Hope and Hard work – the Power of Women in the Slums
I’ve met the embodiment of grace amid grinding poverty in the form of Marina, a resident of Manchay, one of Lima’s largest slums.
Driving in with guides Jose and Carlos, the sheer size the squatter settlement is disorienting. I could not believe my eyes – “Is that…is that all Manchay?” I gasped and Jose chuckled darkly. “That’s the reaction of everyone I’ve brought here,” he said.
Bone dry, rubbled hilltops bristling with flimsy zinc-roofed huts fill the horizon. The sepia-toned vista resembles a Mad Max post apocalyptic movie set and I had to check the color balance on my camera several times, startled by the olive tingecaused by the dust in the air.
Welcome to a barriada. These Peruvian slums are loosely organized as co-operative communities of people who have been forced to move from rural areas by political instability and extreme poverty to illegally occupy private or public properties. But unlike Brazilian favelas, these slums aren’t a social drain or hotbed of criminal activity . In fact, Manchay supplies Lima with an army of low income workers. Barriadas serve as nurseries for rural transplants to transition to an urban milieu, taking decades to evolve into a city suburb. Almost half the districts of Lima arose from similar origins.
Fascinated by this unique social movement, I’d asked Jose if I could have a day of cooking with Marina who works as a chef for one of the NGO’s supporting Manchay.
I’m captivated by the almost saintly calm and self-possession that radiates from Marina’s careworn features as she welcomes me into the small two-bedroom shanty that houses ten of her family members. The floor under our feet is dirt, the sides are clapboard and the roof is zinc.
But there’s a wealth of love in this humble abode. Her ten year old grandson and eight year old daughter returned from school and greet her by lifting her work-roughened right hand to their tender young foreheads, then to their lips for a kiss. Their gentle reverence just blew my mind. I asked her what her greatest dream was. “For just any one of my seven children or two grandchildren to go to university,” she replied unhesitatingly. She believes that when one goes, he or she can support the younger siblings and the rest will follow.
It’s an uphill battle, Jose later tells me – Manchay’s NGO-supported schools are inadequate despite student’s eagerness to excel. High schoolers need unaffordable private tutoring that would bring them up to par with city kids taking university entry level exams.
It’s incredible to witness in Marina the faith and fortitude that drive the work ethic of these unskilled laborers. Someone should write a paper on community bonding and service as a survival tool for the impoverished. A sense of order and co-operation permeates Manchay. The dirt streets – deserted at noon on a Thursday as everyone is working the city- are free from garbage and human waste and actually feel safe.
The resident gathers on weekends on projects from clean-ups to constructing schools, churches, paths and playgrounds and shoring up or building replacements for the ever-crumbling staircases that snake up the rubbled sides of the tall hills. What’s amazing is that most of the projects are decided on and directed by the womenfolk while the men do most of the heavy lifting. No-one shirks their duty even though residents bus for hours in and out of the city, perform long hours of back breaking labor six days a week and hike up the steep shale slopes to get home. Marina says they know of only one way to get ahead – hard work.
People of the barriadas make their living in Peru’s massive “informal sector” or gray market, without the benefit of contracts to protect them as domestics, gardeners, recyclers and food sellers. They are the poorest in a poor country. Half of Lima’s population lives in poverty despite the official minimum monthly wage of 750 sol (US$230) per month – one of the highest in Latin America.
Small nonprofit organizations provide support for tree planting and small business practices such as selling woven garments, and teach water conservation. But there’s zero government support in terms of subsidy, urban planning or services in the form of permanent electricity, water or waste disposal.
Homes have to “pull” electricity – ie. illegally siphoning off the main grid. And it’s absolutely criminal that well to do Limaneos have piped water at affordable rates while residents of Manchay and the newer slums are forced to buy fresh water by the gallon from supply trucks for up to a tenth of their salary, per month. This is fifteen times the price of piped water. It’s a wonder a health crises hasn’t broken out yet – the average use of water here is a quarter per head of WHO estimates for basic needs. With the disappearing water table and worsening drought in Lima, it hard to see how the situation will improve. Scientists have been warning of a water crisis in Lima by 2025. It’s one of the driest cities in the world with 6.4 mm (0.3 in) of rainfall per year and the Chillon River the the provides water to millions, is down to a trickle due to the disappearing Andean glaciers.
And these people live on shaky ground. Literally, as Manchay is vulnerable to erosion, earthquakes and landslides. Politically, since any further settlement is considered illegal and changing policies the past 50 years swing wildly from recognizing land ownership to forced removal. In fact I worry the latter could happen to Marina of the new upper middle class housing development right next to her hilltop, protected by massive fence, decides to expand.
What about charities? I ask José.”Peruvians will open their purses for earthquake victims. But for poverty? No,” he scoffed. After lunch, he walked me to the brand new developments only a few minutes away over the top of the hill and we slipped through tall fencing. It was bizarre Star Trek did you just beam me up? experience. One minute we stood in a barren, rocky backyard of a shanty and the next amongst newly planted trees, flowering bushes and sprawling house lots.
This is Lima, Jose said, arms spread wide. The wealthiest live cheek to cheek with the poorest, while towering walls keep both worlds forever apart.
Next day, to compound the irony I visited the stunningly lush gardens of Larco Museum and the eucalyptus tree-lined Parque Heroes de la Batalla in Miraflores where children of the wealthy played. It was both thirty miles, and universe away from Manchay.