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The Reality Of The Barrio

We have been working in Monte Chingolo for nearly three years now. Two years in the original venue and almost a year in the new one. The two sites are on the same street, Monasterio, and only ten blocks apart, but we have noticed the difference between the two sub-communities. For the ease of explaining, I am going to call them ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’. In the original space in Lower Monasterio, we had children who all lived within a two block radius of Food for Thought.

We walked around the block to pick the children up from their houses. Basically all of the children know or know of each other. I also found that even though many of the families don’t communicate all that much with each other, there is a community feel to the place. There are no big main roads cutting through the middle, streets are narrow with houses packed tightly against each other, and there are always children playing in the street in front of their houses.

Cristina our 75-year-old chef and the project grandmother, lives right in the heart of that community. She has lived in the Lower for over 50 years and she has known most of it’s inhabitants since they were in nappies. All of the kids know her and call her ‘Abu’ (short for grandma). She gives bread to those families who need it and despite her constant health problems, does her best to be the glue that holds Lower Monasterio together. She has her work cut out for her, as there are all sorts of social issues within this community.

The new venue for Food for Thought is in the Upper. The spread of children is too great so we don’t collect the children from their houses anymore, they come to us. We still have many children from the Lower who make the journey to the Upper to attend the project. The Upper is much more open. There is a main street with a lot of traffic and busses, there is a couple of large football pitches and a plaza. The children that come to Food for Thought from the Upper come from homes scattered around the community. The homes are much more spread out and the families aren’t in close contact with each other. The Upper is not as tight a knit community as the Lower. They are also lacking a ‘Cristina’.

Mixing the kids from the Lower with the Upper has been a process. The kids from the Lower formed a great little gang together. They are always playing on the street together outside Cristina’s house. I believe that it is very healthy, as they all look out for each other and is it always safer to play on the street in numbers. The problem has been trying to integrate the Upper into the Lower. We have been working on it for almost a year and seems like we are getting there, but it hasn’t been without it’s challenges.

We have one particular family with four children who attend Food for Thought from the Upper. They lack basic hygiene routines in their home. The children arrive smelling really bad, like they haven’t washed in weeks. This is the first obvious reason why other children might pick on them or not want to integrate with them. Secondly, their skin is slightly darker than the other kids. This might sound silly as they all have a darker tone to their skin, but segregation according to skin colour still exists. ‘Negra’ (black) is a derogatory term that is commonly used amongst children and adults.

These children also have very low self-esteem, which is not uncommon with the children that we work with. It begins at the top. Low income families are not respected by their own government, which filters down through all of the layers (but I won´t get into politics!). The mother of these kids comes to pick them up at the end of the day and says horrible things to us about her children when they are standing in front of her listening. If you observe their body language, their lack of confidence and self-esteem is obvious. Shoulders hunched, head down and no eye contact. The violence in the home also doesn’t help the situation. Nor do the health issues that they face. One has epilepsy, one has cataracts (11 years old), and the another has a hormone imbalance which means he is 60kgs at the age of 7.

Recently the child with epilepsy has had his medication changed. Yesterday was an extremely tough day for him. He was sad all day. He is only 6 years old so he also doesn’t know how to express himself. He was sad and he didn’t know why, so when I tried to ask him what the problem was he couldn’t tell me. He slunked around all day in a sad, tired, daze. We also had a cooking class that involved cutting out shapes with cookie dough so it wasn’t like the he would have been bored. After trying all sorts of motivation with him, at the end of the day I gave him a hug and rubbed his back. It changed his mood for a couple of minutes. It really breaks your heart to see a six-year-old like this. To say the least, the reality that this family faces every day ain’t no walk in the park!

It is actually quite amazing how strong-willed these kids are, considering the daily challenges that they face. They are usually the first ones to arrive at Food for Thought each day and the last ones to leave. It has to be extremely confusing for them receiving all sorts of positive attention from us and negative attention from many other areas. Especially from such a young age where they are trying to understand the world and find their place within it. As educators in Food for Thought we have to take a step back and assess the challenges of each child to find the best approach to positively support them in their development. Even writing this blog has helped me understand a little more about the environment within which these children grow up! Working with these kids also gives you some valuable perspective. It’s pretty funny when you think about the trivial problems that you have in your own life!