SOS family returning back from picking fruits at the SOS Children's Villages Jocotán,…
Mariana García Perez Born 18.1.1949, Guatemala
SOS family returning back from picking fruits at the SOS Children's Village Jocotán, Guatemala
This is an interview with Mariana García Perez, and SOS Mother Born in 1949 in Guatemala:
Have you, as a person, changed since being in the SOS Children's Village?
Yes, I would say that I've changed, especially my personality. I didn't have much patience in my previous jobs but when I came to the SOS Children's Village, I realised that children need a lot of patience. I feel that I have gained more patience every day since I've been here. I am also more committed and give more of myself than I used to. One reason for that is that I now live together with a group of people. Before I came to the SOS Children's Village I was a bit grumpy, irascible and bad tempered. With God's help and thanks to Him, I have in that direction since being in the SOS Children's Villages. You have to work with a lot of tolerance here, because what the children need is love. You have to be careful that your temper doesn't run away with you. I think it was the children who most helped me to become patient.
You have already mentioned your training in Quetzaltenango. I would like to know how you experienced it. I was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to remember anything they showed us. We had to take an exam at the end and I wanted to pass, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to work in the SOS Children's Village and I wanted to work there. I enjoyed all of the training, but cookery was my favourite. They also showed us how to mother a child. I had never had a child, but they showed us how to deal with a small child and how to love it. Then we sat the exam and the next day they told me that I had got everything right. I was also worried, because I'd only had three years of primary schooling and we also had lessons in maths, language and writing. But they helped us. We also had exams in public relations, cookery and first aid. I passed everything. That made me want to do the job even more. I knew that I would be able to put into practice all that I had learned in theory, because I had already worked as an SOS aunt. That really motivated me and gave me strength. When Auntie Luisa brought me here I already felt a bit surer.
Have you taken part in any in-service training since?
Yes, the last in-service training was in Quetzaltenango at the end of July. We have one week's course every year. They used to be more spiritual days, days for reflection and self-examination. But, since the purpose-built centre has been completed, we have had a course every year. We refresh our knowledge about children, how to deal with them and how to live together with them. I enjoy these courses, because they help me. I always return with greater inner strength.
Could you tell us how your working relationship with the other SOS mothers has developed?
I get on well with the other SOS mothers. We have to work well together, because the children see how we interact with one another. If I need something, I go to one of my neighbours and they give me it. For example, if I have a lot to do, I go to one of the SOS mothers and ask her if she could help me. She comes and helps. We all get together once a month and, for example, celebrate the birthdays. We also have a "savings package". Each of us puts a small amount in a piggy bank and every month the contents are paid out to one of the SOS mothers. Whoever is going to receive the next monthly payout invites all the others for coffee. We also have work meetings with the village director when he wants to make an announcement or something. There is no fixed date for these. A memo is sent out telling us when the next meeting will take place. He's an incredible person, a good man. He often comes to our houses to visit us and we work together very well. If a small problem arises with one of the children, he immediately comes to help.
Are you able to relax on your days off?
Yes I can, but when you've been working here for as long as I have, you feel best when you are here rather than anywhere else. I always get slightly ill when I go outside. I'm happiest when I have my days off and the children are not at school. Then I can take at least two of them with me, if the village director gives me permission. During term time, I can only take the little ones, because the bigger ones have schoolwork to do. But now, in the holidays, I take three of them with me at a time until the holidays are over. The children enjoy that too.
What sort of contact do you have with your surroundings, or the village that you come from? I have a lot of contact. On my days off I visit people who live close by, my family and friends. I like to talk about other things such as farming, for example. I can never be quiet. I always have to be talking to people. I also like to take the children to church festivities. I take the children to Camotán, where I come from, on the 8th of December, which is the day of the Immaculate Conception. And here in Jocotán, the 25th of July is the day of the local patron saint, Santiago. We always take part in those festivities too.
What have been the nicest and most difficult experiences you have had in your time in the SOS Children's Village?
It's nice to see how the children grow. The best thing was when the first girl graduated from school. It was also wonderful when I was given the little one. At the time I wasn't feeling too good. My legs were hurting and I was a bit depressed. Then they gave me the little one and, I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden the pains were gone and everything was all right. I was extremely happy to get him. It was very difficult for me when my sister died five years ago. That really affected me. The death of the SOS mother from house number two also affected me badly. About a year ago, she was on holiday when she became ill and she never returned. This SOS mother had been here for seventeen years when she died. She was such a good woman.
