A festering slum in Bogota, where children shout, “Viva Canada!”
LATIN AMERICAN REPORT
A festering slum in Bogota, where children shout, “Viva Canada!”
THE SANTA INES DISTRICT of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a festering slum, where 25,000 people subsist on less food than some Canadians feed their cats. Few of the shacks of Santa Ines have even outdoor latrines. The people who live in the shacks are dark-eyed mestizos, a mixture of Spanish and Indian.
From a distance, the children of Santa Ines are attractive. At close range they show the scaly skin that comes of never washing and never getting enough to eat. Those who are not just chronically undernourished but actually starving can be identified by their bloated bellies.
If the children seem cheerful, it’s because they are naturally hardy and resilient; in Santa Ines only the strong survive infancy. It’s a measure of the poverty of the district that the w'eak, w'ho die so young, were buried for years without the rites of the Roman Catholic church. The 25,000 people of Santa Ines, all Catholics, couldn't afford to support one priest. Now they have found an elderly friar who takes care of most of their spiritual needs and demands no more of them than occasional small gifts of beans and rice. He has reopened and repaired a crumbling chapel.
The chapel is one of two bright spots in Santa Ines. The other is a little square among the hovels — a gravel-surfaced patch of land
where the youngsters play and their parents sit.
Five years ago. for reasons no longer remembered. the people of Santa Ines decided they would call the patch Parque el Canada. They sent a gaunt delegation to R. A. D. Ford, Canada's ambassador to Colombia at the time, to ask for his approval and for a Red Ensign to fly beside the Colombian flag.
Ford couldn't say no but he expected the delegation to return again and again for handouts. When no such thing happened, he began to worry. Shouldn’t the Canadians in Bogota indicate their appreciation of the compliment Santa Ines had paid Canada? Ford and Jean Morin, who succeeded him when Ford was assigned to another post, passed the hat around for money to buy swings, teeter-totters and soccer balls. When these were delivered, the urchins shouted “Viva Canada!”
In 1961 Morin was transferred to Egypt and T. F. M. Newton became our ambassador to Colombia. Shortly after he reached Bogota, he and Raymond Robinson, second secretary and consul, visited Parque el Canada. There, in a brick kiosk that the men of Santa Ines had built, the Canadian diplomats saw eighty youngsters — jammed in like Toronto subway passengers at rush-hours — being taught to read and write by a cop named Leopold Piria. They discovered that Piria, a man who has trouble with big words himself, had organized the class to help Santa Ines kids who couldn't get into regular schools. He had to do his teaching when he was off duty. Piria has a large family and his salary as a member of the Bogota police squad that keeps order at playgrounds is the equivalent of only thirty Canadian dollars a month, but he had dug into his own pocket to buy primers, blackboard, chalk, paper and pencils.
NEW USES FOR GAMBLING PROFITS
Ambassador Newton and Second Secretary Robinson were moved by Piria’s dedication and they resolved to raise funds and erect in Parque el Canada a building that could be used both as a school and a community centre.
Robinson got $250 by squeezing seventeen bridge tables into his house and selling tickets to a card party. At the embassy, Newton held a Monte Carlo evening for five hundred guests, among them the mayor of Bogota and two Colombian cabinet ministers. The proceeds were $2,500. The embassy staff and, indeed, practically every Canadian in or near Bogota, added to the pot, and pretty soon there was enough money to build airy classrooms and two bathrooms with washbasins and toilets — the first indoor plumbing in Santa Ines.
Donations began to come from Canadians who really didn't have much to do with life in Bogota. When 1.34 Canadian businessmen on a Latin American tour descended on the city, Newton and Robinson took them to Parque el Canada — and the businessmen shelled out S3,400 for more improvements. Jack Soules, a Toronto engineer on a Colombian mission, took a long look at Parque el Canada — and wrote a cheque for $1,000. Then there was a donation from Mosley Williams, an executive of a Vancouver gold-dredging firm. Williams told Vancouver schoolchildren about the park — and they began to send donations.
By the time 1 reached Bogota this spring, Newton and Robinson had funds on hand for
three more rooms and an open-air theatre. Roberto I.ondono, a Colombian architect who studied at the University of British Columbia on a Canadian scholarship, would accept no fee for the plans for the extension. Construction was about to begin.
The extension is bound to make the lives of the people of Santa Ines at least a little better. There wall be, for example, a kitchen and a dining room where the youngsters will be fed a balanced meal each day — this with an assist from the officials who distribute surplus food from the U. S. In the evenings, mothers will get training in child care and advice on how to get a lot of nourishment out of a little money. Many people in Santa lnes have never been able to afford a movie. Now they'll see free movies at the
park's theatre. Some of the films will be productions from Canada's National Film Board — including documentaries about what the co-operative movement has accomplished for Canada's east-coast fishermen. The hope is that Santa lnes will be encouraged to form a co-op of its own and that this will enable its people to buy rice and beans in large quantities at lower prices.
Meanwhile Colombia's educational authorities have virtually promised trained teachers for the school that Canadians, inspired by a Bogota cop. have built for the slum kids and their parents. How does Piria, the policeman, feel about it all? He hoists the Canadian ensign when he has the slightest excuse and, when a Canadian drops by and the shouts of “Viva Canada!" go up. he shouts loudest.
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