Poverty is less about lacking money and more about feeling poor, feeling poorer than those around you. After a month of travelling Peru with a fellow Cantab, I spent another month of my summer volunteering in the city of Huancayo with Makikita Quykuway, a very small, non-profit organisation that aims to improve the lives of Huancayo’s poorest children. It provides them with safe spaces where as well as being helped with their homework, they can just be children: young and carefree.
I’d never come across children so streetwise before, but city life had been shoved hard down their throats. The progressive, media-induced Westernisation of Huancayo was leaving those who couldn’t afford to keep up behind. Wealthy and poor lived side by side, accentuating each other. Women, dressed in skin-tight jeans and leather jackets tottered in patent heels, past single mothers sitting with seven children selling sweets for cents. It was a tough kind of world where the economically poor were faced everyday with these harsh reminders of what could be, of things that they were made to desire but would never be able to afford. They were made to feel poor.
With a commercial price on everything, just earning money each day to buy food to eat was a struggle for these large, single-parent families. Getting the right nutrition was even more of a challenge with the price of quinoa, one of Peru’s most nutritious, protein-rich grains, having risen three-fold over the last four years. Once a staple food, it’s now out of the reach of many Peruvians – most lamentably those Peruvians who need its nutrition most. Many of these children end up working on the streets in order to support their families, meaning they miss out on valuable school time. Their situation is so hand-to-mouth that they have to put food for today over education for tomorrow. That’s where Makikita Quykuway came in to help.
When these disadvantaged children attended Makikita Quykuway’s community centres, their home lives melted into insignificance. They were just children, dressed in colourful clothing with twinkling eyes and cheeky smiles, who liked, more than anything, to play. I was less like a teacher to them, and more like an older sister, able, thanks to my Spanish A-Level, to join in with their jokes and help them with their homework. Only now and again did indicators of their home-life drip like tar through the walls of the community centre: a drunken father, rumbling stomachs, a house without a bed. They occasionally received donations, of books and bags, biscuits and bathrooms; these were much appreciated, but it was impossible to reach everyone.
It was such a different experience to the one that I’d had when visiting the Amazon with my fellow travelling Cantab. There we’d stayed in a community, where the children had next to nothing to call their own, but instead they all shared everything around them. It was theirs to use, given they treated it with respect and took no more than they needed. They squelched down home-made mud slides into the Amazon river; they drank from young coconuts and picked the largest, ripest papayas I’d ever seen; they carved toys and tools out of wood and weaved bracelets made of dyed grass and seed beads they’d collected. Their mothers and fathers were always close at hand, guiding them. These children wanted it no different; they knew no different. They had a freedom most Westerners could barely even dream about: just them, their family and friends, and nature, living in harmony – and nothing else. Nothing to desire; no one to envy.
It made me think about urbanization and Westernisation and the poverty hidden under the concrete – not just in the cities in Peru but in all cities. It’s only when poverty looks you in the eye that you really see it, in the eyes of the Big-Issue seller and the bearded man curled in a cardboard box, and in the innocent, twinkling eyes of children. We have a howling hunger that is never satisfied in this world full of fads and food waste and hedonism. Sometimes we need to stop looking at what others have that we don’t, and just appreciate what we do have. Then, we’ll feel richer than ever. Because, in the words of my new favourite song, Latinoamérica by Calle 13, ‘tú no puedes comprar mi vida’ (you can’t buy my life).
Some things money just can’t buy.