22 July

I’ve been at the school for 3 days now and the differences between the ways they are able to implement programs and add to the quality of education here as opposed to Cazucá is astonishing.  This school is at a totally different level.  They are working with a smaller and much calmer population.  There is very little worry here about the threat of violence.  The people I’ve encountered talk about the city of Quibdó as almost a safe haven.  Displacement from the conflict in the surrounding department is very high due to a high incidence of violence and competition for control in the surrounding are by the armed groups.  Forced recruitment into the groups in the surrounding area is also very high, and was the topic of a forum that I attended while there hosted among others by UNHCR, PLAN and IOM.

I kind of felt like a groupie taking this picture

However, the trend did not seem to enter into the city space. Poverty is high, which always effects the involvement of the parents as they need to be working and can be more concerned with more basic necessities than education.  The academic coordinator mentioned that parents can be away for days, weeks or even months at a time.  This absence is obviously not good for the kids, but here, as opposed to Cazucá, there seems to be much more emphasis on education and its value. Attendance isn’t a problem, drop-out rates are low, the community is involved and the programs run smoothly.  In Cazucá the kids are almost proud to have failed classes and for many the main motivator in coming to school is the free lunch provided by the Foundation.

A perfect example of this is the democracy workshop that I attended put on by the Foundation.  About 60 teenagers showed up to participate in some activities and share ideas.  About 10 minutes into it, just listening to responses revolving around the question, “what does democracy mean to you?” I was tearing up.  These kids were the voices of a community that was empowering itself.  You could feel it in the air, they were leaders, they were educated, they were going to get what was rightfully theirs; education, participation, fair treatment.  Yes, these were voices that were coming from a marginalized community, but it was a marginalized community with a cause, a purpose, with hope and resources, with a common background that was enabling them to join together and fight back, with a strong desire to own and be a part of their community and to care for it to make it stronger and to see it grow; something that is distinctly lacking in Cazucá.

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Trip to the School on the River

22 July

The Lanchas we rode in

The school that the Foundation directly supports in Quibdó is part of a consortium of schools all headed by the same principal.  One of the schools is a small 2-room school house that sits 45 minutes away from Quibdó by way of a hollowed out tree type canoe.  The ride was amazing.  We passed a few houses, people working in the river and some banana farms, but that was pretty much it.  There was just nothing but nature, and this was the only way to get to the town.  The people we passed on the way were standing waste deep in the river with shovels, hauling up the sludge from the bottom.

People digging up the bottom of the river

I figured that there was a bit more to it than I was deducing, but I was wrong.  It was explained to me that they were literally digging up the bottom of the river to sell at port as building material.  To call-it back breaking work would be an understatement.  We passed one other type of worker in the river: a woman that was panning for gold.  This small contraption had replaced the big boats that are now parked on the other side of the river from the port.  The bigger boats were using mercury to help in the process and in doing so poisoned a lot of the surrounding community.  Since then the boats have been outlawed and have been replaced by these small wooden contraptions.

The River School

We were greeted by the teacher as we rolled up to the muddy slope to get to the school.   There were about 10 kids at the school, out of a total of 30 that the teacher informed us there should be.  The majority of kids in the surrounding area were not enrolled at all.  Getting kids to sign up for school is a struggle and includes the teacher traveling around the designated area, making stops at each house and imploring the parents to enroll their children in school.  The area is poor and many parents are unable to make the sacrifice of sending a child to school when they could be working. The principal was telling the teacher that if need be, he should be visiting each house and informing the parents that it was illegal to not send their children to school.  Another troubling aspect of this, and the reason that the teacher traverses the zone to find children for his classroom, is that if there are not enough kids that enroll (not just that should be enrolled) he is fired and the school is closed, leaving the other children to fend for themselves educationally.

Walking into the classroom there was a silence that I had never encountered while being around 10 young kids.  They would answer questions quietly, but besides that they seemed just too overwhelmed by the presence of strangers who looked way different than they did.  It was only after the others had left and I had hung around, peering through the windows and smiling that I got some smiles and giggles in return.

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21 July – I knew before arriving that Quibdó was going to be hot, but it was literally the hottest and most humid place I have ever been and stepping off the plane was like walking into a sauna.  Quibdó is the capital of the department of Chocó and is located on the west coast of the country.  The city is known for being a large receptor of displaced persons from the region and is home to another one of the Foundation’s schools.

