Having completed a week with Duncan in early February on the streets in Guatemala and Honduras we can safely say that this was a holiday like no other.
You could say that Janet and I hit the ground running when we landed in Guatemala City (G C) for after being picked up by Duncan we were immediately whisked off to Go Guatemala. The 75 or so children who attend come from all around the area to this safe place where, for the first hour, they catch up on school lessons. Then it is out in the sunshine to play games often organised by the older boys and girls. On this particular occasion the girls were learning to fence thanks to coaching by Duncan and surplus equipment donated by a youth club in High Wycombe. And the girls loved it. Go Guatemala is the brainchild of Pastor Alex, who, after a lunch, cooked by volunteers, gave an inspirational talk on the need to guard against being lazy which, at times, resulted in much laughter. For many of these kids it is the highlight of the week and for some the only time they will feel wanted.
Following on from this we were taken to the home of two of the boys who attended, Alex (photo with Janet) and Alain, to be told the story of how their single mum had been helped by Duncan. At her wits end when the utility companies had cut off her water and electricity for failing to pay her debts, Duncan heard of her plight and went to see her to discuss the possibilities. Believing that she would make a go of it, Duncan quietly paid off her debts and then lent her US$30 to set-up a bread-making business. And now thanks to that loan and her industry she can now afford to send her kids to school once more and to provide for the kids and her blind mother. And rightly she is so proud of what she has achieved.
Our first experience of the streets came soon after this and we were immediately struck by the welcome that Duncan was given as we arrived. In fact wherever we went that week Duncan’s name was forever being shouted out across the street in G C and it is not difficult to see why: for many of them he is their only ‘father’, friend and mentor. And he just doesn’t stop with each one for a couple of minutes; he has time to hug, chat, give advice, wash their feet, if needed, and tend to their immediate concerns. Being friends of Duncan, Janet and I also felt welcome wherever we followed him.
People on the streets will often pour clinical alcohol into a rag and then inhale it. According to experienced users this helps them to forget hunger and the pain of life on the streets whilst keeping them warm at night. But the truth is that drug abuse destroys the nervous system and often leads to death. To fund this habit, with no welfare state, these vulnerable people live through their wits, sometimes begging or collecting recyclables to sell, or perhaps minding cars for their owners. And all the time they may be attacked by gangs and forced into prostitution. Both Duncan and his able lieutenant Frank, however, do not judge and treat them all the same though doubtless to say they are probably often disappointed that their advice, so apparently cherished at the time, is ignored once they have moved on. Not surprisingly average life expectancy on the streets for kids is just 4 years. But is has to be said that, in all this, there is an amazing camaraderie in each group reflected in friendly card games like Uno being played. Sadly when we were out on the streets one day we heard the news that a young woman of 21 had been shot dead and her killer is unlikely to be found.
After church on Sunday, an amazing service in Spanish and where the average age of the congregation was probably no more than 40, Duncan sat us down in his flat to explain his big ideas - two of which are ‘mentoring’ and ‘the warehouse’.
The mentoring scheme which he is now in the process of launching would see the recruitment and training of 250 mentors, mainly from the congregation of his church, who would then take responsibility for ‘looking after’ the welfare of individual people/families on the streets. And then, through a pyramid system of training, he hopes that this band of helpers could be expanded exponentially over the next ten years to support many more vulnerable people.
The warehouse project could also lead to a great leap forward. Here, if land can be provided, the place for mentoring and child protection could be based here along with the offices of like-minded NGOs which would allow co-ordination of their work and a potential reduction in admin. There would also be a skate park, basketball court and a centre for music and art education, as well as a training centre for street people. And with any extra space available in the warehouse Duncan could take up the offer from a US based charity of dried food packs which could help feed the hungry at a cost of only 4.5 cents each. Water filters which have also been offered could also be housed here. These last for 10 years and would clean the unsafe piped water that currently gets pumped into homes for the cost of just US$30. And all round health too would improve.
