Walking back to my hostel in Cusco alone a couple of nights ago, I saw a schoolgirl of around 11 or 12 years, still in her school uniform, pushing and cajoling her blind drunk father to get him home. He was teetering all over the road and pavement, and fell twice in the time that I was watching. The saddest part of this horrendous spectacle was that her pleas for ‘papa’ to move along and come home were not desparate. They were routine. Her voice told you that this was a regular chore of getting her pathetically drunk father home. Well dressed, he was no street hobo, and looked very much like an office worker. There was no drama in her voice, just functional resignation. That made it sadder.
Paola was running art workshops in the Aldea Yanapay school for kids aged around 9 to 11. In what seemed like a very sensible idea to get them engaged, she suggested they draw pictures of their families. After abnormal resistance from all of them, one child started. He drew his two brothers, each with a black eye. He refused point blank to draw his parents. His picture of himself was very hurriedly drawn without any care or attention. Paola changed the exercise.
In another class, as I was helping a boy with his maths homework, it became clear he wasn’t going to finish it in time, and I suggested that he finish it at home. As a panic set in, he welled up, and a little girl came wanting to finish his work for him. Trying to calm him down, I could just about make out that he was afraid that his father would beat him for not having finished his homework before getting home.
Machismo and drunkenness are rife in beautiful Cusco. Domestic violence is commonplace in peaceful Cusco. The highest rates of children’s alcoholism in Peru are in the cultural centre that is Cusco. 35% of children are involved in under age labour and exploitation in touristic Cusco. This was the backdrop to the after-school school that Yuri founded back in 2004. An endemic and self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, alcoholism and violence so engrained that it could be traced right back to pre-Hispanic Inca culture and many influences since.
The Aldea Yanapay project doesn’t aim to preach change. It doesn’t mandate this or that moral code. It is there to serve as an example that there is a different way. Hence its descriptor, ‘Otra Forma de vivir’, or another way to live. The founder and head of the project, Yuri, says that he cannot and will not describe the “perfect father”. “However”, he adds “I am sure that it is not a dad who abandons or beats his kids”. The philosophy of love with discipline at the school is there to demonstrate by example to the children that there is a way to live that doesn’t involve beating or abuse. And that underpins his near maniacal diktat with the volunteers that there is to be no shouting, no hitting, and only discipline with love.
Yuri was brutally and beautifully honest with us all in our induction meeting. This was a very refreshing change to the overly volunteer-centric approach of many social projects here, and aligned with my belief that volunteering is not a favour, but a responsibility.
“You are not my clients,” he said. “You are all here for your own reasons, which may be to earn extra credit for your university, to be at peace with yourself, because it’s a cheap way to be in Peru, to do good, or many other reasons. That’s great. But it is important that you remember this project is not about you. It is about these children and what they are going through. They come first, not you”.
His approach is simple. If we cannot serve as examples, then our involvement is not welcome. The children see us as ‘tall people’, like their parents. But we are tall people that say please and thank you. When they look at us tall people and are petrified because they’ve broken something and are expecting a beating, we tell them it’s OK. They will forget us as individuals, but this continuity of behaviour from all involved in the project will leave a mark.
This may sound like a utopian ideal, and somewhat unrealistic and unrepresentative of life. It may also smell of political correctness gone mad. But the backlash we are having in the UK and probably other places about whether a smack is a necessary or destructive act are set against a different context. When the prevalent behaviour is violent and abusive, maybe it makes sense to immerse the children in an equally strong and opposing behaviour set to help them understand the choices that they can make.
Our involvement as volunteers was fleeting, and in a future blog post I will describe what we did. But many volunteers are here for six or more months. And the school itself take a longer term view. A parallel project has started, the cultural centre, which sees youths out of this school turning their attention to pursuits such as photography or computing, and all within the same ethos of love. This gives the programme sustainability beyond any of our brief involvements in a child’s life.
Yuri took our 4 year old daughter around the block on his scooter this evening after she spent the best part of an hour crying that she wanted to go on it. As she was getting on, a group of kids, probably late teens, came past out of college, and all with hugs and respect punches for him. They were alumni of Aldea Yanapay. In the hostel he runs to part fund the project, another alumni has a job looking after the guests. If it’s made a difference to these handful of people that I saw in this one night, surely that’s already worthwhile?
Things you can do to help if so inclined.
1) Volunteer. The Aldea Yanapay is always looking for responsible volunteers.
2) If you are visiting Cusco, eat at the Aldea Yanapay restaurant or stay at the Hostal Magico. Both of these help fund the school.
3) Donate. Funds and supplies are always needed for the school. We have seen from working there how sparse books and toys are at the very least.