Hello from Lima! My name is Charlie and I am a Student Affairs intern here at MEDLIFE in Peru. I’m going to launch straight into a story about a trip the interns made into the field the night of Wednesday, October 1st, 2014:
My ears were still pounding from the whirlwind ride we had taken as I began to hike up the steep gravel path. We (the interns) had just been whisked by a fleet of three-wheeled micro taxis through a labyrinthine neighborhood towards one of the dark hills looming above Nueva Esperanza – a community waiting for us at its summit. A wailing megaphone siren blared from the micro at the head of our procession, mixed with the 90’s techno ballad—“No Limit” by 2 Unlimited—that our driver pumped from his speakers. Combined with the stop motion effect of the strobe light above our windshield as we dodged street mutts and swerved around sharp corners, the trip felt more like a bizarre street race than a convoy en route to a humanitarian outreach meeting. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
We had heard about the community assembly with AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n from Carlos Benavides the day before. Carlos is the director of MEDLIFE Peru and it’s most crucial activist in Lima. He works tirelessly at a breakneck pace for the communities we serve and has accumulated an encyclopedic memory of names, faces, and places along the way. By the end of a day with Carlos your mind is full of the stories he has shared about the people you met and places you went. For many in Pamplona, Villa Maria, and Villa El Salvador, Carlos is the face of MEDLIFE.
MEDLIFE is in the process of forming a new partnership with AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n, the community waiting on the rocky hill summit. Carlos had had several weeks of correspondence and small meetings with their elected leaders that all led up to this community assembly. They had discussed the needs of the community and what MEDLIFE is prepared to help with. AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n is plagued by a lack of critical infrastructure, especially staircases. They also lack access to basic healthcare and preventative diagnostic tests like pap smears. MEDLIFE is prepared to help and Carlos was making it happen. The meeting we zipped to in the micro taxis was an introduction between the greater community and MEDLIFE staff.
“As we crossed over a ridge the illuminated valley emerged below us —a thousand lights laid out in a rough grid along the valley floor.”
The navigable roadway ended at the base of a long set of crude steps cut from the packed dirt and rock of the hill. We tumbled out of the micros grinning at our unorthodox approach, however as we began the ascent into darkness the sounds of the city dwindled behind us and we fell silent. The smell of dust mingled with the odor of waste found strewn about in haphazard piles.
Our route wound its way up and around the crest of a hill past rows of makeshift houses, each one more sparsely built than the one below it. As we crossed over a ridge the illuminated valley emerged below us —a thousand lights laid out in a rough grid along the valley floor. The light emanated upwards in hazy halos from each post – given shape by the low clouds that cling to the Lima coastline. Despite the warm glow, a breeze on the ridge-top sent chill, damp air searching through our jackets. We turned our heads uphill and continued along the spine of the ridge.
Off in the distance shone a lone circle of light. As we approached, the figures of the community came into focus and the gravity of the assembly hit me. Men, women, and children, every type and age from the community, surrounded the largest communal space, awaiting our arrival. No moment in this internship has had such an impact on my outlook towards MEDLIFE, its mission, and the people it serves. Devotion and determination was set into each of their faces. It was humbling to behold.
A hush fell over the community as we approached and filed into a single line, forming a half circle opposite the crowd. We could feel their eyes sweep over each of us as the community leader began his opening speech. The people of AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n have every reason to be skeptical of MEDLIFE and our mission. The national government and other non-profit organizations have made many empty promises, leaving behind a population wary of outside support. The leader concluded his introduction and presented Carlos, who launched into an in-depth description of MEDLIFE and its purpose.
The meeting continued uninterrupted for two hours and involved a dialogue between MEDLIFE (mostly Carlos) and the community members. Carlos alternated between explaining matters of importance to the community, like public health concerns and infrastructure projects, to fielding questions from them. The people from AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n expressed gratitude for us being there and shared stories of their hardships living in such conditions.
When Carlos asked people to come forward to explain what the potential projects would do for them, a young girl named Nicole stood up. Nicole is ten years old and lives in a house along the route where one of the staircases is going to be built. The path by her house is very steep and when it rains it becomes very slick, she told us. Her concern for the safety of her neighbors and her mother brought a tremor into her voice. Her mother had fallen twice, once while she was pregnant, and though she was not injured, Nicole’s younger brother was born prematurely. Her grief became too much and she swept her crying sister into her arms and sat down in tears as everyone nodded their heads in appreciation and respect.
MEDLIFE’s purpose has never been clearer or more purposeful in my eyes. In that moment I felt the true impact that MEDLIFE has on the people it serves. From an outside perspective, a set of stairs seems like a minor project. But when you visit the communities and see the circumstances of where they live, a staircase can be a monumental change. It means each trip outside of the house won’t be a gamble. Children going to school won’t have to worry about leaving an hour early to get to class on time safely. Mothers carrying children in swollen bellies and swaddling clothes will be able to go about their daily routine without endangering their own lives or the ones they care for. Those returning home at night, in the dark, will have a sure path home. A staircase is not a solution by itself, but it is a signification of progress and development in the community. It is a step – several steps – towards a better, more prosperous life for AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n, as it is for each of the numerous other communities MEDLIFE serves.
The meeting wound down and the community leader handed over a signed contract, signifying that the whole of AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n’s commitment to MEDLIFE. We are jointly going to be building two staircases and will host a mobile medical clinic with long-term follow up care for those who need it. The clinic will provide access to a general practitioner, a dentist, and a woman’s health specialist, including health education workshops and diagnostic testing for cervical and breast cancer.
With many of their fears dispelled and the promise of change on the horizon, the atmosphere at the meeting was almost jovial as it wound down. Handfuls of panetone and warm tea were passed around and thanks exchanged. There are still significant obstacles to living a secure existence in AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n, but proof that change can happen is now underway. As we filed off into the darkness from where we had come, I reflected on what we had just witnessed. Community organization and planning has succeeded in changing the fate of AmpliaciÃ³n UniÃ³n. Little by little, MEDLIFE is making a difference in the way communities interact within themselves and with each other, and there is no plan to stop soon.
A trip downhill has never felt more uplifting.