Our schools programme started early on the Monday with a car drive to Escuintla, to a school, where Priscilla (photo), a former pupil and now a teacher, told us about Mana de Vida. Priscilla could not stop talking about all that God had done for them and the joy of teaching there as well as the opportunities which the children now have. For Priscilla, it seems, there is just not enough time in the day for as well as teaching there she is studying for a degree in psychology as well as doing various other jobs. I can’t help thinking that if people like Priscilla were in charge of the country you would have to bet life would be a whole lot easier for everyone! This impressive project, where the kids start off each day by having breakfast, started to help high risk kids some years ago and now hosts both a primary and high school. The older pupils are also taught about how to run businesses - baking, recycling etc. - and one of the universities has promised to try to help increase the profits as part of their student’s degree course. The children here all come from challenging backgrounds and live in abject poverty but as we passed thought the various classrooms they looked clean, well-dressed and attentive just like any other scholars.
Later in the week we visited the AFE school project in Tegucigalpa in Honduras where the school day runs from 07.00 until 13.00. And it must break the teachers’ hearts to watch as some pupils then have to climb up the hill opposite the school to the city rubbish dump in order to earn a few cents scavenging through putrefying rubbish mixing it with grown-ups, vultures and cattle. But here there is also dignity. One man, a grandfather, has been working this tip for a lifetime and his reward is usually in the region of US$3-4 per day. But it is enough to feed his family. However, this also means he has to work on Sundays whilst his family all go to church. Pastor Jeony, the school director, promised that he would give him what he would earn every Sunday just to see him in church. That must have made his heart miss a beat for he probably has not missed a day at the tip for some time. So things are looking a little easier for this family for thanks to schooling in the morning at AFE, his grandchildren have the chance to lead a better life.
Whilst at AFE we were shown round the various classes. In one class the children introduced themselves in English and told us what they each wanted to be when they grew up. That is all except one who introduced herself in French. At that point Janet told her that she was a French teacher and she couldn’t believe it. After Janet taught the class a French song this girl invited her back to be their French teacher. If only! But it prompted Janet to reflect that these kids really valued any learning opportunity unlike many of their British counterparts.
Also, when we were visiting AFE, we were taken to see the village of almost 200 homes that Pastor Jeony had had built after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998. Those who occupy the houses here live for free with the only stipulations being that they all go to church on Sundays and no alcohol or drugs are permitted. Here he is also building a church conference centre for ministers in outlying areas of the country in order to improve the work that they do.
At the Manuelito school and children’s village, also in Honduras, we later saw some more of the wonderful work carried out by just a small band of people determined to buck the system in order to give the poorest child the chance of a secure future. Here orphans and children who are no longer wanted by their parents live together in a community which, if it didn’t exist, would mean that they would be working on the streets. Some children from poor families are educated here. At Manuelito you can see at first hand the work of God and the amazing results. Many of these children are still tormented by their past but slowly that is being put behind them as they live, work and play together in a loving and encouraging environment.
During our long car journey from G C to Tegucigalpa, another early start at 05.00, after driving for several hours our route was suddenly blocked by demonstrators from local bus companies who were objecting to the unfair subsidies given to city transport. This meant a detour through El Salavador which was quite neat as it meant we had breakfast in Guatemala, lunch in El Salvador and dinner in Honduras! But it was whilst I was sitting in the back of Duncan’s car I got thinking about the day before and what would not have happened if Duncan had not been there!
For a start:-
1. Wendy, who had had a high fever for days, would not have been going to hospital for without the 50 Quatzales that she had been given by Duncan she would not have been able to afford the taxi fare. Sadly it has just recently come to light that Wendy has AIDS.
2. the members of El Foro would not have heard about the vital importance of child protection and the need for all like-minded organisations to sign up to it.
