Eyewitness: Life in La Terminal
February 8th, 2012
So a bit of context – I’m Becky and I work for Toybox in the Communications team. I’m currently in Guatemala City for a few days to gather stories and to take part in research that will help support our work with street-working children.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel - the bed sheets are pure white, the wooden surfaces gleam with fresh polish and the view over the city towards the mountains is alive with emotion and stunning beauty.
Earlier today, I was in a place called La Terminal, the central marketplace for Guatemala City. Lively and colourful, yet at the same time, dirty and smelly. A potent mix of leather, tortillas, sweet breads and manure greeted us as we walked through the open air car park, past multi-coloured ex-school buses, and through pokey walkways between stalls. We were visiting the place where the children gather: a classroom, no bigger than my local railway station waiting room.
Finding their own solutions
Yesterday, I took part in a fantastic workshop on child participation (it sounds pretty dull, but it was amazing!). It was all about getting children to work out their own solutions to their problems through playing fun games. The first game that the teams put into practice today, in this tiny classroom, was to ask the children to draw a map of where they live - their house, the streets, the marketplace, their school, the hospital, police station – anywhere where they spend time, or where they avoid. They were then asked follow-up questions like - “Where do you most like to spend time?” “Where do you feel safest?” “Where do you learn bad things?” “Where do you feel sad?”
10-year-old Carlos drew a picture of the streets, someone shooting a woman: “I don’t go here, because you get shot. I shake when I see bad people taking drugs because I’m so scared.” Another guy, Mario, recounts: “I heard shots on this street and I went home running.”
Pointing to a street called 5th Avenue, one girl, Nancy, tells us: “Here the streets are very dangerous. Here they rob children.” When we asked for clarification on the Spanish, she says, “No, no, they don’t steal from children, they steal children; they kidnap them.”
The next activity was all about the people in their life, using big and small colourful circles.
The children start with themselves and use the circles to identify who’s the most important influence in their lives and how much contact they have with each person. Similar questions follow, but revolve around the people, rather than the places. Good people, bad people, sad people, happy people.
The girls giggle hysterically whenever they are asked a question, until one of them starts telling a real story and everyone is transfixed and shuts up for a few minutes. 10-year-old Lucia says: “That circle is my uncle – I’ve drawn it so he’s dead, because I want him to be dead. He beats me and hits me. And my mum gives him permission. I want him dead.” Her two cousins nod in agreement; it seems everybody wants him gone.
A lost child in the middle of the crowd
The children talk about selling on the buses. Two of the girls are known as ‘master’ sellers – Rosita. The team recounts, “She brings in all the money for the house. Her parents pay for the food, but the house only runs because of her” Lucia too has the mind of an adult. The team tells us, "She often says: ‘You go and play games and teach things, but I can’t come because I have to work. Without me, my home doesn’t run.'”
Talking to 10-year-old Lucia, the wildest, giggliest of the girls I met, she tells us how she feels about her job: “I don’t like working on the buses, going up the steps, because of the old men. They offer me money to go with them.” The other girls nod in agreement citing the same phrase: los viejos mañosas (the dirty-feely old men).
“They talk to me dirty things, I don’t like it.”
This conversation gave me a real insight into the fear in these children’s lives. For my part, I grew up very securely. Pinocchio was my least favourite film because it scared me so much. But fear for these children was another level and then a few more levels after that.
I imagined Lucia clambering onto the smoky bus, surrounded by noise, conversations, arguments, activity, being leered at by numerous men as she sold her fruit - completely alone.
Other girls laughed as they recalled one of Lucia’s stories: “She was crying so much,” her 8-year-old sister says. “She got on the bus, but the driver didn’t let her off. So she had to stay on the bus. She didn’t know where she was. She ended up in Zone 9.”
A massive city of over 2 million people - imagine Birmingham, but twice the size. A child wandering the streets alone without anyone batting an eyelid, it’s a wonder she ever made it back. “My brother came looking for me and found me in the end. I was just crying because I didn’t know where I was.” Turns out Zone 9 is about 8 miles away from La Terminal - that’s a 3-hour walk.
Of all the stories, this is the one that shook me: A lost child in the middle of a crowd, holding some fruit, crying.
But there is hope…
Tomorrow, we work with our partner, El Castillo, on how Toybox can improve our work to do something about this and change the world for children like Lucia.
Thanks for your prayers and support,
P.S There’s a video about Rosita working on the buses; a short, seemingly insignificant body in a crowd - click here to watch.