This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Working for Change in Sucre - Part 2

Shoeshine boys - a common sight in Sucre
Working children are seen everywhere around Sucre, Bolivia and it is a very accepted part of the culture. The majority of the children around town are from migrant families of little economic means and parents that do not have the capacity nor the skills to acquire adequate income. To help support their families the children, sometimes as young as five years old, are then forced into earning income mostly in the informal sector such as shining shoes, washing car windows or other menial tasks to earn some change from people's pockets.
A car window washer
A newspaper seller
The organization Ñanta introduces me to social workers from a different, yet connected project. This project, funded by TDH Suiza, is only a few weeks old when I meet them. The idea is that the social workers, Judith and Ludmila, walk around town to interact with and offer assistance directly to the working children whether it is to play games, give basic first aid, or just to chat and check on how they are doing.

Working at such a young age can have a tremendous psychological and physical impact on a child's development. Working kids are usually out on the streets by themselves or with other working kids without a real support network, access to nutritious food or any healthy adult guidance. The social workers are trying to fill this void and they have kindly let me tag along with them for a few days.
Applying lotion to a child worker's face
There are several areas around Sucre where one is more likely to find children working. Our mornings usually start at the central plaza where there are sure to be some shoeshine boys and little girls selling birdseed. On weekends there will be even more because kids do not have school and there are more potential clients hanging around the plaza.
Playing in the central plaza
Selling birdseed and taking care of her little brother.
There is some competitive backlash against child birdseed sellers at the plaza. The adult sellers say 'why do we have to be licensed while the kids sell freely?' Therefore, the girls hide their bird food in bags like the one seen at the bottom of this photo.
Having a class of working children is just an accepted part of Bolivian society. Here a girl with her mother enjoying an afternoon in the plaza is paying for their shoeshine. 
One Saturday afternoon the kids take a short break from working to play soccer
From the plaza we walk to the central market and peatonal (pedestrian area) where we are sure to run into some girls selling newspapers and some older shoeshine boys. Establishing contact with these older, teenage boys has been more difficult for Judith and Ludmilla. Maybe it is because I am a man (these boys are usually lacking any positive male role model), a goofy gringo, I am offering them free photos, or a combination of all three but I end up having some luck breaking the ice with this group.
Working on the peatonal
From the central market they will either walk over to another market to look for kids, or hop on a bus and head to another neighborhood. The problem is that finding the kids can be difficult at times. They do not punch time clocks nor work fixed hours or days. But in my experience it is never a bad thing to not find children working.
Selling newspapers outside the central market
I meet this boy on the peatonal one day. He tells me he lives in the countryside and came to Sucre to sell candy. His bus home is at 8:00 PM. However, later that night I see him and his younger sister alone in the central market begging for change. I doubt that they caught their bus home. 
Every Sunday at 6:00 PM Judith and Ludmila go to the main cemetery to check on how the kids working there are doing and to talk to them about any upcoming events or free swims at the public pool. They always arrive near closing time. If they go earlier the kids will be distracted and miss out on income earning opportunities. I am not quite sure of the numbers, but there seems to be a lot kids and adolescents working here. They are busily in the process of growing their association of NNATs (boys, girls, and adolescent workers).
A meeting of NNATs held at the cemetery chapel.
Parents were invited but very few showed up.
Working almost all his life he is now President of Sucre's association of child workers. Recently, he represented the entire province at a national conference of child workers in La Paz. 
In the cemetery in Sucre (and many parts of Bolivia) people are not buried in the ground. Instead coffins are placed in a wall sometimes stacked six high. I am guessing this is to maximize space. On the outside of the wall is a personal space in front of the buried coffin in which the mourners can decorate with a personal touch. When people visit the cemetery, mostly on Sundays, they may hire a kid with a ladder to help them change the flower arrangements for the deceased. The sound of the children- always wearing their easily recognizable blue vests - saying, "escalera, escalera" (meaning 'ladder' in Spanish) can be heard as people enter and at other busy places around the cemetery. If hired, the child or teenager will get their ladder and walk with the clients to the grave site and help them take care of the space. Working all day at the cemetery they can earn between 20 and 80 (US $2.90 and $11.60) Bolivianos (80 is a fantastic day). I visit the cemetery several times to see what type of work the kids are doing and then later to hand out photos.

On a ladder helping a family to maintain the grave
Ladders at the ready near the cemetery entrance

The social workers are also starting to have contact with kids working outside of town mainly at the airport and in the neighborhood, La Jastamo. At Sucre's airport there are a group of kids (almost all boys) who shine shoes, help carry luggage or wash parked cars for small tips. The day I visit the airport we are there to pass out invitations for the upcoming field trip. About nine of them end up going on the excursion and having a great time.
These boys normally would be working at the airport today
On another day I head out to La Jastamo. This is a very poor neighborhood about twenty minutes by bus from the center of Sucre. Most of the houses do not have electricity or adequate water supply, but there is an army base and hospital run through donations from a German organization. This place is also the turnaround point for one of the bus routes from Sucre. Here in the dusty parking area kids earn 1 Boliviano (US $0.15) for cleaning the inside of the bus before the vehicle heads back to town.
This green muck is used by some residents of La Jastamo as a water source for things like washing clothes.
The kids in this area are also more hostile than those in town, and it has been much more difficult for the social workers to develop a rapport with those in La Jastamo. This in part is due to the fact that there is a fourteen year old ringleader that has a distrust for strangers and won't let the others interact with Judith and Ludmila. Also, the parents are the problem. These kids are invited one Saturday to an all expenses paid field trip with Ñanta, but the kids say that they will be beaten if they go. They have to stay and work.

It is pretty quiet the day that I visit La Jastamo. The fourteen year old ringleader is not there when we arrive, so the three boys who are here today feel freer to chat with us, make fun of my North American accent, and play some board games in between cleaning the buses. I think with some time and perseverance Judith and Ludmila will be able to really help the kids and families here.
Playing board games in the bus parking area

Besides taking photos for the organization, I have also decided that I will try to take portraits as a gift to the kids. Just by the sheer numbers of kids working in Sucre this ends up being a daunting and impossible task to complete. I think every other day that I am out I see a new kid performing some task for money. Since my hotel is in the center of town every day I am passing some of the main areas where kids are working. Because of timing and the kids erratic schedules I have contact with some that the social workers have not met yet. When I leave town I hand Judith and Ludmila a stack of photos that still need to be handed out.

Looking at their new photos 
Some Links:
If you have not had the chance yet, it would be great if you could check out my post about volunteering with Ñanta, an organization helping working kids in Sucre click here

To see my previous photography work about child labor in several other countries click here

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