Friday, August 15, 2008

Cusco and the Bambini di Peru

Remember the Black Babies? If you are of a certain age (and perhaps Irish) then you will remember being told as a child that the Black Babies were starving in Biafra and you should be ashamed of yourself not eating the delicious meal that your mother slaved over for hours (taste that guilt). You might have come back with the priceless retort that the Black Babies were welcome to your cabbage and tapioca pudding, if somebody would be so kind as to provide a serviceable postal address and a grease-proof envelope.

My point is (yes, I have one) that other people's suffering and deprivation is largely a matter for our brains, while our own tribulations are projected in technicolour detail against our hearts. Especially if those other people live a long way away. Like Tipperary for example (distance from Cork = 104.6 km). Or Biafra (no longer on the map). Or Peru.

For many years, Nina and Sara have heard about the Bambini di Peru from their maternal grandmother. Sometime she would simply relate a detail or a story. Like the time her camera got nicked on a trip to one of Cusco's outlying villages, but was quickly 'found' again once Padre Nicanor told the villagers that he wouldn't say mass in the place until the camera was returned. (It was returned, complete with the original film which when developed showed pictures of the ragged young culprits with mischevious smiles. Now that's innocence.) Other times, I have heard her use the Bambini di Peru in the same way the Biafran Babies were used against my generation. The circle was completed when one of my children offered to post their tagliatelle alla matriciana to the appropriate Peruvian address.

It is very hard for some - especially those of us who spend our working lives so much in our heads, both protected and demented by abstractions - to appreciate the harshly different reality of lives lived far away from us. In fact, even when you bounce up the barely-passable track of their remote town, trying desperately to keep up with the much more expertly driven pickup ahead of you, and pull into the turd-covered grassy area that passes for a village plaza, the concept of living like a child of Akorakai is a fuzzy one.

In a village of 150 people, these kids seem to make up a third of the population. Many of them were born in the 21st century, but most of them suffer from some effects of malnutrician. Their main food source is the crops that their parents tend: Maize, potato and beans. The bananas and bread that we brought (and Nina and Sara distributed) were rare variations to their diet. A great many of them are harbouring intestinal parasites and suffer from other problems that betray an absence in basic hygiene. Nobody tells the kids to wash their hands before they eat - only the doctors that pass through twice a month. And that message just doesn't stick.

But the effort goes on. The pickup ahead of me was driven by José (not the same one I've recently written about) and his passengers were the most important - a team of one doctor, two nurses (including Hermana Mathilde) and one psychologist, all based in the Centromedico of the Parish of Belén. This was one of their twice-monthly trips to Akorakai, a small but vital contribution to the general health of those living there. Their only alternative is a 2 hour walk (nobody has a car here) cross-country to the nearest town.

As I write from the luxury of a Buenos Aires hotel, it's hard to place myself again in the atmosphere of Akorakai, much less recall my thoughts on the place. I more or less stood out of the way, occasionally interacting with the kids in my terrible Spanish, and only occasionally understanding their answers. Most of the interaction was between Nina, Sara and the village kids. There wasn't much difference between how they got on with those kids and how they play out on the green at home, given the language barrier. The first, and entirely predictable stage was that all the young boys of the village gathered around the back of the pickup where Nina and Sara were sitting (while Daddy kept a watchful eye). This developed into a game of fling-the-hat, a game where some poor unfortunates hat would be nicked, flung at Nina and Sara, who would then toss it further. This continued for a while until the boys got bored and scattered around the various parts of the village. Then the smaller and quieter group of girls approached. Some kind of communication took place (the standard tweenie exchange of vital statistics like name and age), with Letizia acting as moderator.

I asked a couple of the boys - two particularly active ones who were jokingly asking for injections from me, assuming I was a doctor - if they planned to be doctors when they grew up. The answer was a clear no, with an overtone that to me sounded like "what kind of a stupid question is that, gringo?" I don't think many of these kids have any concept of what else life can offer, despite the fact that there was a fulltime school, even if little else, in the village (the Peruvian state seems to be putting a priority on education, even above health, for its most isolated communities). I found out later that these villages are effectively dying off - anyone with any ambition wants to move to Cusco. Those left behind are typically trapped by their own apathy.

There was still a distance between the European girls and the Peruvians, and it was maintained by both sides. The blonde girls belonged on the top of the pickup, and the locals belonged on the ground. Those positions were occasionally exchanged, but balance and order was always restored. This happened entirely by itself.

Nobody had any pretentions that this was a normal encounter. But at the end of the afternoon, after we had made our goodbyes and started to bounce down the hill again toward our completely modern existance in Cusco, Nina and Sara had at least some faces to recall when next dealing with the concept of the Bambini di Peru.

That said, I haven't noticed any new appetite for either cabbage or tapioca.

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