2010-08-23

Arrived in Argentina a week ago

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La risa ella sola ha cavado más túneles útiles que todas las lágrimas de la tierra. Julio Cortazar, Rayuela

Oh, hello! Welcome to the new, revitalised Voluntario Global blog. My name is Ed and for the next few weeks I will be guiding you like a latter-day Virgil around our various projects in and around Buenos Aires. I arrived in Argentina a week ago and much of this is as new to me as it might be to you, dear reader. My Spanish is a slumbering beast, which has been hibernating in the shadow of a French tree for the last seven months, and I can’t wake him up! I am still getting to grips with the ‘coins on the bus’ fiasco (for some reason the driver won’t accept my pesetas). But it has been a fascinating, enlightening and varied week. Blog number one will be a chronicle of the places I have visited and the people I have met in the last seven days; it will serve, I hope, to show the work of the organisation through the eyes of a beginner like me and to illustrate the warmth and efficiency with which new volunteers are embraced at Voluntario Global as well as the untold good it does in these communities.

On Monday, I met with Valeria Gracia (Head Co-ordinator) and Jesica Franco (Volunteer Programme Manager) in our leafy office in Palermo, where the week ahead was discussed, mate was drunk (“Don’t stir it”) and the history of Voluntario Global was explained (for more information on the latter, check out: http://www.voluntarioglobal.org.ar ). On Tuesday morning I went to La Boca to meet Pedro, a charismatic, articulate local who gives a meticulous tour of the area to those who want to volunteer for the day. Amongst our company were my colleague Jonathan, a family from California, a Dutch girl and a wonderful woman from Trinidad and Tobago who also acted as Pedro’s interpreter. Pedro explains that Voluntario Global helps locals in three particular areas: ‘alimentación’ (food), ‘viviendas’ (housing) and ‘trabajo’ (jobs). }

El Comedor, a cafeteria in one of the poorer parts of La Boca where volunteers are warmly encouraged to help prepare food in the kitchen, not only provides food for families but also acts as a venue for political debate (led by governor Tito Nenna.) It would be arrogant and all-too-easy for me to criticise the government on my second day in Argentina and I don’t know nearly enough to do so fairly, but the consensus in the area is that the government could do a bit more to help: two examples are the government’s failure to publicise the housing rights to which large families are entitled (a 10 storey apartment block is currently being constructed and the locals are entitled to much more, but the government prefers not to make this information more available) and the (government-approved) desire of one big business to expand into La Boca, which would destroy the meagre makeshift local housing in its wake. What I do know, from the various locals I have met and from the political debate. I witnessed on Wednesday morning in particular, is that these locals are intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable, humorous and extremely decent people who deserve better than to have to cram into rooms the size of a small bathroom with three other people just to sleep and to have to go through bins in the local rubbish dump to find something to eat. They are also independent.

When more houses need to be built in the future, rather than use an outside company whose priorities are to use the cheapest materials and to charge as much as possible, it would be far better to use local construction workers who will work more quickly and with better materials because they appreciate the importance of housing in the area, as well as proving that the community can support itself. On Wednesday afternoon, after the aforementioned political discussion, I left with teachers Berta and Armin for Villa 21 in Barracas, a shanty town to which Voluntario Global provides English and Maths teachers. The pupils were great, keen and bright and funny, and it was a genuine joy to spend time with them. Two sisters were telling me how they are in an orchestra, one on the violin and the other on the cello, and how they sit at opposite sides of the room, behind the conductor’s line of vision at opposite ends of the horseshoe as it were, and try to put each other off. Anyone interested in teaching in Argentina would love the classes in Barracas.

On Thursday morning, I was invited to a meeting in the Instituto Nacional de la Administración Pública in the town centre, where a group of delegates had arrived from the province of Jujuy in northern Argentina. The new project, called “Autogestión Comunitaria” (Community Self-Management), is an opportunity for residents of Buenos Aires and Jujuy to exchange ideas and experiences to reach, according to Tito, “una sociedad más democrática, participativa e inclusiva.” Particular areas of focus are food, local businesses, housing, culture and opportunities for young people. Once again, the feeling was one of optimism, independence and genuine practical solutions for universal problems. Three experts gave presentations on various aspects of self-sufficiency and one speech, given by Sra Isabel Rauber (an expert on Latin American social affairs), was so well-received that, directly after it, a woman in her late eighties stood up and said how grateful she was that Sra Rauber had come. And that was my first week in Buenos Aires! What has impressed me already about Voluntario Global is their directness with volunteers and communities alike.

Unlike some volunteer agencies which, as worthy and effective as they are, charge two grand for a week of language lessons and arranging your accommodation which you still have to pay for, the money that volunteers donate through Voluntario Global goes straight to the people it is trying to help. More importantly, many of the Voluntario Global staff come from the poorest pasts of La Boca and Barracas themselves, so they more than anyone appreciate the difficulties and intricacies of each particular area. This coming Wednesday (20th May), we are attending the opening of a new community centre called Travesuras, an education and nourishment centre for young children in Los Eucaliptos, which is extremely exciting. I also plan to go to the radio station project we have in Barracas later in the week to see what our volunteers there are up to (no recorded prank calls, I hope). ¡Hasta luego!

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Voluntario Global helps local communities by being available to discuss anything that local organizations need, and offering ideas for further change and development.
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