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Ruby's Round the World Adventure

A child's mind is everything (volunteering, Cusco)

AUSTRALIA | Sunday, 20 April 2014 | Views [423]

A child’s mind is everything.
Volunteering in Aldea Yanapay, Cusco was an experience of joy. Each day despite sickness (usually food poisoning from the day before), or lack of energy (staying up all night on the toilet can be draining…), felt almost impossible not to smile in bewilderment of the beautiful and at times unfathomable workings of a child’s mind. Children have a magic within them that sadly most adults lose as the societal pressures of conformity creeps into our minds dictating our every thought, word and action. 

However the magic most Peruvian children possess is different to the magic I had witnessed back home, this new magic came with a sense of hardship and endurance, disguised by overwhelming affection. For many of Peru’s children home life is often violent, impoverished and lacking the tender love and care that most children in the Western world are nourished by. As a result the kids often feel a strong attachment to the Aldea Yanapay volunteers and grow accustomed to giving and receiving lots of hugs and find all sorts of ways to physically hang from the volunteers like monkeys at all times of the day.

Aldea Yanapay School
A typical day at Aldea Yanapay starts at 8:20 and lasts until 12:00pm the school then starts back up from 3pm until 7pm. The hard reality for most children in Peru is an education system which lacks stability and adequate funding making access to education unattainable and unaffordable for many children. The kids that do attend school often do so with weary eyes and suffer physical exhaustion because during the daytime many children work to support their families and those who do not work in the day generally work at night. Here child labour is an apparent part of daily existence and as a result the schooling system caters to this way of life by offering morning classes and night time classes. For the children of Peru this is their reality. This is their life.

In saying that, for most of these children this is all they have ever known; a way of life that is indeed unimaginable in most developed nations. Children are out on the streets late at night playing, roaming and sometimes just wandering and I am not just talking about older children, no. I am speaking of children younger than 5 playing on the streets in the pitch dark. But this is just how it is in Cusco. This is their childhood. 
Sadly the consequences these social norms have on the education of children is massive and greatly affects the ability of a child to absorb information making the few hours at school extremely difficult. The problem is that an adequate education, one which allows access of good quality learning networks to all children must be met in a non-compromising way to the traditions and cultures that are sacred to the Peruvian people and which make the country the special land of which it is.

Yanapay children and volunteers on the streets of Cusco


On another note, possibly the biggest challenge I faced working in the school was the language barrier- boy did I underestimated just how difficult it would be to communicate and understand the children (who speak their own language most of the time) with my limited Spanish vocabulary! One of the problems posed by the language barrier is that I found myself both unconsciously and sometimes even consciously spitting out lies when the kids ask questions, for instance a common question was 'what's your favourite animal?' rather than responding with “well children my favourite animal is the snow leopard (Pantherinae Uncia species) for they are solitary in nature and have beautiful eyes, the answer becomes a mere one worded lie, ‘perro’ (dog).

The most embarrassing example of miscommunication was during my first week at Aldea Yanapay, after school I would walk this one little girl named Cynthia home (before I realised that this was actually against the Schools policy and had to stop). During our walks home the young girl was ever so patient, always helping my with my answers and asking her questions to me very slowly and clear as if speaking to a 3 year old- for this I was ever so grateful.

One afternoon on our scheduled walk home she turned to me and asked ‘Tienne hijos y hijas?’ Instantaneously I answered thrilled for at last I understood exactly what she had asked, (or so I had thought), ‘do you have brothers and sisters?’ Of course!
I began telling her about my eight brothers and sisters happily going into detail as much as possible about each as I missed them all terribly. The next morning in the school I sat chatting away to Cynthia and asked her ‘Tienne hijos y hijas?’ after a strange look she shook her head vigorously from side to side. I thought to myself ‘what a strange reaction she must really not like the idea of siblings’. When I arrived to my afternoon Spanish lesson I thought I’d better double check what ‘hijos y hijas’ meant. Staring back at me on a page in my Spanish book was the English translation ‘sons and daughters’! So I had shamelessly lied to this 11 year old about the 8 offspring I had, and then what is worse I followed up the question the next day by asking this child in a inquisitive and quite serious manner if she too had sons and daughters! So the moral of the story for any of you potential volunteers is try to have a proper understanding of the language when working with children because you will find it hard to connect and communicate properly.

Art Class
Admittedly I have had a few problems with composing and publishing this blog along with the following blogs which are yet to be posted as I found it difficult to come to terms with the controversy I found in volunteering with children. Before I set out on my round the world journey I was rather naive in my goals and attitudes towards volunteering, which I guess is derived from lack of experience. The emotional attachment many of the kids develop towards volunteers can have detrimental long term effects as a lack of emotional stability and feelings of abandonment may result from the constant change of volunteers. The development of the relationship and trust process is constantly starting over as the old volunteers leave and are replaced by the new. This was made abundantly clear to me after one of the Friday night drama shows that the kids perform, on this particular night about nine long term volunteers stood up to say their farewells, the children would bravely stand and say something to their favourite volunteer in front of the crowd, most of them with tears streaming down their faces and choking on their words.

This was a little bit devastating for me because it really made me question how beneficial volunteering is for the children, volunteering almost seems to be more beneficial for the individual doing the work than for the children. However this is only one experience out of the many I have yet to encounter and my attitude towards volunteering is bound to consistently change along with my experiences.

Finally I apologise for the extremely late posting of these blogs and for all those people who may have wanderlust in their hearts my advice is to travel without hesitation. Travel is the key to opening the mind, developing empathy and passion and all of these are essential ingredients for social change and positive activism. My experience volunteering in Aldea Yanapay has broadened my mind whilst spurring a lot of questions towards my own understanding of volunteering mainly concerning the benefits and the losses for children. For now I am extremely excited to continue learning about different cultures, customs, values and beliefs which is what travel is all about :).

I'd like to also say a very big thank you to my sponsers particularly Zonta and The Nepean Rotary Club, for their donations which will make a huge impact on the life and education of the kids in my next project in Kenya. 

Tags: children, cusco, travel, volunteering

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