Although not quite a typical Colombian tourist destination, I really enjoyed my stay in Quibdó from the mopeds that served as taxis, which I LOVED, to the wonderful school itself and the great steps they had made with regard to the quality of education provided. There are some stark differences between Quibdó and Cazucá.  First, and most apparent, is the sweltering heat and humidity.  Second, in Quibdó everyone is black.  Third, it is a city of just a little under 100,000 as opposed to Soacha with a population of almost 400,000 that lies right on the outskirts of Bogota’s 7 million people.  Finally, and probably the most jarring at the time, I could actually walk around alone in Quibdó.  After almost two months of being closely watched and guarded, we left the school one afternoon and after spacing out and falling back a bit to have a look at the neighborhood, I came rushing back to reality with the thought, “why is no one close to me or at least looking around to see where I am?”

View from the school

Honestly, it was unsettling until I remembered that I was fine here and it was okay that the people I was with were a few feet ahead of me.  However, it almost seemed cold at first.  I discussed in an earlier post how the people in Cazucá have a way of assuring your safe arrival to a place by accompanying you, but instead of it feeling as though you have a bodyguard it feels more as though they just really want to talk to you (which is generally the case as well).  When there was no one right by my side today I realized that this custom hadn’t come forth in this area because the threat of violence is not the same and so there was no need to walk in groups or to check to make sure that a straggler was taken care of.  It didn’t take long for me to become accustomed to this of course, and I really relished the freedom I had over the next few days.

The school was great.  Brand new, built by the foundation and totally enjoyed by the girls and boys in attendance.  The school was built in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Quibdó and, like in the other schools, the foundation assisted with the public education through programs for both children and the surrounding community and also a cafeteria run by mothers.  This school was particularly interesting by way of ensuring nutritionally sound meals because the children were totally unaccustomed to eating protein.  When they first started serving just a little fish or meat most of the kids wouldn’t eat it and when they did there were stomach problems.  Slowly the kids began eating, the stomach problems went away and the malnutrition rates plummeted.  In fact, the children attending this much more rural, and supposedly poorer school have lower malnutrition rates than those living just outside of Bogotá in Cazucá.

I still do not quite understand this game:)

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20 July 2010

Big day!  My coworker/friend Monica’s Birthday!  Which meant that because of Milena’s failure to complete the task, I, as the resident gringa, and therefore the only one with supposedly no knowledge of this delightful Colombian custom, was elected to crack an egg on Monica’s head. I was thrilled!  So after trudging up the hill and drawing Monica out of the house under the pretense of moving furniture, I gave her a proper hug and kiss and then slammed an egg on her head. As she chased me down the hill her brother ambushed her with a bucket of water (not as easy to come by as one might think in Cazucá), after which she was doused in flour.

Poor thing, this was the end result.

She was not very happy, but I enjoyed it so much that I’m thinking about bringing the custom to the states.  The rest of the day was great, especially since it was also the bicentennial of Colombia, and being up on the mountain of Altos de Cazucá, watching the planes fly by in formation at really low altitudes was quite a sight.  We ate and played games (which I was terrible at because they revolved mostly around Spanish titled movies that I had never seen nor heard of) and I walked home with my boss and her husband.

Outside of Monica's house complete with Colombian Flags for the holiday

As we approached the drop off to the lower school we noticed that there were more people than usual milling around and two police officers.  Police in Cazucá are generally not a good thing.  First, their presence is a rare sight (even the military that is standard there stay pretty far down on the hill) and second, it’s pretty well known that they don’t respond to almost any call in Cazucá, so if they actually made it they are either harassing people themselves or it’s really serious.  I’m still not sure how, but Milena’s husband Jorge figured out that there had been a murder; as I stopped spacing out wondering about the scene I heard Milena say, “Pero, por qué lo matarían(but, why would the kill him).”  The next morning I heard on the radio that there had been limpieza social and it was a bus driver that had been killed.  Time to get out of dodge, I’m off to Quibdó.

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Creciendo en Amor

17 July 2010

I helped lead a workshop for mother’s in the community through program called  Creciendo en amor.  We covered several topics including the sexual development of children as they reach adolescence and beyond.  The mother’s drew pictures of both boys and girls at different ages. I love it!

Typical 17 yr old Colombian girl?

The little ones look so innocent, and if the teenagers here looked like the

Typical 17 yr old Colombian boy?

teenagers in these drawings, I would be entirely too scared to enter this school!  As these sessions are also supposed to provide a space for the mothers to relax, make friends and enjoy themselves I also taught a mini session of yoga.  These woman could do balances like I have never seen before.  I don’t know if it’s the walking up and down the rocky steep hills, but on their first try they were standing on one foot for minutes at a time with no sign of falling.  In the group there was also a son of one of the mothers.

