For the next four blog entries, we leave the shivering winter-scapes of Scotland for a much warmer and sunnier place, San Mateo on Ecuador's west coast.
Walking to the fishing village you pass through a desert savannah of sandalwood and dry shrubs. As in
a few inches of rain fall once a year in February to March. Green shoots sprout
from the ground, from trees you thought were dead. Within two weeks the hills
turn green. You’ll find more kinds of birds than you can count: green and red
breasted parrots, seabirds, vultures. An ornithologist’s Mecca.
Maria-Theresa, Juan, and Mary
village any comparison to California
becomes fantastical. Fishing boats are parked by dilapidated houses. Some have
a wall or roof missing. Many have a dirt floor. The people live on the edge,
own next to nothing, but always a television. They barely eke out a living from
the fish the catch. The better off have their own boat from which they cast
lines with hooks. Many others hitch a ride on a boat and work for a share of the
proceeds. Often boats return from sea with no catch. Some houses have a small
piece of land but it’s rarely cultivated. San Mateo
has a one track existence, and it’s fish.
Well-to-do and not so well-to-do side by side.
Water is scarce. It’s trucked in from
’s fourth largest
city about six miles away and dumped into each house’s reservoir. Sewer
systems? Gray water seeps into alleyways and streets. The pipes connecting
houses with Manta are usually empty.
Once a month a cry is passed from house to house, “The water’s coming!!”
Dry pipes are filled for a few hours with muddy water. People hop out of bed to
water trees and anything else planted, while the water lasts. Manta,
A few years ago my sister Mary and her husband Mauro moved to
San Mateo, not particularly for
the scenic beauty, but to get close to the people. The poverty. With money from
volunteers in Italy
and from friends, Mauro built an entire neighbourhood, about seventy concrete
block houses. Each cost about $8,000, electricity hooked up and plumbing. For a
recipient whose house typically lacked a wall or roof, it’s a palace. He also
built a community hall, and a crisis house, mainly for women who need a place to land.
Houses can be built with bricks and cement, but you can only build so many. They don’t change the causes of poverty. Chief among those, Mauro suggested, is “Ignorantia”. He didn't know the English equivalent, but it characterizes a mindset that results from generations of social fragmentation. Men come back from sea and often drink away the proceeds. Marriages are little more than temporary liaisons, with typically eight children. Some are given away to whoever wants them. Women, often battered, move away to a man who might beat them less. Older people are left alone in rooms with no one to talk to. There’s also diabetes, spread out like a permanent epidemic, both genetic and acquired from a diet of fried banana and fried fish.
There's a church but most villagers don't attend it. The priest sticks to his job of saying mass, preaching sermons and administering sacraments.
In the Palo Santo Barrio. Mario supervised the building of over 50 houses.
To make any meaningful change you have to heal the people and help them rebuild their community. At every Monday Mary opens the diabetic clinic. About fifty patients are already waiting, some camped out in front of the door for over two hours. She tests their sugar, measures blood pressure and administers insulin. On Tuesday afternoons a doctor comes to work with the patients.
Drawing mainly from women Mary met at church, she organized them into groups. Some get together and discuss their family issues. Others study the Bible. Some women organize fundraisers to buy medicines. Each Wednesday, neighborhood kids bake cakes and sell them in the barrio for 50 cents a piece. Or they make candles for sale.
Twice a month Mary’s women bring the disabled to the church hall for cakes, drinks and games. The week I was there, it had rained and the mucky streets prevented the wheelchairs from moving. So we brought the cakes to the disabled.
Most were delighted to get their cake and juice. Those who weren't, because they were PO'd that the trip to the hall was off. Dolores sat on her wooden floor and related, once again, her life history. How she had hurt her foot so she cannot stand. She talked about her son, lost in a far away land. She heard his footstep on her porch the night he died. Her daughter, Corina has Down Syndrome or something related. She was unconditionally happy. Laughing. Before I left she threw her arms around me and gave me a big smile.
We hadn’t solved
“Ignorantia” but we brought smiles to a few people.
Coming next: In San Mateo's Back Alleys