Cuncani: The house of smiles

Very few times in my life have I had the opportunity to have experiences that have made a lasting emotional impact on me. Sometimes they happen without any expectation at all. Cuncani turned out to be a very unexpected and wonderful combination of emotions.

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I don’t know if it’s too easy to describe what poverty means. To say ‘nothing’ is not enough. You need to see it, feel it, smell it, and hear it. I don’t know if words are useful to describe the absence, the indifference, the distance, the nothing.

In 2013, when the Lunch Program in Cuncani started, I liked the idea to support the project, always seeing from a Human Development perspective.

Alongside my two years of sponsorship, my idea of Cuncani was built based on pictures that I saw, or from stories that I heard. I never realized what Cuncani actually was. I remember that close to Christmas, we, the sponsors, had to send a present to our ‘ahijados’ (sponsored children) and when I asked what was the best gift to sent, the answer was: “Actually, the kids have nothing”. At that time, I didn’t realize or I couldn’t have had an idea about what having nothing meant. I didn’t know that some time later that I’d learn what it exactly meant.

In 2015, I went to Urubamba with the goal to finally visit Cuncani. I wasn’t a sponsor anymore but my desire to learn about Nexos Comunitarios (NC) work and the kids from Cuncani always made me feel that this trip was something I had to do. Finally, I made it and arrived in Urubamba in mid October.

Two days after my arrival, the great trip started; the great trip that the NC team make every week. The bus picked us up at 4:00 a.m., when everything is still very dark and quiet; we brought all the products to make the lunches for the kids for the week. On our way to Calca (the next town) we picked up a group of teachers that stay in Cuncani from Monday through Friday. We continued with our trip and suddenly a big chunk of reality stopped us: a strike organized by the population of Calca. They were complaining about the reparation of the road that links Calca with the rest of the towns, where daily, a lot of vehicles, including the big Odebrecht trucks (a construction company that is in charge of the construction of a new gas pipeline). They were blocking all the roads which impeded us from effectively moving on. We had to go back to Urubamba with all the produce and the only thing on our minds being that the children in Cuncani wouldn’t be able to have lunch.

I was very disappointed to not be able to reach our destiny – the whole objective of my trip was to visit Cuncani and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to make it. The last day I had was on Tuesday but it seemed that the strike was going to continue, therefore it was going to be impossible to arrive there. Finally, and thankfully, the strike ended on Monday afternoon.

IMG_2805On Tuesday, we arrived in Cuncani, after 3 and a half hours of traveling from Urubamba and after using 3 different types of transportation. Each town we passed through seemed poorer that the last one. There were a lot more services visibly lacking, the noise of urban life started to dissipate, there were a whole lot less vehicles and transport hubs and the cold started to increase.

When we arrived at the school in Cuncani, all the children ran to receive us with a lot of joy. I got off the bus and I realized that we were in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by them and under a sun that, although seemed intense, did nothing to warm us. I helped unload the products from the van and bring them to the school kitchen to where the mothers were, and then went to explore.

The school has three classrooms, restrooms, one refectory and a very simple kitchen. Nothing more, that’s the entire school. In front, a river runs through the community.

I walked around and I told my name to some kids after they asked me and I carried on exploring.

While I continued walking, I met the kindergarten teacher: Sr. Anacleto. Smiley and kind, he gave me a handshake and welcomed me. The coordinators of NC talked to the principal about the development of the greenhouse that is part of the Lunch Program whilst another NC coordinator is working on the PhotoVoice project. I asked Anacleto if I could stay in the classroom with him. Going beyond my expectations, he invited me to participate in the class and asked me to teach the kids some words in English (I’m an English teacher). I satt down in a semi-circle with the children, just like any other student. I didn’t understand a word, because the children (only 3, 4 and 5 years old) only speak Quechua. We started the class repeating the numbers in Quechua and that was difficult for me as I don’t know the language.

The children then asked me help with the pronunciation. Anacleto asked me to write a few words in English on the blackboard. He wrote “casa” (Spanish) and I wrote “house” and finally he wrote “Wasi” (Quechua). We had our first trilingual class.

Half an hour later, the children stood up so Anacleto could pour a small amount of soap in their hands and supervise their hand washing: it was breakfast time.

We all went out to rinse our hands but there was no water so we had to run to the river. The water was really freezing, so cold that combined with the wind, my hands hurt. We ran back to the school refectory where breakfast was waiting for them. Breakfast is provided by the government ‘Q’ali Warma’ program for children and today’s was: rice pudding.

When we finished, we went back to classes. After a while, we crossed the river to play ball.

There was no instant during those 3-4 hours in which the children didn’t smile. It is very hard for me to describe with words how they made me feel through their joy. If I could attempt to articulate some of these feelings I would say (in a question): Is it possible to smile in this very poor environment? Is it possible to play with a ball, to sing songs, throw the ball into the river and then go running to take it and use those moments as enough reasons to smile, even to laugh?

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From the bottom of my heart, I hope that those children keep their smiles in spite of the coldness, in spite of the lack of many things, in spite of the indifference from a State that doesn’t recognize them, in spite of the distance… Maybe that is the only reason that guides them in the search of new opportunities to grow and to develop. I also thank them for teaching me how simple joys can be forgotten when we are adults. Without any doubt, these are the most important things in life.

 

 

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