Neighbors and Friends
At a meeting of some of the poorest citizens of this city perched 7,000 ft. above sea level, high in the Andes I noticed a woman trying to read a newspaper. I say 'trying' because she was holding it up side down and only on seeing a photograph did she turn it around. I asked her for permission to visit her residence as I was studying how folks such as she lived. "Oh, mister, my dwelling is very humble. I don't think you would be interested in visiting me." "On the contrary," I responded, "I want to visit persons in all social situations." She gave me the number of her house in Barrio Galan and suggested that I call at 2 p.m. the next day. The health department numbers all shacks in these slum neighborhoods.
The next day at 2 p.m. I knocked at the door frame of the indicated shack. Looking inside the open door I noticed a large bed frame. One family lived above the bed frame and another lived underneath it. The dwelling was less than three meters by four meters in size. I informed the occupant that I was looking for Sr. Fulana de tal (Mrs. so and so). I was informed that she lived "en los bajos." (in the basement.) The shack was built on a steep hillside so I went around back and looked into a small space cut under the floor boards of the shack above. Every time some one walked in the unit above dirt would fall down on the residents of this poor space. A single light bulb of about 20 watts illuminated the darkness even though it was two in the afternoon. The electricity was stolen as someone had tapped into the city power line.
The woman I had met the evening before was there and apologized for her humble circumstances. With her was her husband, lying on a litter in the limited space that they occupied. I was informed that he had a broken back and could not work. An infant was crying. The woman gave the baby a bottle that had colored water in it. I inquired what she was feeding the baby and was informed that she had put a bit of panella (sugar from sugar cane) in the water as that was all that she had to feed the child. She explained that they had another child about 10 years old who was mentally retarded but one day he went out and never came back. She thinks he was probably kidnapped to work on a farm as slave labor. But she has never heard of him again.
To begin the interview I asked her where she had come from before she lived in this barrio and was told that she and her family had fled from the countryside as the violence there threatened their lives. [this was the time of the civil war called "La Violencia en Colombia."] I followed up this question by asking "How do you like living in this barrio?" and I will never forget her response. "God has given us such wonderful neighbors, weare blessed. When we arrived a neighbor nearby came with a small cup of soup to welcome us to the neighborhood. Yesterday another neighbor brought us several bananas. We truly feel lucky and count our blessings to live in such a wonderful neighborhood."
Ah, yes, let us count our blessings.
During this time my wife and I were living with our two sons in a three bedroom house in a nice residential neighborhood of the city. At noon, when we were having our meal, if there was a timid knock on the door we would have one of our boys answer the door. If it was a child from the local orphanage begging leftovers (pidiendo sobreitas) we would have him go to his plate and share some of his food with the kid at the door. We wanted our sons to have the ability to recognize that they were blessed and should share those blessings with the less fortunate in this world.