Just two weeks ago, I was moving house to my permanent base here in Asuncion. I’ve rented an apartment with two rooms for $250 a month in Barrio Santissima Trinidad: a short walk from the sisters house and the banados where I work.
This is considered middle-range for Asuncion.
As I gathered a few bits and pieces, The weather was already starting to look ordinary, but work wasn’t yet too busy, so I went around looking for small furniture that I could carry myself.
I coquettishly picked out cushions for my simple little house which didn’t yet have chairs, and searched used furniture stores for the right colours to give rustic missionary feel with a bit of modern artistic flair. (Okay, so that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I wanted to place to look nice for the penhas (singalongs) I hope to hold here)
…And now, I see how far away I am from real solidarity as the people of the poorest parts of Asuncion construct their temporary dwellings.
For more than a month, the river Paraguay has risen slowly, meter by meter each time it rains. The little wooden huts are multiplying by the day.
These places will be the homes of the poorest for perhaps three to four months while they wait for the river Paraguay to subside.
Light coloured wood huts are springing up around the city with no fixed address.
By the end of August, these dwellings will take on the darker, dirtier brown that characterises slums throughout the world.
Rich people whinge that unused land on their property is becoming a makeshift slum and they call the authorities to forcibly remove people from their view, sanitising their consciences and turning their eyes away. The rich don’t necessarily own the unused land, but the site of suffering is too much so they wash their hands of it, move it away from their eyes, and create even more work for the exhausted people.
Corrugated metal “Chapas” are used to make a roof against the rain, and no matter the state of the clothing or the attractiveness of a mattress or furniture, these are the people’s possessions and they won’t leave them behind.
Functionality is the order of the day, and with some level of ingenuity, people manage to get a bit of electricity to power their fridges and TVs if they have them, (telenovelas (Spanish soap operas ) are the only escape from the monotony that they will live over these months waiting for the river level to go down.)
They aren’t worried about the colour of their cushions; they don’t have flushing toilets. They aren’t worried that they don’t have hot water; they don’t have running water to begin with. They don’t have the luxury of worrying about the flu, they just need to get a roof over their heads.
The huts don’t protect the people however from the humidity, and there are all manner of bugs, eels and waterborne diseases floating around and attaching themselves to the people.
Throughout Asuncion delivery men known as “fleteros” are making a killing off those who barely have 100mil ($20) to feed their families, by transporting their humble furniture often not more than 200 metres from its original spot.
My bedroom is the size of the wooden huts, so I count myself as extremely lucky. My little apartment is now home to two of us, one of the teachers has moved in as Fe y Alegria Caacupemi has now been relocated to a higher zone. The school is almost completely under water and can only be reached by boat or canoe.
The teachers are so busy relocating the school, they haven’t started to worry about the fact that they will likely be couchsurfing for three months, and after all, half the kids in the school still don’t have a roof over their heads.
The people are starting to worry. Social media means that many of them have access to Facebook and they share daily the anxieties and frustrations of dislocation.
Some are lucky enough to have relatives living in the surrounds of the city, but they don’t feel lucky, because it means they are far away from everything they know. One family has moved to a nice house in an even nicer part of Asuncion. But they miss their community desperately, and long to return to their casita with the mud floors. And who doesn’t long for home?
Lame as it sounds, I got chills and teared up a little listening to the song “I am Australian” the other day as I attempted to prepare an English class on the verb “to be”. My class didn’t go ahead because of the floods. Everything is cancelled or suspended. I have materials for all of my classes ready to go, but it’s unlikely that any workshops will be held for at least a week.
The educational fall-out will be huge. Classes in the effected schools have been suspended for a week, and until the families have all been relocated, the teachers are unsure who will continue. There is likely to be the collateral damage of people never returning to school at all. The flood will be an excuse that will necessitate work and struggle and the people won’t see much point to education…
For the moment, I’m living with a feeling of impotence, a feeling that nothing will be enough. I can do small things, but nothing is enough to fill the hole left by the state. So we wait, and pray. I’m unfortunately not particularly good at either right now.