When you think about your future, how do you see yourself in ten years' time?
As a little old lady! I think in ten years I will look a lot older. Up to now people don't believe how old I am. I hope that I can be with the children right until the end. If God should let me live, but I no longer have the strength to work with the children, then I would like to work in the fields again. I would like to have two cows. That's what I would like but only God knows what He has in store for me.
Do you know yet when you will retire? Definitely not now!
There is, of course, the arrangement that an SOS mother can retire after fifteen years if she is in bad health. But Auntie Luisa told me that it's possible to do twenty-five years and I'd like to do that. I hope that God will give me the strength to do it.
The Children in Her Care "There used to be a playground too, over by the mango tree, where the flowers are." The five that were on the photo I showed you were my first children. They arrived on the 15th of April. Two more joined us two days later, and in July another arrived. Then I had eight children. The change in climate from Quetzaltenango, where it was cool, to here, where it is hot, made it difficult for me in the beginning. We were also the only family in the SOS Children's Village at that time. Nobody moved into the next house until June. The village director, Father Gabriel, also only arrived at the end of June. The SOS aunt and myself were all on our own for three months. But the children soon felt at home. You could sense that they needed love and that they hadn't had any before. I spent a lot of time with them. We played and talked and I took them for walks along the river. Then school started and only the youngest stayed at home. The days just passed. I helped them with their homework, which was difficult for me because two of them had problems with maths and I had to help them every afternoon. But they all survived the school year and advanced to the next class. By the end of the year there were families in three houses and there were other children to play with. There used to be a playground too, over by the mango tree, where the flowers are. Then the second year at school started and the children were doing better. That's how we started.
Then a nursery teacher and primary school teacher came to the village and from then on the children went to nursery and primary school here. I had a lot of fun with the littlest one, as he was always so happy. When I was cooking, he used to walk through the whole house, pick up a basket and say, "Buy some bread, buy some bread!" Time passed and he grew up and became more and more astute. Because he was so young when he came here, he always looked at the village director as his father. The director often came to visit the children and have coffee with them. The little boy would give him a hug and say, "Here comes dad!" Three years later I was given another little one. They all grew up and by the time they were in the fifth year at primary school, they were already helping in the kitchen and with the cleaning. By the time the girls had finished primary school they could already cook. The eldest one could even bake bread. The three girls then went to the secondary school in Chiquimula and boarded there. They always came home at weekends and in the holidays, though. The eldest boy then moved to the youth home. Three of the children didn't want to continue their education, just finish primary school. One of them went to America when he was sixteen. I don't know if he's still there, because he doesn't write any more. We stayed in touch for a while. He wrote and even sent me a bit of money but that's two years ago now. I don't know how he got into the States, but I'm sure it wasn't legally. The first time he tried, he got arrested, but the second time, he managed to get in. He wrote me all that in a letter. He asked me to send his birth certificate, which he needed for work.
What are the other children from the first generation doing now? Of the first ten that I had, six have learned a trade, two just completed primary school, one is in the States and one is a policeman. The first group was made up of ten children. The eleventh one that I had is still here as part of the second round. He's in the third year of secondary school and working for McDonald's now. He did a practical there last year and they kept him on straight away. That was a bit of luck, because it's very difficult to find work.
How many children are living with you now? I've got ten children here again now, including the one from the first round. The children all have their moments. They argue with one another, but after a while it's all forgotten and they're playing with each other again. I have four boys and six girls. The eldest girl was so undernourished that you could count her ribs. The three boys will be moving to the youth home at the beginning of next year. Two have completed the middle school and will be starting apprenticeships, the third has just finished primary school, but because he's already sixteen, he'll be moving to the youth home as well. He was already quite old when he came here and that's why he's so behind with his schooling. But he wants to continue. He was the best pupil in the school. He has the ability to learn. The other children are still at primary school and one is at middle school.
