Friday, 15 February 2013

San Mateo's Children

Children from the Palo Santo Barrio are never very far from the house. If we happen to leave the front door open to cool off the house, within a few minutes a child will wander in. Often in twos and threes they come in, asking for Mary or Mauro. Can we play a game? Do you have change? Can I have some cheese? The most common request is, “May we have dinner with you tonight?”

           On Saturday afternoons the hordes invade the living room, pull out games, sometimes books. Vanessa and Genesis begged me to join them in a game of memory. My pigeon Spanish was no barrier. Of course with their young memories they beat me badly. I was struck by how well the kids play without any supervision, a minimum of quarrelling, delighting in even a set of building blocks. Watch them now! At home, they have no computers, internet or video games. The only electronic gizmo is a flickering TV. They know how to play in simple ways. At 5pm, Mauro walks in and tells them to beat it. They put the games away in the chest and leave.

Our evening, live entertainment. We don't need a TV. Often a line of kids demonstrate their acrobatics.

What sort of homes do they go back to? Some have good homes with parents who take good care for them. But many find that the kids are in the way, and would as soon dispose of them. And they sometimes do. You can recognize those kids by the way they cling to you, want to hang around you in the evening  while you’re sitting on the porch. A while back, the mother of several children asked Mary if she’d like to just keep her children for good. That way the mother could make more money, as a prostitute. “Certainly not. They’re your responsibility,” Mary replied.

 Usually you can spot those kids  wandering around the barrio, when they should be at school. Mauro impresses on them about the importance of going to school, but they don’t see the point. Their dad tells them that he never learned to read or write, and that didn’t stop him from catching fish. What good are books anyway? In San Mateo there are no news-stands, books or magazines for sale. No one wears eye glasses either. If you want to stand out in a crowd, put on your glasses. You'll be the only one.

Is dinner ready yet?

Mary meets regularly with the women of the barrio. They talk about child raising, how to speak to a child, that you never beat a child, or harm one. What to feed them so that they grow up healthy. Those matters should be obvious to any parent but generations of undesirable behaviour patterns need to be overcome. One mother didn’t find it abnormal to punish her daughter by burning her hand.

One evening while I was watching the southern stars, stars not visible from Scotland, Ursula (8) and Vanessa (12) joined us. They stared, dumbfounded while I showed them Jupiter, Sirius, Canopus. And then, through the binoculars, the Orion nebula. They had more questions for me than my poor Spanish could handle. As with all children who haven’t been spoiled by modern civilization, they had a boundless curiosity about everything. And yet, at school they learned nothing. After eight years there they were still illiterate. Apparently the teachers are not too motivated to do their jobs either.

Mauro is certainly the grandfather they never knew. He reads to them, tells them stories, plays with them. For older children he screens thought provoking films, and holds discussions about them. Like a pied piper, wherever he goes several children trail behind.

Young guys about to distribute cakes to the neighborhood.

 They all want to have dinner with us. Every evening three or four join us for a simple fare of soup, fish, or pasta --- whatever Mary prepares, along with  two jugs of fruit juice, freshly squeezed. Used to unexpected guests, she knows how to make the pot a bit bigger at a moment’s notice. Like Trappists, we eat in silence. The children shovel the food away as if someone is chasing them. I never heard a word of complaint, or any child begging for anything that was not on the table. And no matter how bland the soup, or uninteresting the rice might be, every teaspoon is licked up. Of course, we know what this means. Their thin, small bodies tell their story.

Any stray children are put to work. Folding the laundry.

After dinner they beg Mauro for a fable. He knows hundreds and no matter how many times he’s told the fable they want it repeated. Both the story and its moral.

 If there’s any hope that San Mateo will pull itself out of disease and poverty, that hope lies in those children and in their children. Whether they will continue along the road of their forbears, a road to nowhere, or they will find a different one. As I watch them play, talk with them, watch them raise money by making candles or baking cakes, I have every reason to believe that their future will be different. Brighter.


  1. Another lovely piece. I need to go back, and with more Spanish!

  2. Really loved this last installment. And great to have the added visual effects provided by the video. Wonderful work they're doing with the children. I think Amber would be in her element there!