3. the people at The Terminal rubbish dump would not have had loving hugs from Duncan and one little boy would not have had the chance to display his talent for photography. Whilst Duncan was talking to some women here a little boy grabbed Janet’s camera and started shooting. And the results were amazing. Who knows this little boy may now find a future in photography and perhaps streetkidsdirect might have the makings of a new calendar showing life on the dump through the eyes of a child.
4. Maria, sobbing as her husband had beaten her up and gone out to drink instead of to work, would not have been consoled and then given 20 Quetzales to buy food for herself and 7 month old Duncan.
(At the age of 12 Maria had been raped by an uncle and her family threw her out. Then at 15 she was gang raped.)
5. further along corridor where Maria lives and where the rooms are often rented out by the hour to prostitutes, Aldo’s mum was also reassured by Duncan. Aldo has hearing problems and Duncan has arranged for this to be dealt with. All was not well here, however, for Aldo's mum was now helping a rival street vendor in selling tortillas which has meant inhibiting Bella, with her stall, from making enough money to pay the registration fee for her daughter to attend school. Duncan makes a mental note to get the two sides together soon.
6. Mauricio, a kid on a bike, who has not been at school today because he turned up without a school uniform, thought his school days were over. However, with money from Duncan, Frank will go along to school next morning to find out what was needed. Mauricio is a bright lad having already gained a school merit certificate and knows everyone on the street.
7. Tania, who has just been released from prison after serving 5 months for selling drugs, would not have been comforted by Duncan as she tries to come to terms with the fact that she had to give up her baby for adoption when she was sent to jail. At the time she agreed that it was the right thing to do but understandably she now regrets her loss and wants her baby back. In prison Duncan had tried to see her on two occasions but failed. Food in prison is so mean that families need to take food along on visits.
Sadly at the end of this day news came through that Elsa (21) had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head. She was alone at the time and the killer is unlikely ever to be found. Just another life lost on the streets but it affected everyone there, especially Duncan, as he cannot attend the funeral the next day.
Just another day on the streets of G C for Duncan but for those that his shadow fell upon they all felt lifted up. And through his work in so many areas he has had a huge impact on the lives of so many people, some of whom, it is safe to say, would not be here today without his love, support and belief in them. And, in return, he is loved and respected wherever he goes.
In other projects in both Guatemala and Honduras, some indirectly supported by streetkids, we came across many wholly committed Christians, many of them American, who had sold all their possessions to come and live in a foreign land and learn Spanish in order to relieve poverty and offer hope. Not for them just sitting at home living out their lives in relative comfort. Those are all amazing people who are committed to a marathon in the name of their Saviour. And, just like Duncan, they are having the time of their lives.
Back in the UK, we may have left Guatemala and Honduras behind but Guatemala and Honduras have not left us. And we are still reeling from their effect. But outside of our experiences there is one big question I keep asking.
In Guatemala poor families seem to suffer multiple deprivations and struggle from one day to the next. And none more so than in families where the father has left and it falls on the eldest son to take on the role of breadwinner. In doing so he will have to undoubtedly sacrifice his own education. But it is not enough just to put bread on the table, money is also needed for school registration, books and uniforms, as well as for medicine if anyone falls ill. And with so little money coming in the family will be unable to pay for electricity and perhaps even water. And jobs are hard to come by.
This then begs the question as to why, after 175 years of independence, the governments of both Guatemala and Honduras are still unable or unwilling to provide a welfare safety net for the most vulnerable of their people? And why do schools still have to charge a registration fee before a child can attend which, of course, hits the poorest families hardest? Surely it does not need to be like this for in nearby Costa Rica, also independent for 175 years, with progressive governments through the years, the foundations have been laid for great advances to be made in both wealth and welfare. So why not in Guatemala and Honduras?
John Bunyan once said that ‘today is only a success if you have done something for someone who can’t repay you.’ Duncan and Frank do this not once but perhaps ten times a day every day but they do get their reward. And that comes in knowing that working through Christ, perhaps even just momentarily, they have brightened up the lives of those who are really down on their luck.