lunes, 19 de abril de 2010

Girls will be Girls

"Oh Peru." is something I find myself saying quite often, even though I have been here for 9 months and should really be used to the idiosyncracies of this crazy place. Every time I get into the little minivan that they call the "combi " crammed tight with people to the point where I am standing, bent over in a 90 degree angle, pressed against a man in a business suit and briefcase yelling into his cell phone on one side, and a little old lady missing her 4 front teeth and nearly falling asleep on the other, I ask myself how it ever got to be this way. Who made up the combi system? Why don't they follow the traffic laws? Those lines on the road are there for a purpose, you know. How many times are they going to honk their horn before they realize that traffic is not moving and expressing anger about it is not going to make the light turn green?

These questions are just as pointless as the endless horn honking to which everyone is now desensitized. There really are no easy answers as to why. The country is a product of its past and there is nothing that I can do change it. Better to just chuckle and accept it as it is.

I was going to write a blog about my last couple of adventures out of the city to the oasis in the desert and to the rock forest in the Corillera Negra, but I think I will save those for when I get home. It was great to get out of Lima a bit, breathe some fresh air into my black lungs, but honestly neither trip had as much of an effect on me as my volunteering project in Pamplona, a shanty town in a district of Lima, has had.

Pamplona is located on the side of a "cerro" or hill on the outskirts of the city. You would never know that it was here and in fact, most people haven't even heard of it. Taking the bus there is the first experience. As you turn off of the main street into San Juan de Miraflores, the district where Pamplona is located, the scene quickly changes. Instead of starbucks and chic botiques, the streets are bordered by heaps of trash and unregistered street vendors. Slowly creeping up the hill, the buildings become less and less structured and by the time you reach Pamplona, they are only small shacks built out of scrap wood and tin rooves. Skinny dogs ruffle through piles of burning trash that produce a reeking stench which permeates every corner of the barrio. Garbage trucks don't come to Pamplona so people throw their garbage into these heaps in the streets which become fly infested, rotting, collective dumps. A layer of dirty dust turns the whole place a musky brown. Pamplona is just beginning to recieve streetlights but for the most part at night it is dimmly lit by the bare, poorly rigged lightbulbs which hang in the homes. This part of Lima doesn't recieve water from the city either, so a water truck which makes its way up the hill an indefinite number of times per week fills up the tanks which are essentially just giant barrels from which the families take their water for cooking, washing, etc. But sometimes the truck doesn't come, or misses parts of the neighborhood, leaving the people without water for as long as 2 weeks.

The problem with Pamplona is that the people who have settled there have come from the provinces and do not actually own the land on which they are living. So there is no help from the government. They call this phenomenon la invasión.
Since I have been back in Lima I have been working with a group called Apoyo Para el Futuro which works with young girls from Pamplona, visiting them on a daily basis and holding workshops and excursions every couple of weeks. The project has a really wonderful presence in the community. Each day there are members from the organization there, visiting the girls at their homes, checking in on how they are doing at home and in school and how they are getting along with their mothers. When I went to do fieldwork with the group for the first time, I was surprised to find that very rarely were mother and daughter at home together. Sometimes we found that the mother was there and not the daughter, or the other way around. Of course the girls study during the day or in the afternoon, but the more shocking realization was that the girls are there alone all day. And they are not just sitting around, most have to care for younger brothers and sisters, cook for them, entertain them, help them with their homework while also working on their own. They are often expected to have cleaned the house, as well as have food prepared for when the parents come home very late at night.
About every other Sunday we gather with the group of about 40 or so girls in a small shack that has been set aside for us and hold the workshops. We do lots of activities with the girls, sing songs, and work on a theme with them such as helping them to understand the water situation in Pamplona and how they can better use the water they have, or on self esteem issues and understanding their bodies, issues they rarely learn about from their mothers, let alone at school. More recently we have realized that a priority must be to reenforce what they are learning in school because it has become clear that the girls recieve a very poor education and little support from their teachers.

We also take trips out of the neighborhood. On these trips the girls must be acompanied by their mothers. A main focus of the program is to fortify the relationships that the girls have with their mothers. There are very few exceptions to this rule. No excuses such as having to care for small children, having to work, etc., are accepted. If the mother doesn't attend, neither may the daughter. A couple of weeks ago we went on our first "jornada" or journey with the girls and their mothers. The girls decided that they wanted to go somewhere where there was a pool. So that's what we did. It was really great to see the girls with their mothers! Although most of the mothers did not swim, the girls really enjoyed the pool. Most of them did not know how to swim and were afraid of the deep end of the pool but wanted to be carried around in the deep water. That's where I came in!

After swimming we played a series of games in which mother and daughter had to work together like tug of war, three foot races and siamese races in which the pair had to hold a ball in between their heads and make it to the other side. It reminded me of field day in elementary school and the girls were just as enthusiastic as we all were each year.

Being in Pamplona and interacting with the girls and their mothers has given me a chance to experience first hand the way most people in the world live. I have also learned a lot about the issues in Peru and some of the history which has made for me more clear some of the reasons for why Peru is the way it is.
When we talk with the mothers there is a large focus on costs and money- of course because there is not much of it. They express concern for their daughters and insist that they come home before dark, admitting that it's okay for the boys to stay out. Unfortunately this is true, but it makes me wonder, with this reaffirmation of gender inequality, when is the viscious cycle ever going to stop? When will it be safe for the girls to be out past dark? How will they ever feel empowered if they are taught by their own parents that it's okay for boys to stay out, but they must be home or else something bad will happen to them? This is a prominent issue, of course, throughout the country and the world, but it's something that is learned at a young age. These are very, very strong, young girls and I admire them as much as I want to be there for them. I feel like that's all that I can really do - be there for them and support an environment in which they can grow and learn in a healthy way.

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