It is one hour since I visited Barrio Mitre, probably the poorest and certainly the most dangerous barrio in Argentina. A city amongst the trash.
Josefina, a professional social worker/child psychologist and I got in the car after our walk through and both yelled, “What the hell were we doing in there!”
It was soooooooooooooooooooooooo dangerous!
It was so tense.
Really, really, really scary. Adrenalin pumping scary!
But for me it was a necessary experience. I didn’t want to be someone who asks for donations and speaks second-hand about poverty. I needed to see where some of the children from the Mercy project ‘Ava Tava’ lived.
Every footstep and look was measured. My heart is still pumping as I struggle to control my thoughts to write this story. I want to capture my emotion and fear while I am still on a huge adrenalin rush.
I have experienced night scuba diving at Piccaninnie Ponds, a bottomless cave system in Mt Gambier.
I have skydived at Lower Light.
I have dived at Edithburgh, under the jetty at night, and had an encounter with a Port Jackson shark (not really dangerous but when it glides up from the bottom it gets your attention).
But nothing compared with this – it was terrifying!!! It felt like we put our head in the mouth of a tiger and survived. I am still shaking – my body’s reaction to the intense fear.
Let me relate how the day unfolded.
At 9.00 I taught about a hundred year 3 and 4 kids the Cup Dance in the St Ethnea school cafeteria in preparation for the big music concert on Saturday night.
At 10.00 I taught another 100 year 5 and 6 kids the Cup Dance.
Some might say teaching 200 kids at once is terrifying enough.
I was feeling exhausted and knew that today I was possibly going to experience the hardest day I would have in Argentina.
Yesterday I bombarded my support crew with emails – friends, teachers and students in Australia who keep my emotions under control.
I was fearful of the horrible injustices against children I would see the next day. I was scared for my emotional well-being. Really scared.
12.00 and Josefina picked me up at the front gates saying we had to go first to Comedor Angel, a very poor community centre I am working with, as they needed a camera quickly. They were celebrating their 10th birthday as a comedor (food distribution centre, school and child minding centre). We hurried over and were just in time to blow out the candles.
As a result of our detour, we were late for our meeting with Rodrigo, the Jesuit Priest who was going to guide us through Barrio Mitre. As it turned out he didn’t turn up as he was attending to a death in the barrio.
Not knowing where Rodrigo was, Josefina and I were sitting eating empanadas (pastry type things), feeling so stupid that we had stuffed up one of the most important visits to a barrio. We rang all around trying to find Rodrigo.
I slept for a little bit. Jose found Mirinda, a young man from the barrios who works for a project called ‘Protagonista’, a small credit agency in the barrios. He agreed to take us in. We knew we might not get another chance as Rodrigo was leaving for the U.S. the following week.
I told her that I had spent a day preparing myself emotionally for this and I needed to experience the worst of the barrios.
Let’s do it.
There was trash everywhere. Hanging around were large groups of very bored, tough, angry looking youths.
Mirinda, a smallish man, respectfully said ‘Hola’ as he passed. He was very subservient to all.
Jose and I looked at each other and knew we were in the cage. The tigers were everywhere.
Rodrigo had told us that the only way we would survive was with him. His collar would keep us safe. Rodrigo always wears his collar when he enters the streets of Barrio Mitre.
Mirinda led on.
We stopped at a huge trash heap where a young girl was doing the washing in front of her ramshackle home. We wanted a photo but were terrified to ask. Mirinda said ‘Permiso’ and explained we wanted to pass by her house and asked her if we could take a photo. She obliged. We entered and took photos of the ‘war torn’ looking structures surrounding us.
Then we were spotted by a group of people who yelled as they ran toward us.
There were five in all – mothers, broken-down grandmothers, children and a very stout, irate looking man. They rushed angrily at us, concerned at our intentions. They wanted to know why we didn’t ask for permission to enter the lane. The young girl screamed, ‘Permiso, mi permiso!’
Mirinda looked pale and talked fast.
’I’m from the Chapel, Padre Rodrigo, Protagonista’.
They were cooling. Their anger stemmed from a photo that had appeared in the newspaper of children walking through the trash with a sub line reading ‘a breeding ground for delinquents, robbers and kidnappers.’
The situation cooled.
Jose hid the camera up her sleeve. She wasn’t parting with the film or the camera. I was just thinking who was more scary – the guy or the grandmother. I have never seen such raw anger.
We were feeling the tigers’ breath. We were within the tigers’ reach.
Mirinda later told us that the most dangerous man of the barrio had worked his way behind our group, silently and inconspicuously. The man has five bullet holes in his torso. He is a robber, murderer of five men, but thankfully not a kidnapper.
The tiger was in front of us. The tiger was behind us with claws outstretched and poised for the blow.
’The magic word. Rodrigo is the chapel. Rodrigo is helping the barrios.
The tiger’s claws retracted. The silent man moved away.
We walked on.
A child of about 4 years walked up the street carrying a knife. I asked Mirinda if I could take a photo. ’Claro’ (Sure). Just as I snapped the photo, the boy’s heavily drugged father appeared, eyes burning, anger written all over his face.
His demeanour said, ‘Who are you? What are doing photographing my kid?’ He was not happy.
We moved on. We really moved on.
He followed for a long while before disappearing.
We visited some families and took some photos of me holding a horse. I wasn’t going to refuse to hold the horse with about six young angry and suspicious chicos watching. Even the horse scared me.
The tigers were forming again, circling.
I was soooooooooo glad when the camera made its hissing noise to indicate it had finished. We quickly moved on and out of there.
We arrived back at the Chapel and just sat and stared at each other. Jose and I asked Mirinda a hundred questions about what had just happened.
We were really scared. It was not the emotional stuff this time but raw fear. We felt the anger and danger of the barrios.
Children live in this place. Children live on dirt or stone floors. Children wander amongst the trash. It is their front yard and their back yard.
I can’t believe these places.
Poverty is bad enough but the abuse and danger in walking the streets is horrendous. Really bad if you have green eyes and are really stupid.
I want help to solve some of these injustices. I want to save children from this horror.
I am sure later tonight, the images of children playing with knives next to filthy, contaminated water will bring on the tears.
Children die in the barrios.
I wish the word ‘Chapel’ would save them. But it will need help from all of us. There seems so much to do.
My friend Carol Grantham wrote to me, ‘Craig, I hate gardening as it’s such a big job I don’t know where to start, but a friend’s advice was to just concentrate on a small corner of the garden and then each week move to another corner.’
St Aloysius College has given St Ethnea College in Argentina a music program, complete with an orchestra.
SAC students gave their weekly savings. Parents sent money to me with their children. SAC is now donating money for the barrios. The SAC community has donated a lot of money to this Argentina project.
The other day, SAC had a Can Drive for the homeless men of Adelaide. They raised over 8,000 cans of food for these men.
St Aloysius College is tending their corner of the garden. St Aloysius College is on the other side of the world.
I want this garden, Argentina, to bloom. I want those little children in Comedor Angel who hugged and kissed me today to have water in their houses. Clean water, food, medicine…and happiness.
Entering the tiger’s den today was stupid.
But the garden really is in need of work. Today Jose, Mirinda and I were working in a corner of the garden – a really scary garden though.
It’s time to rest.
Te mando un beso,