“Dodging dog-shit” (and bullets)

27 Jun

I have spent the day in La Moran.

Damp is coming thru the wall of the small chapel in the house; rain water is not being channelled properly in part due to dumped rubbish further up the hill by other neighbours.  Some people expect the nuns to contribute to the cost of taking larger items down the stairs to dispose of them…It is a bit of a catch-22 as the items are unlikely to be removed by that particular neighbour but equally it is not their rubbish.  However, other residents are making a conscious effort to not recklessly dump rubbish (despite the climb down and/or cost of using a porter) and there are numerous graffiti signs that pointedly tell folks to not dump in certain areas/to not behave “like pigs”.  In the meantime though, Trini decided that certain repair and protection work needed to be done at the back of the house.  The cost of the materials was about BSF 950 (approx 225USD on the official exchange rate) and the cost for the porters to bring it up was also about BSF 900.  Materials included sand, stones, bricks etc to cover a small area and build a small wall.  It required 7 porters to each carry about 8 heavy loads up the 360 or so steps to the house!  (The equation is similar too for the cost of getting the food up to the pre-school and the food budget for the children’s breakfast, lunch and snack ends up being almost double the cost of the actual food alone…)                         

There was also a visit from EPA (equivalent of Homebase in the UK and The Home Depot in USA) to La Moran today; EPA provided 50 small home improvement loans in La Moran last year so that people could improve their homes and they came to inspect some of the results today.  They were pleased with what they had seen and also impressed with the pre-school, having just ascended the steps so appreciating what it takes to build and maintain in such a location with no road access.  When I asked them about the stairs, one of the commments was about the skill required to dodge the considerable amounts of dog-shit everywhere!  Even Trini refers to it as something akin to a “crap factory”.  There are a lot of dogs around and you do have to keep a close eye on where you are walking; however, still better than having to dodge the all too frequent bullets! 

Also paid a visit to one of the cleaners from the school, who has just had an operation.  With just two (bed)rooms, she has still taken in the young wife and children of that man that was killed when the tree fell on his house.  The school currently has a space that is self-contained house but on the premises of the school; the plan is to make that a day care centre for 0-2 year olds in the near future but building work will have to take place to make it a suitable space.  The widow though had requested that she be allowed to live there until such a time as a replacement home is provided by the government or other body…On the one hand, everybody has a great deal of sympathy for her situation (and that of her children); on the other, it is very difficult to accommodate (literally) everybody and there are many tales of woe and vulnerability.  In the end, it was decided that the NGO that runs the school will help to find a way to rebuild her old home but that the school premises would not be used as a temporary home.

The cleaner’s son also told us that as he left for work at 6am, he came out of his house to find 3 armed youths pointing pistols in his direction!  They were evidently in search of somebody else and left him alone but they made quite an impact first thing in the morning…

On a lighter note, the nuns were telling tales about some of the things the children say.  Trini and Angeles are both very slender and about the same height and they both wear habit and veil.  Trini has been in this barrio for quite a number of years so when Angeles joined her here, they just called her Trini 2.  When the children were at a church gathering where there were many nuns, the children just said “many Trinis”.  The thing that made me laugh out loud though was when some children came to the nun’s house and Trini didn’t have her veil on; the children said “Trini, you’ve cut your hair!”


It’s a small world

24 Jun

A personal reflection on one of the recurrent topics of conversation and observations that the world really is small for some. My normal definition of “it’s a small world” would be if I bump into an Australian friend whilst in Paris or something…However, for many here, the world can be reduced to their sector of a barrio.

Today the father of the young man who was shot in front of the house came to discuss the possibility of securing this sector with locked gates for access. It is not an entirely practical plan regardless as there are at least 4 access staircases and a connecting pathway in this sector, which covers 14 houses. However, the father felt that events such as the shooting of his son the other day could be prevented by eliminating open access as “those that shot him aren’t from here”. This phrase was repeated several times until I asked where he thought they were actually from. He said they were from “up there” indicating a sector of this barrio just a bit above the house…

