El Salvador

Oct. 7, 2004, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 16 years, 3 months ago

Living within the walls of poverty

He was so skinny you could actually see his heart beating hard against his skin. A tiny boy with jutting ribs and toothpick arms, he looked more like an eight-year-old than his actual age of 13. His name was Moises.

Moises is a victim of malnutrition and heart disease. He was one of dozens of Salvadoran children I met this summer when I traveled with a group of doctors, dentists and Blair teens to build a medical clinic and school in two rural villages of El Salvador. The trip was a project of International Partners, an organization that supports local leaders who are committed to developing self-sustaining communities in areas of extreme poverty. For 17 days, we lived in mud-brick houses without running water or plumbing, building a medical clinic and peering into a world that was both foreign and familiar.

Chickens and roaches

In the village of Mazatepeque I stayed in a two-room, mud-brick house with two other delegates and a family of six. Bits of dirt from the walls and ceiling would sometimes fall onto my face at night. In the house where my friends were staying, you could see stars through the holes in the roof.

Horses, cows, chickens and pigs wandered freely through the village, defecating all over the roads and in people's yards. We almost died laughing the morning our friend, yelling in horror, found a chicken roosting in his hat.

Located outside the houses were cement cylinder toilets resting above a pit in the earth, surrounded by a ramshackle structure made out of anything available—blankets, tree branches, strips of metal. At night, three-inch-long cockroaches would crawl inside the rims.

All day, the children who were too young to be in school would play. I come from a middle-class world of protective parents who make their kids look both ways before crossing the street, so it was strange to see children having swordfights with rusty wires, playing at construction sites or walking around with machetes.

The walls of poverty

Poverty surrounded us. I saw it in the bony bodies of malnourished children, rotting teeth and torn clothes that people wore for days at a time. It was evident in teens wearing flip-flops on their hands as gloves during softball games and women using cardboard as potholders while they cooked.

Some differences were less visible. It took me several days to realize that Irene, the skinny, pale ten-year-old who helped serve our meals, wasn't going to school. Her mother wanted her to help in the kitchen, she explained. Oscar, the handsome 15-year-old in whose house I was living, was skipping school so that he could help his father in the fields. In Mazatepeque, there are no formal consequences for missing class.

For Blazers who have recently emigrated from El Salvador, the promise of getting a quality education justifies the sacrifice of leaving their homeland. Sophomore Jose Guevara-Garcia, who immigrated five months ago, says that back in his city of Anomoros, the schools offer fewer programs, teachers and computers, and school days are only four hours long.

Freshman Tomasa Guevara claims that she misses "everything" about El Salvador, and plans to return. "But live there?" she says. "No. I need to stay where my future will be better."

A broken heart

Despite the poverty, the people have a richness of spirit evident in the joy they experience with the resources at hand. The children spend hours making games with marbles, sticks—or in my case, caterpillars.

I was swimming in the river when the children attacked. The boys had noticed my revulsion toward Salvadoran caterpillars—thick, squishy creatures that were easily five inches long and stuck to my shirt like Super Glue. A group of kids, led by Moises, were tossing the dreaded things in my direction. They delighted in my fear and chased me all the way home. Despite this somewhat revolting initiation, playing with Moises at the river became a daily event for the other delegates and me.

Later that week, our delegation doctor was describing how day after day, he saw children suffering from serious complications of easily preventable diseases. He then explained that Moises had contracted strep throat, which developed into rheumatic fever and caused a disease of the heart valves because he never received treatment. Now, if he doesn't receive open-heart surgery, he will die.

In that moment, the poverty became personal. I knew Moises and his family—I was living in their house. I felt like I'd been slapped. I learned that Moises' mother had raised the necessary $4,000 for his surgery through nongovernmental organizations, but I also learned that in most cases, poverty trumps any hope rural people have in combating such diseases.

Building a dream

The story of Moises gave us a new sense of purpose in constructing the clinic. Every day, we would mix and pour cement, lay down cinder blocks and level the ground. The walls of the clinic grew taller and taller, and one day we woke to find that the villagers had begun building the roof. Prior to our project, the nearest access to medical supplies was several miles away, accessible by horseback over dirt roads dotted with craters and sometimes submerged by six inches of water.

We stocked the medical clinic with supplies, including the antibiotics Moises would have needed to prevent his condition. After two weeks of lifting, stacking and sweating, the finished building looked surprisingly small. It stood on a slight hill, its gray cinderblocks standing out against the morning sky. Behind it, in the distance, stood the remains of another clinic, bombed during the war and covered in ivy that had grown for 12 years.

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