What do you know about where the children come from? I don't know much. Three of them are from a town here in Camotán. Their mother died and their father abandoned them. The parents of two of them both died. I don't know what of. Perhaps it was an illness. A lot of people in these small villages are sick. We got the children from very poor huts. There was a cholera epidemic. The parents probably died during that. The grandparents couldn't cope with the children and applied for them to be taken into the SOS Children's Village. Two other sisters, whose parents had also died, were living with an aunt who was very poor too. The eldest, his mother died giving birth to him and his father has an alcohol problem. He never comes to visit and the boy doesn't even know his father.
Are the children still in touch with any members of their families, aunts or grandparents? There is an agreement in the SOS Children's Village that relatives are allowed to visit the children every three months. Some visit, others don't. I have one boy here whose father visits him regularly. The aunt of two of the girls often visited, but she fell ill and we don't know what's happened to her. But the children are happy here and they feel that they were born here.
Do the children ask about their parents? If the children were older when they arrived here, they would talk about their previous life. The eldest, who is sixteen, never asks about his parents. He knows that his father is alive, but never asks after him. I told him he should visit his father before he moves to the youth house, but he said, "No, this is my home and this is the place I'll come back to."
Do you know the children's hopes for their futures? The older ones already know what they want. They want to finish their education and then work. One of them wants to go to the military academy. One wants to become an accountant and says he wants to work and build himself a little house. The youngest says he wants to finish his schooling and his training and then move in together with a woman and live with her. The girls want to become kindergarten teachers or teachers, but they're still very young and don't really know exactly what they want to do.
Mariana on the Situation of Women in Guatemala In the past, women were valued less than men. Women were only there to do the housework. Today it is possible for women to improve themselves. They go to school, are able to spend more time with people from the community and are able to attend functions. I believe that a woman can do the same work as a man. This is already happening in the bigger towns, but not yet in rural areas. It is still as the man says, "A woman's place is in the home and the man is the breadwinner." Maybe in time things will change for the better. What a woman wants most of all out of life is to be married, to have a home and a family of her own. And I believe that she can combine that. She can have an education and still marry. There are women's groups and, when I take part in one of the courses, we see that we all stick together. Sometimes people come and present projects to us. Afterwards the women carry on these projects themselves. They receive financial loans so that they can buy pigs and chickens. Then at least they have something.
SOS Children's Village Work in Guatemala The first SOS Children's Village was built in San Juan Sacatepéquez about 30 kilometres from Guatemala City in 1976 after an earthquake had totally destroyed this Indio town. In the following years SOS Children's Villages were constructed in Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu and Jocotán, and finally SOS Children's Village San Cristóbal was built in the capital to replace SOS Children's Village San Juan Sacatepéquez, which in the meantime had been converted into a social centre. The sixth SOS Children's Village went into operation in the autumn of 2001 in San Jerónimo. Most of the SOS Children's Villages also have SOS Social Centres attached.
Existing SOS Children's Village Facilities: 5 SOS Children's Villages, 4 SOS Youth Facilities, 5 SOS Kindergartens, 1 SOS School, 1 SOS Vocational Training Centre, 4 SOS Social Centres
Woman planting vegetables at the SOS Family support garden project in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
The mountains of the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal in the coastal region of the Indian Ocean differ greatly from how Europeans imagine Africa. They are lush, green and experience a lot of rain. Right in the middle of this splendour lies the political and administrative centre of the province, Pietermaritzburg. Almost 460,000 people live here according to the official figures. Whether or not these figures are correct is hard to tell, for on the outskirts of the city lies a district called "France", home to some 200,000 people. "France" is a so-called "informal settlement", a sprawling, unregistered shanty town with hardly any infrastructure. People here live on the edge of society, at minimum subsistence level. Society does not like to be made aware of such slums too much, because their existence is often linked to problems that are so big that many prefer to push them to the back of their minds. The main problem here is HIV/AIDS. You don't come across many middle-aged people here. Many lie suffering in their huts, many have died. Every family has loved ones who have passed on, leaving behind the very old and the very young to fend for themselves. The children are often completely on their own, sometimes there is a grandmother to take them in.
For more than ten years now, an average of 130 children have been living in an SOS Children's Village on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. Taking the village as a starting point, social workers have set up a network of volunteers in "France" in an effort to provide care for the children there as well. The point of this "SOS family help" is to stabilise families at risk to the point that the children can stay with their parents or relatives and do not end up on the streets. There are many ways of helping and the project leader, Nobuhle Ndawonge sums up the measures as follows: "It's not about receiving handouts, it's about empowerment, about the families being able to take charge of their lives again".
