My motivation for volunteering in Peru wasn’t just about helping people. I wanted to travel; I wanted to see South America. I got a list of volunteer organisations based in Latin America. Because I spoke Spanish and had a teaching qualification, it was easy to find a placement. I worked with Bruce Peru, an organisation working to get children in Peru into education, first in informal education activities, and then enrolled in formal education.
When you mention the city of Chimbote to people from Peru, they tend to pinch their noses and exclaim ‘Huele mal!’ It smells bad! Chimbote’s main industry is a fish-canning factory. I went to Chimbote in order to set up and manage a school project like Bruce Peru’s already existing projects in other cities in Peru.
After Chimbote, I went on to manage a different centre in the city of Chiclayo, and then to Lima.
We would find a classroom, sometimes in a school, and if a school couldn’t give us a room we would build one. We would go round the communities, from door to door, and explain about our project, and that children who didn’t go to school could come, that it was free, that pencils and paper would be provided, and that the children didn’t need to wear uniform. Schools don’t charge fees in Peru, but students need to buy uniforms, books and supplies, and had to have each ready to inscribe at the beginning of the school year, making it beyond the reach of many poor families. Other children had left school in order to work and contribute to family finances. Children who were out of school could come and study, and we would give them a small meal. Children of all ages and levels came, from six to eighteen. Some of them had never been to school; many of them could not read or write at all. The children would study in our school, following classes according to their levels, with a Peruvian teacher and international volunteers acting as classroom assistants.
As a way of funding the school projects, Bruce Peru ran language schools, with the international volunteers teaching English and French in the afternoons and evenings. I managed the centre, the volunteers and the teachers, as well as acting as a classroom assistant and teaching in the evenings. I was very busy and sometimes felt stressed, but I enjoyed the experience and could see very clearly the effect that the project was having, witnessing children who had never been to school before coming and learning to read and write. I loved my time with the children.
What was particularly shocking to me in Lima was the huge disparity in different parts of the city. The large houses, cafes and bookshops in Miraflores seemed like a different world to the ‘invasiones’, shantytowns, where our projects took place, just an hour’s drive away. People were living in shelter made out of mats and cardboard, thousands together, with no water or sanitation. There was excrement lying where people walked. There were mangy rake-thin dogs around: the Peruvian social worker looked at one and commented ‘Hasta los perros son pobres’. ‘Even the dogs are poor.’
Even people who have traveled in Peru rarely see the kind of poverty that exists on the outskirts of the cities. It’s possible to see the wonderful sights of Peru, such as Machu Piccu, without becoming aware of the desperation that many people of the country are living in. Even some Peruvians from comfortable backgrounds who became involved in volunteering with us were shocked by the conditions they saw outside the cities and areas they lived in.
The return from overseas was more of a culture shock than the journey. I had to learn not to respond to the well-meaning questions ‘How was Peru?’ from people who expect a one-word answer, with a long explanation of the horrors of child poverty. Otherwise one risks watching your friends’ eyes glaze over and making people uncomfortable. I was afraid of seeming self-congratulatory, and found it hard to articulate the situations which are a reality of day-to-day life in a slum, but which are unthinkable in Ireland. I was lucky, in that my family were genuinely interested in hearing about my experience, but I recommend to anyone returning from working or volunteering abroad that they make sure they have someone they can talk to about the experience.
The experience of volunteering in Peru had a huge impact on my life. I wanted to feel better equipped to deal with some of the situations I had encountered, and I wanted to understand more about the causes of poverty and marginalization. I did a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Action, and went on to work in humanitarian emergencies and development. I have worked for the UN, for large international NGOs, and I am currently managing Ethiopiaid Ireland. I am passionate about children’s right to quality education under any circumstances, and the need to get children into education.