A similar comment was made when I returned to Barrio La Pradera in La Vega to collect a mobile phone I had left there by accident. I took a La Vega taxi up to La Pradera sector and the driver, who had lived in La Vega for 25 years, said he didn’t go up to La Pradera sector as it is very dangerous. From an outsider’s perspective though, there is no diffrence between his sector and La Pradera in terms of general levels of violence; however, people feel more comfortable within their own sector and always seem to perceive the gang members and delinquents from other sectors as more dangerous. In many ways this divides and conquers; it seems to indirectly lead to passive acceptance of those gangs etc in each sector as their presence implies protection from those that are worse…In an effort to tackle this, VENINOS has supported the El Saman Sports Education Programme for several years with many positive outcomes. Boys, who often might not be able to move freely even within their own barrio, are travelling to games in shanty towns all over Caracas. They also play the teams from the International Schools (and are proud to say they win against much bigger European and North American teenagers!) and their horizons often broaden with such exposure. They are “protected” by their team membership instead of gang membership and, as a result, have the opportunity to see different areas and meet youths from many different barrios in a competitive but neutral environment. They also play in mixed teams where players for the same team are often from different barrios. This compared to some 10 year olds who, despite living in a capital city, have never seen an escalator, been to a shopping mall or gone to the cinema or a museum etc (all of which have been cited to me on this trip and I have witnessed myself)…

The update on the young man that was shot is that he should be OK. He is still in hospital and has a fever due to an infection but his colon and lung are beginning to heal.

Consequences of witnessing a murder

24 Jun

En route to the pre-school today, a 4 year old boy fought with his mother and said he wouldn’t go to school. He ran off and she couldn’t catch him. A search party was despatched and he was eventually caught when he ran into a dead-end. He was brought back to the school kicking, screaming and biting anyone that held him. Back at the school, his mother screamed at him that she would kill him herself before he became a thug…Isabel, one of the nuns, spoke at length to the boy. He was adamant he would never come to school and started saying, quite articulately for his age, that his brother wasn’t a thug but they still killed him. Due to the terminology he used, Isabel assumed he was referring to an adolescent brother. However, it eventually transpired that he had been in a car that was attacked (not clear but think it was an attempted car-jack). He was with his father and 5 year old brother and was about two and a half years old at the time. His brother was shot dead and his father was shot in the leg but survived. 

The pre-school has attempted to have a psychologist on duty at the school; for short periods they have had students on work experience etc but have been unable to find anybody willing to work in the barrio long-term. It is sometimes possible to arrange for support outside of the barrio but that inevitably proves complicated as parents are working, can’t afford the transport or are unreliable in attendance (or all if the above).

I also visited a primary school that is run by the nun that founded and built the school, starting in about 1978. The nun is now 67 years old but runs the school and works in the barrio at the weekends too. She lives with two other older nuns in a different neighbourhood. She is fairly devastated as it appears her congregation may leave Caracas. In part this decision is due to a lack of younger nuns to fill the roles; not everybody wishes to work in deprived areas either and when the leadership of the congregation doesn’t prioritise deprived areas, they can get dropped. This nun did have a younger nun working with her for a few months but she opted to be re-located as she couldn’t cope with the nature of the work in a barrio. Although such schools don’t necessarily require a nun, they do require leaders that see their work as a vocation as the committment, time and persistent energy required is far beyond that of a regular job. At this school most if the teachers are sent in a lottery basis. They are often unprepared for teaching in a barrio and don’t want to be there, meaning they look for a new job very quickly etc 

I took a jeep up to the school as there is road access there; we walked back down. Starting with a killing near the school of an ex-pupil who was aged about 15, she pointed out where people had been killed and which families had lost family members…it was almost every doorway…she also told me that somebody had mounted a jeep in order to shoot another passenger…Glad we were walking back down then…

Shooting in front of the house

20 Jun

About 8 am and all was quiet. Angeles was in the small chapel at the front of the house, praying; the others were doing household chores. Isabel saw a youth with a pistol on the path in front of the house (the house is raised above the level of the path) and then several shots were fired by the front door of “our house”. The son of the next door neighbour, who was visiting his family and hoping to get some nappies for his baby, was shot 3 times. He survived but was hit in the leg and twice in the torso. He is in his mid-twenties. It has since transpired that he has lost a kidney and has a punctured lung and perforated colon. People saw 2 youths with pistols.

The commentary is that nobody really knows why this shooting happened now. The young man that was shot was known to take drugs before but, after a couple of attempts to stop taking drugs and with the support of his family, he went to a rehab centre in Barquisimeto. People are speculating that it was from an old grudge of some sort or that he is possibly taking drugs again. People say that it was the gang in this area of the barrio that sent two youths, not from this sector, to attack him. The nuns did not recognise the assailants.

Back from Valencia and down to La Guaira

20 Jun

By the time I got back from Valencia last night, it was about 9.30 pm so I stayed with a friend as it was too late for me to come up to La Moran from a security and courtesy point of view. Then today I went down to La Guaira on the coast with a couple of friends to meet with a group of people in Macuto (local government, NGO – Libros para Crecer and members of the community) to discuss the need for libraries and Early Childhood Centres in Edo Vargas. 

