As I sit here about to write this story my heart is thumping, my fingers are shaking and my breathing is heavy.
I want to write about the barrios. I need to write about the barrios. I ask anyone who reads these letters to again indulge me as putting words to paper is a release.
Last September in Buenos Aires a little boy went down on his knees in front of me. He was about 6 years old. I gave him a $5 note and knew I was doing wrong as it is really very bad to encourage begging. Many children are abused by their parents if the donations are insufficient.
The boy knew he had a soft target and really turned on the juice, pleading, clutching at my trousers and looking terribly tearful. Someone moved in and ushered him away. I was shocked and caught off-balance. I felt terrible and didn’t know what to do.
What was the right thing to do? How could I help this child? I had seen poverty and felt its touch. I didn’t like it.
That afternoon we visited our first barrios.
We lectured our touring party of students not to give money but to share our joy and work with the poor children of Comedor Angel, a community centre in the barrios.
We sang, played, hugged, kissed and had an amazingly joyful and unique experience. We returned to our middle class host school St Ethnea College and immediately shared a reflection on the experience.
The atmosphere in that little room was very sombre. Danielle Abraham played a beautiful song. Music was her way of finding her own solace. I was crying uncontrollably. Tears were flooding down my face falling onto my feeble attempt at poetry.
This sad and pathetic attempt (where it is now I don’t know) was a tearful diatribe to my son Joshua, promising to return to Argentina and work together with the children of the barrios. Gameboys, Nintendo and Playstations – I wanted Joshua to learn a different perspective.
Argentina has a population of about 36 million people. They have enough resources to feed their population about 12 times over each year.They also have some very corrupt institutions. The words structure and organisation are not well embraced here (that sounds funny coming from someone like me).
The English colonists left Australia with a good government system and in comparison, excellent social structures.
The Argentine colonists, the Spanish, were a little more laid back, a little more ‘tranqilo.’ Hence, there was a lack of government and social departments to deal with the large influx of indigenous and disillusioned groups of poor people migrating to the capital, Buenos Aires from the provinces about 20 year ago. This resulted in the growth of the barrios. ‘Let’s just turn our eyes from the problem’ is always a good government solution.
The barrios are overpopulated, horrendously poor and there is a complete lack of government initiative to bring about change. Children live with mothers and fathers in ramshackle houses. Often the mother is on her own with her children, and will settle with any man in order to protect herself and her family from the other men of the barrios who visit in the night. The men they live with are often abusive towards the women and her children.
It is so sad.
What must life be like for children in these homes? They often find themselves abandoned by their mothers who are escaping the horrors of their chosen companions. Children wander the streets always on the search for food. Guns, knives, hanging around the streets………and boredom. Some barrios are nothing more than housing amongst the city trash.
Last Sunday, my little guitar crusade to the barrios was aided by some of St Ethnea’s teachers, a parent and their children. We had ‘artisania’ being taught by two very talented girls, Lucila and Ines. We had people helping the 19 year untrained teacher to organise her classroom. A guitar lesson took place with barrios children and middle class kids from St Ethnea who helped to translate my terrible attempts at Spanish.
New toy baskets were put in place as well as new light shades, stationery and equipment baskets. Clocks and entrance mats were all helping to bring about a little more order to the chaos. Danielle, the barrios teacher and herself a child of the barrios, became very familiar with my English words, ‘this, out, por favor’. It was a great morning. One that will be repeated this weekend. The crew is growing and I now take 11 guitars to the barrios.
Domingo (Sunday) is starting to rock!!
Sabado (Saturday), I visited a barrios project with a priest I have met called Luciano (Luciano should be a saint). He and two other priests are an inspiration. The three priests live in their barrios community and have organised a fantastic training and social organisation for barrios children and adults.
Activities include cooking lessons in their own bakery, metalwork lessons, brick and tile making, Arabian dancing, music lessons, computer and educational scholarships and the building of a soccer field (complete with lights for night games). My projects are just a little seed still in the packet compared to the work of these wonderful men.
But our little group in Comedor Angel is growing.
Remember that $5 dollars and the little boy on his knees? I think I have found a way to help. Work. Lots of work. But very rewarding work!!!
There was a little girl on Sunday who has finally come to trust me. She has been terribly abused and when we first met I could not get a smile out of her even with my best idiot repertoire. But on Sunday there she was picking up my music, handing out guitar cases and sitting on my lap for photos.
She still doesn’t smile much. I’m not sure she has much to smile about. She lost her 18 year old brother 4 days ago in a stabbing incident at a disco. The owner offered the mother a quick-fix payment to avoid further problems. The mother is a wreck and sits in a darkened room. Rosio’s dad is in jail. Rosio is about 6 years old. Life in the barrios is very hard.
I worked a little crazy this last week trying to save the world in 7 days. I feel a little burnt. But the best work I did was giving little Rosio a moments pause. A bit of a hug and a little job or two to keep her busy.
Many people have written asking of Juan, the boy who I have written about before. Juan has not been seen for quite a while and we are very worried. We will be searching for him this week. Life in the barrios is very hard.
Food is always on the children’s minds. When asked by my team on Sunday why there weren’t more kids around I made the necessary enquiries. The children had gone to an Evangelistic mass. They hand out food there.
I am working to establish a Centre of Cultural Development. I have only a small amount of money left for this project but I am funding repairs for electricity and the painting of an almost abandoned house. We are planning to have a music room, performing dramatic workshop area and ‘artisania’ workshop. Some of the rooms may even end up with St Aloysius College names. The other item I am funding is a table tennis table.
Life in the barrios is not only hard, it is also very boring. The problem of poverty is huge in Argentina as in other parts of the world. But that little boy on his knees lived in Argentina and as a result I am in Argentina with my son Joshua. Working with my son Joshua along side me.
We are always performing together. He has been an equal partner in this project. He has worked tirelessly along side me. Nintendo, Playstations and Gameboys are still of course on his mind but there are also a few things more. Josh doesn’t go to the really bad barrios situations.
We are having a rest day today. For Josh, a little computer café, playing some games. For me, trying to deal with a very difficult week working in the barrios. I really didn’t like not knowing what to do when confronted by poverty. But now I have a bit more of an idea what to do about it. Work.
I am still learning from the real mercy workers, Josefina, Maria and Luciano.
So much to learn and do and only 8 weeks left in Argentina to do it. Life in the barrios is very hard.
Te mando un beso,
P.S. Please say a little prayer for little Rosio and her family.