram.

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