Vargas was the state worst affected by the landslides at the end of 1999, which killed many thousands of people and destroyed many communities. One of the consequences was that all of the libraries in the state were destroyed or damaged and 5 of the 11 parishes are still without any library facilities of any description. Vargas has an approx population of 350,000 and the Macuto parish, where we held the meeting, has about 20,000 people. The NGO and members of the community launched a campaign in 2008 to collect 10,000 books, which was very successful but there is no library facility. In the meantime they are circulating books in bags with small collections of 5 books per bag that ate then exchaged fir a diierent collection.

We managed to fit in a late lunch at Las Quince Letras (count the letters!), overlooking the sea, before heading back to Caracas and up those stairs again on a very hot day!

Valencia…pastelitos, puncture and projects

18 Jun

First of all, many apologies for the long lapse between posts. I have been challenged (and completely defeated) by technology…I have been using my UK mobile to upload posts but, for reasons that are beyond me, phone won´t save and upload new posts. There is no internet at the nun´s home; there is a computer centre at the pre-school but the connection is sometimes painfully slow….By slow, I mean it can take over 1 hour to upload a page (only to find it hasn´t loaded properly). They are hoping to get a broadband connection at some point (so maybe it will be easier next time?). Normally access to an internet cafe (which is where I am now) would not be so problematic but, living in the barrio, my days are more restricted in that I realistically have to be back in the barrio by about 7pm from a security point of view…For the same reasons, there are no photos (the one I have uploaded took about 6 attempts over 5 hrs!) but I will upload them retrospectively once back in the UK.

My departure to Valencia was postponed by a day as one of the nun´s from the same congregation, who had been ill for a long time, passed away. ¨My nuns¨ left the barrio to attend the vigil and so I couldn´t get back in time to collect my things. This did mean though that I had a chance to do laundry and consequently did not feel like a lazy student turning up at my hostfamily´s house with a pile of dirty laundry. The water in Barrio La Moran is officially cut off for 48 hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays. However, the water goes off at midday most days and generally doesn´t come back on again Tuesday afternoon…I am very fortunate in that the nuns have a water tank but we still have to be prudent.

When I first came to Venezuela in 1986 as an AFS exchange student, I lived near to Valencia with my hostfamily. I went back to see them but also visited several projects with Jane from the International Women´s Group in Valencia. We first went to a Children´s Home that I personally had not seen before although Veniños had supported their work. The home currently has 7 children, aged 4 to 18, plus the 4 children of the Evangelical couple who run the home. The home is located in a poorer neighbourhood of Naguanagua and children are mostly referred by the local Child Protection Services. We discussed their presence in the community and some of the challenges they face there. One of the issues is that their local government district doesn´t make any maintenance payment to the home for the children referred there (whereas the Valencia district apparently pays BSF 300 ~approx 75 USD per child per month on the official exchange rate) so operating costs are always a struggle. Veniños helped buy some equipment last year for a semi~industrial bakery so that they had a way to generate an income as well as give some of the children a vocational skill. They are specialising in a Colombian bread (the couple that run the home are originally from Colombia) and have found a small niche market for their product but the couple have often kept crazy hours, working around the restrictions of periodic power cuts….

Due to the donations received in any institution, many other locals perceive the NGO/the staff running it has having money and resources (or at least as having access to such resources) ~ this can stem from something as basic as seeing the children from the home relatively well dressed albeit in second~hand clothes that have been donated. There is often a lack of understanding as to what an effort it takes to raise sufficient funds to maintain any facility if there is no institutional or governmental underwriting of operating costs. This can generate tensions between such projects and the local communities so we discussed the importance of integration and outreach work. 

One of the other issues we discussed at length is on~going support for those that reach age 18 and have to leave the home. Most of the children are not ready for complete independence and realistically need support as they either adapt to university study or to work. Many children´s homes find themselves in this difficult position and would like to provide transition apartments for a period of time but obviously money is often a prohibitive factor.

On that note, we then visited a children´s day care facility in Barrio San Blas, where the Foundation, with the support of Del Monte, has built a transition apartment for girls aged 18 or over who wish to continue studying at university. The apartment isn´t occupied yet but has room for 6 young girls plus an adult carer.

