January 7, 2013
My visit with CARE Peru - Part 1: Violeta VelasquezAbout Last Night
I first became involved with CARE after reading “Half The Sky.” I was deeply affected by this book, brilliantly written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The seminal idea is that although the most vulnerable citizens on the planet are women and girls – they depict harrowing stories of human trafficking, wage inequality, domestic abuse and violent chauvinism a la the Taliban – that is also where the global solutions lie: in the future of women and girls. Through micro loans, commitment to education and family planning, miraculous changes can occur. I went to an event for the book sponsored by CARE here in Los Angeles and was deeply inspired to start traveling and observing their work.
Since I have two small children and worked a day job on the television program “Private Practice”, I had to wait a number of years to take this trip. Last September I began talking with the CARE folks about where I could go in December, with my family in tow. They suggested seeing programs in the area of Ayacucho, Peru, and I jumped at the chance.
The name of the program I was to observe was called Windows of Opportunity, which focuses on nutrition for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as their children. I was to be accompanied by Gabby Ayzanoa Vigil, a CARE representative based in Lima and the amazing Dr. Ariel Frisancho Arroyo, who also flew from Lima to act as sounding board and interpreter.
I truly didn’t know what to expect. My family and I flew into Lima on a Tuesday, cooled our heels for a day, and then awoke at 3:30 the next morning to catch the 5 am commuter flight to Ayacucho. We were well off the beaten path, tourist-wise. In fact, the previous day in Lima, Peruvians were constantly surprised that we’d ever visit Ayacucho. Cuzco – yes. Machu Picchu, of course. But why would we travel around the world to see scrappy subsistence farmers in a rugged part of their country?
After checking my family into the lovely Plaza Hotel at the center of Ayacucho (also known as Huamanga in the local language Quechua), I climbed into a van with the CARE folks and began a bumpy, mysterious ride to our first stop, the village of Violeta Velasque.
The ride to the village was murky for me. The roads were unpaved, switch-backed and increasingly muddy from the constant rain. It is the rainy season in Peru now, as spring turns to summer. Those of us who flew at o-dark-hundred from Lima dozed. I fell in and out of a traveler’s nap, neck snapping against the van seat, with dreams and thoughts co-mingling and interchangeable. My mind was trying to catch up to where my body now found itself.
We arrived with a jolt to the village square – an empty expanse in front of a church where the rain now steadily droned. Beautiful local women greeted me with flowers, their traditional stovepipe hats keeping them warm. We were shepherded into a community building where three men – the town’s leaders – stood rather formally behind card tables. Women and their children lined the sides of the squat building, which had no heating or lighting. The presentation was about to begin.
It had been some time since I had been in a place with no heat, electricity, running water, cars, or – and this is what struck me the most, oddly – glass in the windows. There were few windows and so little light on this gray day, with no lamps to help. The combined effect was medieval. I initially could only make out murky shapes and was grateful for the periodic glare of the video camera. The folks who lived there had no problem, clearly. It was I, so used to incessant noise and utility companies that defy seasons or nightfall, who had to re-discover ancient acuities that modernity had made dull.
The presentation was dignified and cogent. Speaking Quechua (translated first into Spanish and then into English for me) the gentlemen thanked us for coming and CARE for its support. They showed clear, well-detailed posters on the walls, which charted the status of each of the village’s 123 souls. There was a legend on the bottom which showed which households had children, gestating mothers, running water, animals – all the details important to this life. Because my trip was focused on Windows of Opportunity, they also showed me charts where each infant and child was periodically and rigorously weighed and measured, so that malnutrition could immediately be red-flagged. The nearest clinic was days away by foot; through CARE’s support, Violeta Velasquez had created its own well-baby clinic, and if any babies where not well, they could alert someone who could help.
Later, we visited a home where the mama proudly showed us her clean home and her new stove – not gas as yet, but a woodstove which now had a functioning chimney such that the kitchen no longer filled with smoke. She showed us separate sleeping chambers for herself and her children. Many times during the visits we heard about what a vast improvement this was from the days of one- room sleeping; parents, children, and animals used to crowd into the same sleeping space that they readily admitted was filthy. This mama also ran a small store on the first floor of her home, where villagers could barter for items they could not grow or make.
But what most struck me – and frankly, what I personally related to – was the “Plan Familiar 2012” posted on the kitchen wall. CARE encourages each family – as well as each community – to discern personal goals and strategies for achieving them. There were separate categories for the woman and her husband, and columns for each month of the past year. Neat checks marked accomplished goals; neat notations marked explanations of why they were not.
It was exactly what I do for myself, and what I encourage my children to do.
Here in this village, which on the surface differed so much from my home, we were employing the same strategies to lift ourselves out of vague intentions and discontents, to put pen against paper and say, against seeming insurmountable odds:
“This is who I am.
This is what I want.
And this is how I am going to get it.”
In addition to material support, CARE was providing something more essential to the folks of Violeta Velasquez: the self-esteem to achieve what they most desired.