Monday, October 10, 2005


Last night I made empanadas under the strict instruction of our 7 year old friends. Well, I say "made", in reality I was meerly the onion chopper, the real work was done by the experts - the kids.

I arrived in Bogota on friday evening and on Saturday after doing some errands in town boarded a small bus that bundled me off to the edge of the city, past the glistening apartment blocks of the weathy bogotanos and into the San Luis neighbourhood, a ramshackle illegal* settlement home to thousands of internal refugees from all over the country.

I was here a few weeks ago with the delegation but due to our packed agenda didnt have the chance to recount our visit - I should have done - something special is happening here. We came to visit the Casa Taller de Ninos y Jovenes (Kids and young peoles house workshop) a youth project which left a inspirational impresion upon all of us.

Nicolasa, a friend and the founder of the project moved to the area about five years ago. Exhausted by the seemingly worsening situation in the country and the stressful world of human rights, high politics and fruitless judical followups in which she was engrossed she moved to San Luis to try and get away. Indeed, despite the harsh poverty of the area it is a potential escape, its location is nothing short spectacular, overlooking the seemingly infinately expansive bogota below and backed by the majestic Andes, coated in thick forest that nourishes the cool clear air. But her retreat didnt last long before the situation of the kids whom she played football with on the scraps of wasteland inbetween the houses promted action.

Begining in her house she started a sort of aferschool club providing a place kids could go and be kids, an activity which for many was possible neither at home nor or at school. As the group grew, her house overflowing with energetic younsters it soon became necessary for the burgening project to have its own building.

When we arrived a few weeks ago what we saw was a small but neat four room building with an inner courtyard. The kids collectively gave a presentation, efortlessly switching presenter unrehearsed from one to other as they described with eloquent speech and their own wonky photos what had been there before - little more than a ruin. With an inspirational spark from nicolasa and some techinical help from some locals on bricklaying and rendering the kids built their own social centre up from that ruin. They were quite rightly damn proud of it. There was a garden too, also previously a wasteland which they had cleared - and where now, just two weeks since my last visit stands a plastic greenhouse full of freshly planted veg, a duckpond full of ducks laying breakfast every morning and a pen housing a rowdy young goat.

Of course it hasnt been and is not still without problems. Nicolasa recounts that when it opened her idea was to have no rules but what resulted was chaos. Kids would steal the toys donated to the house, leave it in a mess and fight each other and her. The rules however, she did not impose but were arrived upon collectively by the kids and as such are now much better respected. Thre exists thus a real sense of collective responbsibility - for the stuff and the place but also for each other. In their presentation they explained their decision making and conflict resolution process - a weekly meeting (and impromptu when neccessary) where everyone tells each other, with no holds barred, exactly what others have done to piss them off but also and perhaps more importantly what they have done thats pissed off other people and how to move on. Its incredible to see in action, and is the most effective participatory decision making/conflict resolution body I have encountered and one in which the dynamic between adults and kids is without doubt a horizontal one.

Thats not to say that kids dont go for advice to some of the grownups. Nicolasa reads all the kids school reports and provides help in areas where they are failing but she neither does their homework nor forces them to do it - simply states that its up to them and they are capable of it. What she is militant about and what differentiates this project from so many others is that its not charity or telling the kids theyre are victims. Yeah they have lived through some shit that would keep a shrink drinking whisky till he dies if these kids were to make it to their forties in the UK, but what is made clear is that if they want to get out of the cycle its up to them - no one will do it for them.

Normally, for those with nothing in capitalist society there are two possible routes: charity or individualism red in tooth and claw - handouts or handguns. What has been achieved here in san luis transcends this individualistic/colectivist binary - yeah the kids get fuckall if if they do fuckall but equally, everyone is responisible for everyone else, if someone cant be bothered to do something then others will motivate them. Whats touched me also here i spose is that something like this proves that we can look after each other, that when we have a collective sense of ownership, of responsiblity and community, the desire to screw your brother in the ground is not set in stoney nature as we are so often told but a social construct that can be broken. Ok, maybe for many of the parents this hope is futile or at least very distant but starting with kids and it working i opening real spaces of change.

Its things like this where real change on a small scale is visible that make me question the tail-chasing that us as activists embark upon with our high profile adventures. Dont get me wrong, I still think all fronts of attack are necessary and valid and will keep chadsing my tail until im a little older. But im glad to know that if i do get disillusioned there are other avenues.

Over the last year or so word has spread on the sucess of the project. even to the mayor of bogota knocking on the door offering a new roof and the desperatly needed relaible funding for the centre. Of course, this being on the condition of a sign outside advertising the virtues of the local government. Not a bad offer I hear you wooly liberals (i.e. my mums & dads) cry: "Whats an egobusting sign in return for the greater good of a roof and funding for the project?". Nico┬┤s response was characteristically kurt and pertinent "if you provide the neighbourhood with water and electiricty then you can think about putting a roof on our courtyard." Indeed its a classic example of politicians (especially here) atempting to buy political credibility with the people they deprive of the basics through piecemeal high visibility offers. Moreover it would go against the DIY ethos of the Casa Taller.

Getting back here on saturday evening was fantastic. On sunday we wandered up to the top of the settlement and into the natinoal park and wathched the chaos of bogota disappear into the rolling mist in the valley. We made lunch at home where there are almost always a few of the kids runing about not to mention the goat that had escaped from the pen and was now inside to prevent him eating the veg in the garden. Sunday evenings they do a cinema club projecting offbeat films for kids and adults and make empanadas (kind of like small deepfried cornish pasties) to sell to the punters/friends. We helped out with the onion choppoing. I found my vocation.

(*Large parts of the San Luis neighbourhood are illegal in the sense that the settlements have not been officialy sanctioned by the lacal authorities. This means not only do the population not have access to public services such as water and electricity but they have no protection from eviction should developers decide that the desirable location would be better used with an expansion of the rich apartment blocks which currently stand the rest of the city and San Luis)