Before I left Australia, bound for a volunteer project in Cusco, Peru, I was asked time and time again; ‘so, what exactly will you be doing?’.
Now, finally, I can accurately answer that question.
For the next month (well, more like three weeks now) I will be working at a primary school in Pumamarca, a poverty-stricken mountain village just outside Cusco.
There are about 150 students at Pumamarca. Before Peru’s Challenge stepped in two years ago there were 13 and the Department of Education was threatening to close the school down, as it had done to so many others in Cusco’s poor regions. In the words of Fat Bastard, it was a “vicious cycle” – not enough students to keep the doors open but education standards too low to attract enough students.
Now, the ramifications of your school closing sucks a little more in Cusco than, say, having to enroll in Mt Austin High instead of Kooringal (although, that would have been pretty bad). When Pumamarca closed, the students’ education stopped. They would instead work long, laborious hours at home or in nearby fields – their youth lost.
The five hours these kids spend at school are the happiest and most carefree of their day. There is no sign of the dire conditions which await them at home. They laugh, they play, they learn and they adore it.
Step foot in the school grounds and you are greeted by swarms of smiley, boisterous children. The little ones, some as young as two (they follow their brothers and sisters to school), run towards the group, arms outstretched before wrapping them around the volunteers’ legs for a heartfelt hug. You can do nothing but melt when they look up at you with big, grateful brown eyes.
Sure, you’re a stranger, but they know you are part of Peru’s Challenge and the not-for-profit organisation is the only reason the school exists.
The kids also love having their photo taken. "Photo amiga, photo". But it's the ability to immediately review the picture on your digital camera, an otherwise unseen luxury, which fascinates them most. Simple pleasures.
I have so far been allocated the roles of teaching art, singing and PE classes. Oh, and dance. Wonder how the Peruvians will take to the running man? I’ll also be helping run the after-school sports program, helping with the construction of the new kindergarten building (we all chip in with that one), and writing the newsletter (for the program and the website, not the school).
A recent art class yesterday reaped heart-warming rewards when, later the same day, we saw the cellophane animals proudly displayed on bedroom walls during our first lot of home visits.
Performed by each volunteer once weekly, home visits are where the harsh realities of life outside school come to heart-breaking light.
Till next time.
PS: I miss my friends like the Cowboys miss winning.