Margaret Milne rsm
‘You live in Huamachuco?….You really do!……in Huamachuco?’ This is a common reaction when I tell new acquaintances in Santiago [Chile] where I live.
‘Huamachuco’ is a poblaci√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬µn, a grass roots, disadvantaged area located on the outskirts of the city of Santiago.
This area is notorious. It began in 1969, the result of a violent land takeover incident.
Huamachuco a triangular area enclosed by motorways and heavy industry and ‘home’ to thousands of men, women and children. It is one of the better known poblaciones surrounding the huge city of Santiago because it maintains its history of hardship and violence caused through many factors – drug addiction, drug trafficking, alcoholism, stress-related chronic illness, machismo, unemployment, work insecurity and cultural and class stigmatism.
The Sisters of Mercy were invited in 1986 to establish ministries from a social perspective. The Sisters at that time accompanied the local women, the pobladoras, listened to their stories, and supported them to realise their dreams.
A formal Women√Ç¬¨’¬¢s House Organisation was established here. Workshops were offered in a range of activities from handwork, crafts, cooking, cultural education to psychological help, courses in health, personal development and leadership. Now this organisation continues with the support of World Vision.
As a New Zealand Sister of Mercy I have had the privilege to share in this poblaci√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬µn life and culture with the people of Huamachuco for a number of years now. I began by getting to know the people in my work as a community health nurse. This style of health work does not exist in Chile where the concept of hospice is also unknown.
As I began this adventure I kept being introduced to families with chronically ill members, and meeting elderly people who were abandoned and dying in their shacks or asked to visit others coping with advanced cancer.
It was overwhelming! One person in this state was enough to cope with in a day, possibly two! Alone it was almost impossible!
Gradually I began to get to know some very fine local women – Mercedes who would cry every time we met in the street or market; Dania, a strikingly beautiful young woman in her 20s who had gone to the nearby hospital for a small operation that required an overnight stay. She never recovered from the anaesthetic, or was it the surgery?… no one knows!
Dania suffered permanent brain damage. I was called in when the physiotherapist did not have the time to move and exercise her taut limbs. She died a month later of pneumonia!
There is Manuela who was in a violent marriage. She finally got out and came to live near the Mercy Community house. She was slowly recovering her self-esteem when suddenly she found herself caring for a three-year-old grand daughter.
The mother, a long-term drug addict, was caught in a fight and shot dead. Manuela’s son brought Tamara, hyperactive and craving affection, to live with her permanently.
Mar√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬•a Eugenia is 40 and prone to depression. She escapes into baking pan amasado (delicious home made bread) which she sells each evening.
Mar√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬•a Eugenia has always accompanied and helped the local chapel group of senior citizens, who meet each week. Last year she collapsed psychologically when her eldest son, into drugs, left school early with the responsibility of fatherhood on his shoulders.
Just over this hurdle and she was confronted with a 14-year-old son who was abusing younger boys. With that trauma now being dealt with, she is gradually balancing out her life.
These three women, together with 12 others make up the 15 health volunteers working with me in Huamachuco. They have named themselves ‘Huamachuco Fraterno’ (brothers/sisters – friends of Huamachuco).
We meet with the health clinic social worker each month to share where each member of the group is at. We look at possibilities of health education, personal formation, leadership skills and development with the professional staff of the health clinic.
This year we have a programme offering techniques in complementary health: focusing on personal wellbeing, the lowering of tension and stress levels by teaching simple methods of relaxation.
Also in my part of the programme I want to emphasise the importance of healthy eating to counteract the high incidence of hypertension, diabetes and obesity present in a lot of the middle-aged women.
A campaign is necessary to alert young mothers to the dangers of feeding their youngsters bottles of, not milk, but … COCA COLA!
Sometimes one of the health volunteers has a crisis often caused by family issues.
The positive aspect is that now they know that they are not alone in confronting these problems.
There are other women in the group who understand. They can offer support by listening and walking with one another, gaining experience to then attend to the poblacion at large.
It’s a matter of acceptance and patience … but vision, determination, compassion are vital for survival, living and celebrating the little miracles that do happen.
The challenge is to be attentive and present lest they get lost or escape into the turmoil of existing problems and difficulties.
Through these women – Mercedes, Manuela, Mar√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬•a Eugenia and all the others … Mercy is alive and well!