Nobuhle's working day starts with the "Garden Project" on the edge of the children's village, where there are two large greenhouses. Here, a group of single mothers from "France" learn to grow tomatoes and other vegetables to sell on the market. The women learn to start believe in themselves again and to rise and meet the challenge of providing their families with a safe place to live and relative material stability, in spite of the setbacks they encounter. The social workers in Nobuhle's team not only show the women how to do simple crafts and skills, they give them hope, strength and confidence in finding a way out of poverty. Here, the mothers experience the feeling of being worth something for the first time in a long while. Around noon, Nobuhle drives over to "France" to visit other families. There is the hut of the 17-year-old Camilla, who lives here with her little brother. Their mother died of AIDS three years ago, their father made off as soon as he heard the diagnosis. Nobuhle and her colleagues support Camilla by bringing her food, but more importantly with advice and practical help, to keep Camilla and her brother from losing sight of what is most important when faced with the burden of everyday life: finishing school and receiving professional training. While she cooks for her brother and herself, she explains how she wants to become a social worker one day. In a way, she is already a social worker.
Just a bit further down the hill stands hut number 5321. All the huts are numbered here. This is the home of an old woman who lives with three girls and two boys between the ages of three and ten. They are her grandchildren. Right in the middle of her account of her life story, rendered in her native tongue, suddenly there are shreds of English: "2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2006". Nobuhle translates the unfathomable: these are the years her children died, all have fallen victim to AIDS. After the death of her children, life presented her with the task of raising yet another generation. While listeners still stand dumbfounded by the enormity of her tale, she rearranges her red checked headscarf, stirs the pot of rice on the stove and continues to tell her story, laughing as she goes, her spirit unbroken.
The rice and other basic foodstuffs came from the people at the SOS Children's Village. Nobuhle, her colleagues and the old woman discuss what the family needs to be able to live with dignity and lead a modest family life. Food, tuition fees and school uniforms have a certain price - the time and attention given to listening to the family's troubles is invaluable. The old woman utters her hope that the children will stay together, finish school and perhaps one day enlarge the little hut so that it is not quite as cramped anymore.
Another hut now houses a little cooperative, consisting of a used knitting machine SOS Children's Villages bought together with the people here and the five families that use it to produce sweaters, caps and scarves to secure the livelihood of their 20 children.
The SOS family help currently supports 180 families with 467 children in "France". In 25 of these families, the parents have died, leaving the children to fend for themselves. In total, 42 families are led by the grandmother and 83 families are being taken care of by relatives of the deceased parents. In 77 families, the parents are still alive but very ill, being cared for by their children. These are just a few figures, but they are figures that we can connect to actual occurrences and individual fates. They help us put faces to the dying and their families. Who has the power of imagination to grasp what lies behind the figures of an HIV/AIDS statistic for all of South Africa? The individuals behind these figures become anonymous numbers in a statistic. Who can really picture what it means when the statistics say that eleven million children living in sub-Saharan Africa have lost their parents? Every day, 6,000 people die of AIDS in Africa, 600 in South Africa alone. This means that every 50 days, the equivalent of the population of an average small town in Western Europe dies.
The support SOS Children's Villages gives to countless families in the many slums of Africa contributes to development goals on the continent; the approach the organisation adopts in its work are congruent with the foremost developmental goal of Germany's government: the fight against poverty.
The staff members of SOS Children's Villages South Africa and the families they support show us that the fight against HIV/AIDS must go on. SOS Children's Villages has broadly expanded its traditional approach of giving children who have lost their parents a new family: it is not just about protecting the childhood of children who have lost their parents, it is also about supporting families at risk of falling apart and keeping children from losing that most precious thing they have: the protected space within a family. Poverty is a threat to families, and that is why SOS Children's Villages has taken up the fight against poverty: for the sake of the children. SOS Children's Villages is planning to expand its support for families - not just in Africa, but wherever children are at risk of being robbed of their childhood as a result of violence, disease or poverty. SOS Children's Villages combines developmental work with one firm conviction: it is possible to create families, and it is possible to save them. And children need a family.