He and his cousin later tried to do eagle outside of the school…this was not quite as impressive:)

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14 July 2010

The foundation is helping to construct second floors on the classrooms in the upper school so that more children can attend.  We went up to take pictures of the construction and talk to the workers, who asked if it would be possible to use the extra materials to build a community center farther up the hill.  In general, the farther you climb, the more dangerous and impoverished the area and common space, hard to come by in all of Cazucá is especially rare and hard to come by further up the hill.  The foundation is supportive of all ideas to create congregation areas to help keep kids off of the dangerous streets and to give the people of the community a space in which they can meet, organize and enjoy each others’ company.  For this reason, the schools are used as educational institutions for the children but also as a space for adults and community members. Milena, the coordinator in Cazucá agreed that this was a great idea and they arranged the exchange of materials.  There is now a new , albeit small, space for the community up the hill, built without labor costs by community builders who were in turn fed and given water and juice by the surrounding neighborhood. Things like this may seem small, but collaboration among the neighborhood and the creation of space ends up being incredibly important to making a mostly displaced population feel more rooted in their new community and to create a sense that their neighbors and neighborhood are something that should be cared and fought for.

As we started to head down the steep steps from the school a teacher ran after us and told us to stop.  At the bottom of the steps and off about 100 feet there were three young men with hoods on staring at us intently.  We waited for them to move along, as we do often.  After about 10 minutes they walked to the edge of the next hill and all but one climbed down a bit so that we could no longer see them.  The third stayed within sight and turned to checked on our status every minute or two.  While we were waiting, Milena and the teacher began talking about incidents of the past.  Among the stories, I was told that last year a volunteer was right outside of the school and had already knocked to be let in by a guard when a gun was pressed against his head and his bag was taken.  After about a half hour a bus approached so we ran down the steps and jumped on.  After the teacher had gotten off the bus Milena looked at me and said, “oh Kealy, what would have happened to us?”  It really set in then how many times a day the vigilance of others saves me from danger that I, and even Milena who has worked in Cazucá for a year and is Colombian, don’t even notice.  Luckily I now have a lot of  friends, colleagues and community members looking out for my well-being.

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7 July 2010 Altos de Cazucá is Comuna 4 of the city of Soacha: Soacha is also the name of the city center.  I finally made it there to see a show put on by different youth groups of Altos de Cazucá.  We piled the kids that wanted to watch the show onto a bus and drove through the pouring rain to the center (so much for seeing other parts of the city).  When we got there we met up with some of the breakdancers from the school.  They had been there since 8 with no food.  It was now 1 so we took them to a bakery nearby, where before performing a breakdance routine they ordered huge pastries and soda.  It made me a little nauseous just thinking about it, but they all fared well. When the emcee got on stage I was pretty excited to see the show.  Little did I know that I would have to sit through about a half an hour of introductions (not bad) and THREE anthems that everyone sang; national, department and city (terrible).  When the show did start, the groups that performed were really amazing.  Part of the focus in Cazucá is development through dance, arts, sports and theatre.  This acts not only to enhance the children’s skills and feeling of belonging in the community but also serves to fill free time, keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble.  Many groups also focus on keeping traditions from the places where large segments of the population have been displaced. There were groups of traditional dancers accompanied by musicians that were really amazing.  Also present, our break dancers, some theatre groups mainly enacting short skits focused on peace/democracy building and a capoeira group. At the intermission my friend Monica and I went to buy some artesenías (handicrafts) that some kids were selling in the lobby.  As we approached I saw the eyes of the girl behind the table widen.  She looked at me, then looked at Monica and asked her in a bewildered voice, “Is she a gringa?”  I laughed and answered for Monica that I, in fact, was.  She looked back at Monica and exclaimed, “Chévere” (cool). With all of the anthems, introductions and performances, the show went over by hours.  And by the time we left it was about 6:30, still pouring and Soacha had started to flood.  We sat in a traffic jam and had to take a detour to avoid the flooding of the highway, so I ended up back in Cazucá at 9 (which is approximately 5 hours later than I am ever allowed to be there).  It was a little nerve-racking, but I made it safe and sound.  And the views from Cazucá at night are pretty amazing; you can see the whole city lit up.

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