On the barren Andean foothills outside Lima, ramshackle roofs and walls cling to the slopes like a thousand wild mushrooms. At first sight, it is not quite clear if the structures are being built or torn down. A chaotic stir of street vendors, idlers and shoppers mixes with swirls of dust from the unpaved sidesteets and vacant lots.
The district of Comas, just 11 kilometers from Lima's main square, is a "barrio popular" (working-class neighborhood), a kind of waystation on the road to development for half of Lima's nearly six million inhabitants.
Hidden a few steps from the bustle of the Tupac Amaru Avenue, a quiet, orderly niche of neatly painted buildings, playgrounds and even rare trees and grass has been carved out in the midst of the haphazard community. Two schools supported by French-Canadian clergy have for the past 20 years been providing a vital impulse to the students who pass through its classrooms and workshops.
Both the Instituto Tecnico Jesus Obrero run by the Brothers of Charity and the Centro Educativo Presentation de Maria run by the same congregation, provide vocational training, imparting simple skills and character for survival in a precarious environment.
"We try to provide a backbone for potential muscles," says Brother Bernardo Boulay, the boys' school administrator.
The Instituto Jesus Obrero offers 600 students training in carpentry, auto mechanics, general mechanics, electricity and machine tooling. The girls' school gives 1,300 students training in tailoring, weaving, knitting, embroidery, and evening classes.
Each year the schools have to turn applicants away. Sister Maria Lux Lacoste, the director, says: "I will have about 70 vacancies in April and up to 700 applicants." Transfers must be screened through entrance exams to eliminate applicants objectively. The schools must first fill quotas with applicants from neighborhood grade schools.
Comas would be called a shantytown if it were temporary, or a slum if it were a decaying neighborhood, but its residents have migrated to seek a better life in the big city. Taking possession of what was considered wasteland 30 years ago, the early residents propped up their straw mats for shelter and slowly began building their homes literally brick by brick.
The Government has been even slower in coming across with basic public services such as sewage, drinking water and electricity. Uprooted from their traditional communities and trapped in the "culture of poverty," most residents are ill-equipped to better their lot. However, there is an abiding belief in education as a key to improvement. Even in the humblest shack, a grade school diploma is proudly framed on the wall.
In 1962 the Brothers of Charity were forced to leave Cuba and prospective work posts in Latin America were evaluated. "Our superior asked us where we were needed most. Within weeks we landed in Lima with just our suitcases," Brother Bernardo says.
As part of the state educational system, the schools do not charge fees. The Government meets the payroll for the teaching and administrative staff, plus the water and light bills. The rest of the budget must be scraped up from other sources. Since vocational education requires additional materials and machinery upkeep, this shortfall can be substantial. Both schools were set up with the help of CIDA, which has also helped out in expansion at crucial points.
The institute makes furniture and does precision tool work to earn needed cash, but Peru's worsening economy has cut into business. One major client, the local producer of Chrysler vehicles, went bankrupt last year. "Between the recession and inflation, it is getting harder and harder to cover even operating expenses," Brother Bernardo says. A single emery stone, of which the school uses hundreds a year, costs about $5.
Production is kept up year round and students with special aptitudes or financial needs are hired for help. "The kids learn quickly that nothing comes easily," says Brother Bernardo.
Many pupils have already had a head start in that bitter lesson. Sister Maria Lux says: "We have discovered that more than 200 girls have serious eye sight problems, between 10 and 50 percent of normal vision." How have they managed to get as far a secondary school with that handicap? Hard work and persistence. It is heart-rending to see them studying in the library with the books a few inches from their noses." Most students cannot afford school texts and glasses are a luxury.
Other health problems include malnutrition and tuberculosis. Many girls come to school exhausted, having put in a full day's work at home, filling in for mothers who must join the work force to put food on the table. A family consultant has found sixteen-year-old girls who manage an entire household, including cooking and housekeeping chores and minding three or four siblings.
To send children through secondary school is a financial sacrifice for most families. Social workers say that a growing trend is for parents to put children to work as soon as they have learned to read and write.
The schools have had a lasting influence on the students who have passed through their halls. At the Instituto Jesus Obrero, alumni have formed a cooperative which makes loans to those who want to buy tools or set up workshops. It started out with a capital of $200 in 1965 and has made 2,500 loans since then.
At the girls' training school, 11 graduates are now employed as teachers, having gone on to university, and more than a dozen more are teaching in other schools in the neighborhood.
Matched against Peru's huge development and social problems, the two schools are a small contribution. But on a human scale, the clergy, professors and pupils are making an act of faith that the commitment can be lasting and worthwhile.
© 1983 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved