For some time now, I’ve been without words. Usually, I have a comment, a joke or a sarcastic or cynical quip for every situation, but at the moment, there is nothing. I am trying to listen, learn and understand, but I find myself feeling pretty useless, unable to come up with a response.
The two barrios where I work, Ca’acupemi Bañado Norte and Cerrito San Miguel have been slowly but surely flooding as winter begins. Each time it rains, a few more families find themselves without a home. The floods are the worst in fourteen years, and are the reason that the “bañados” are called bañados. (Bañado means bath or bathed and refers to the low lying areas in the northern and southern limits of Asuncion.)
The people have learnt what to do in such situations and build small wooden houses using thin balsa-like wood. They eke out a small patch of land as close as possible to their own community. Usually, this is not more than a couple of hundred metres from their flooded house. The new house is perhaps four-metres squared, and is designed as a temporary dwelling. One large mattress is often a bed for six people. Carts are piled high with soiled blankets, mattresses, electro-domestics and warm clothing and transported to these makeshift houses, where the people could spend up to three or four months. Those who live in the higher areas often put up a good fight to stop the people building their casitas in otherwise more “attractive” parts of the barrio. The frustration of getting authorisation is just one of the many issues facing countries as corrupt as this.
After a few months, when the hot weather begins again and the water level goes down, they return to what was once their house and rebuild.
Why do they return? Why wouldn’t they find a place that isn’t so inclined to fill with water as the river rises? Because they lack the financial resources to own land which sits a little higher up. Many don’t own the land which they live on to begin with, much less do they have the option of dreaming to own something more secure.
Most remarkable is the solidarity of the people who live in and around the areas; and most shocking is the ignorance of the government and the rich. Life goes on for those with a bit of money to spare. Hundreds attended the launch of “Hard Rock Café Asuncion” at the exclusive Hotel Guarani the other night, and yet most of those would spend more money on a cocktail than on a mattress for a struggling family in the Bañados. The irony is intense. There are so many faces to this city.
The government is worse. The press has been carrying stories for weeks about the flooding, and yet government officials only show up strategically when the people start protesting in the streets, delivering tiny food packages to just a small percentage of affected families. It’s a political game.
The people doing the real work are the young people in the barrios, the mothers, the nuns. Last night at 8pm I rang up Sr. Blasida SantaCruz the superior of the Company of Mary (the congregation I work with), and she was still out in the barrio helping the people build houses.
Most activities are suspended at the moment. Just last week I started a young women’s workshop for adolescent girls which had a remarkable turn out of 27 from Asuncion’s poorest community. This week, it’s on hold because most of the students’ houses are under water. I hope to be able to restart it in the coming weeks – it’s such an effort to start anything here.
English classes, workshops, everything is replaced by impotency, questioning what little one can do to alleviate the situation.
I don’t have an answer, but I’ll let you know.