We also did a follow~up visit to see some of the structural improvements Veniños paid for at the centre of the Hermanas del Santisimo Sacramento. The Centre had capacity before for about 200 places on vocational workshops and skills training courses but did not have adequate bathroom facilities for example. All of the work is now complete and the improvements were self~evident since my last visit there.

Lastly, we drove about 30 kms towards Barquisimeto to another children´s home in Bejuma. This home is for about 54 girls. In general there are more homes for boys than girls (girls more often stay with their families, however dysfunctional, and become the carers for younger siblings or end up in prostitution whereas conflict is more common with boys and they end up taking to the streets more often). The family that have built the home for the girls have made an amazing effort to create a spectacular space in a colonial style. Structurally it is the most beautiful children´s homes I have seen but there is also a very good, vibrant atmosphere there too. They are busy running vocational training courses for 84 youths from the local community and are in the process of building a pre~school facility next door too. In different circumstances, this home could easily become a POSADA B + B; the girls that arrive there from all over the country though each come with a tragic tale. One of the girls, who is now 19 and studying law, was found living on a rubbish tip; another was shot in the face and then hidden from public sight for a long time (the home has arranged numerous reconstructive surgeries but also helped the young girl recover a degree of self~confidence). Other girls were sexually and physically abused before being sent to the home, including a case of repeated electrocution. In some cases, critical health issues may have contributed to the child ending up in a home; at present, there is one 14 year old awaiting a bone marrow transplant and another who was born with heart problems and no anus, who has also required numerous surgeries…

Whilst in Valencia, one of my friends, Dinorah, also kindly arranged a social get together with AVANICA volunteers. They work with children who have cancer but who also come from very poor economic backgrounds, which inevitably leads to complications with their treatment.

As well as the project visits though, I also managed a quick trip to La Entrada with my hostfamily\friends for ´tequeños de jojoto´, pan de bono and pastelitos with papelon…One of the most amazing memories of this trip though is that, for the first time since 1986, it got so cool I actually put a sweater on in Valencia! Almost impossible to believe of Valencia…It came off again though when we had a puncture and it looked like physical labour might be required…but we were treated as damsels in distress by local hospital staff!



Back to La Moran today

8 Jun

After a few days away in Valencia and this morning in La Guaira, I am now back in La Moran and have been catching up on the (mixed) news.

Things wre slightly tense at the pre-school as there had been gun shots fired in a small house nearby with a family inside at the time. The incident, in which no one was hurt, may have been indirectly linked to the death of the young father on his way to work last month. However, the son of one of the cooks at the pre-school was the one who carried out the attack so some people then turned up at the school to say they were going to report him (although it appears they have not done so as yet). He lives in front of the school and is often seen carrying a pistol; he is banned from the premises but there was still a confrontation with others at one point and the school wall does have bullet holes as a result…

The school has had about 150 pupils but current numbers are about 130 as this school year comes to and end. The reason given for some of those withdrawals has been the increased level of violence in the neighbourhood. As a slight aside, a bullet hole in the roof of the nun’s home was pointed out to me the other day; directly above where I sit in the meeting/tv room….now I know why that seat was free!! (although nobody was home when that happened around Xmas time)

Just after I got back, the family of the young man who fell last week and hit his head came by. His memory is better and his condition is stable but the family are looking after him constantly and are finding some of the medical tests and prescribed medicines very costly. The community Is helping though and collections are being made.

The other news was very positive in that an inspector from the Ministry of
Education has rung to say he wanted to bring his boss up to the school to show him the amazing work being done at the pre-school by the nuns and the other staff…this follows an inspection that was carried out last week in which everybody felt quite tense. The inspection had been very detailed and “picky”, seemingly making no allowances for local conditions and daily reality within the barrio. One minor example was that the school is apparently not meant to use blackboards/chalk anymore “due to dust” yet some teachers thought that irrelevant when children are often seen climbing into the rubbish skips, looking for things…All the apparent fault-picking caused many a similar reaction and some felt the ministry shouldn’t endeavour to apply blanket rulings when circumstances, life experiences and economic conditions are so different in certain barrios from other realities…There is also an ongoing tension between Catholic schools and the government and some staff at the pre-school had felt tension with regard to the inspection; so today’s news felt very positive.

On a funnier note, before I left for Valencia, there was a meeting of representaives from various social development projects at the nun’s house. Some were from organisations VENINOS has already supported or had contact with in the past. It was very useful to be able to meet with them and discuss their work in different barrios. However, as I happened to open the door to them at the nun’s home, I was greeted fifteen times as “Hermana” and had to then explain my way out of my new found title!