“It looks hopeless, oftentimes it feels hopeless but then you meet people like Rosa, so vibrant with life despite endless set-back, endless disappointments. She is herself a sign of hope”.
There was something about her. The first time I met her I noticed it, a directness of manner, a level of attention that marked her out from others. Her bright eyes measured you and if you passed her scrutiny you earned her trust. She would be your loyal and fearless helper and friend in the teeming pueblo of Huaycan about 19 kilometres southeast of Lima.
Rosa (not her real name) was one of the thousands who made their way from the interior, from the mountainous regions of Ayacucho in the eighties and nineties. There, in their little pueblos, they had been caught in a vice between the terrorist, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Army. The Sendero would come and threaten to kill everyone if the villagers did not give them food. The Army would come and threaten to kill everyone if they did give them foo. It was a terrifying no-win situation. So the people left in their thousands and squatted in the dessert areas around Lima. Huaycan grew from a trickle to a population of over 180,000people today. They are about to celebrate the 31st year of their foundation.
But what will they celebrate? You look around at this treeless, featureless place. And see shacks creeping up the hillside. Shacks and more shacks. Some half built. Some teetering precariously on the edge, some roofless, doorless, barely habitable. But people live here, life spills over as the multitudes try to eke out a living. In Peru the minimum wage is €130 a month but many earn a lot less than this. Twenty three percent of the population in Peru are between the ages 6 and 17m a frightening statistics but easy to believe in this area. Men, women and children, all of them poor, all of them struggling. It looks hopeless, oftentimes it feels hopeless but then you meet people like Rosa, so vibrant with life despite endless set-back, endless disappointments. She is herself a sign of hope”.
For several years I have been working in this pueblo. I coordinated six zones, setting up training and education programmes in basic communities whose growth and development is a testimony to the power of the Spirit and the resilience of a people who constantly amaze you with the joy of their community. Rose is a self-made “social worker” in one of the thirty plus Zones in the parish. She keeps in touch with the people, visiting them, urging them to attend the meetings, helping to implement the decisions. A born leader, she often accompanies me as I visit her area, Rose conducts meetings, leads prayer groups, helps with the liturgy, encourages the young, attends to the olds and jeeps her eye on me!.
Rosa is a woman who hasn’t two coins to rub together but that doesn’t stop her. She lives with her mother in one of the shacks and is rearing a young abandoned boy. Rosa looks after him with love and sees to his education. A teenage niece also lives with her, sure her that her aunt will take care of her. Rosa herself had hoped to go to university when younger, has got all the exams but as the family had no money for the fees, she had to withdraw. Now in her late forties, she has also had to put her hopes of being a religious at bay as the pressures of her situation made greater demands.
Recently she got a little job to make tea and supply some snacks for a working group in the area. They would pay her at the end of the moth. She borrowed money to start, hoping she would be able to repay it when she was paid. But because she couldn’t produce receipts, the organization couldn’t pay her. She had to go to the tax office get a tax number, get a book of receipts before she could be paid. All this costs money so she got even deeper in debt. Again there was a delay because of some petty rule. Meantime the little boy, now 9, had severely injured in eye which meat more bills so that poor Rosa was at her wit’s end. In desperation she came to me. After she had paid back her loans she was down to her last coin and the cycle of borrowing began again. But first she returned the money I had lent her; though she knew I would gladly have given it to her.
This is Rosa’s life and the many of the women I meet on the rounds. They are up at 5:00am and seldom lie down before midnight. Scrimping and saving, working non-stop to pay back loans, to put bread on the table, to help those even worse off. The Good News, Jesus told us, is for these people. People on the margins, people forgotten by the rich and mighty. Their faith is deep; even in the darkest situation thy have hope. Rosa today, despite her own difficulties is actively encouraging the people of her Zone to build a little chapel in their area where they can come together to pray. I know t will be done. I am certain that these valiant, penniless women will not be defeated. Like the woman in the gospel who kept after Jesus until He cured her daughter, Rosa’s prayers will be answered.
Sr. Mary McGuinness served in pastoral work in both Chile and Peru. At present she is the Treasurer General of the Columban Sisters.