In my search for more volunteer projects in Lima, I have been fortunate enough to come across a very remarkable woman. Patty de Bary is a Peruvian who, although at the outset accompanied by a group of women, has in the last few years almost single-handedly set up a private school with an emphasis on quality, in the poverty-stricken heart of Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima.
Patty is that wonderful combination of an idealist, but with the force of mind and character to follow through her convictions with concrete and positive actions.
Patty explains to us first a little about her background, and how that influenced her ideas about giving something back to society, and also about education in general.
I was born in Lima, but then lived my first five years in a hacienda high in the Andes, where my overriding memory is of playing with my pet alpaca. This was in the Cusco region near an Indian community called Qeros. It’s far from any civilised place. When the military government took away the lands from the owners in the agricultural revolution, we then had to come to Lima where my father found work on a chicken farm. His potential must have impressed his employers, and they decided to send him to Venezuela to open a construction company, which was a little odd as he knew nothing about construction and had studied agronomy. Nevertheless, we lived in Venezuela for 7 years.
And that time of my life was I think very important – particularly to what I’m doing right now with the school. In Caracas, I went to a British school for English people working for the petroleum companies at that time. I don’t know how it happened, but I attended this school. All my friends were from England, everybody spoke English, nobody spoke Spanish, and the teachers were brought specially from England to teach there. I studied there till 5th grade, and those were the happiest five years of my childhood in which I learned the most. Education in Peru at that time was a case of learning things off by heart. You didn’t have to think, you just had to repeat, whereas at my school in Venezuela, you were encouraged to think and investigate. The way the subjects were imparted was so impressive that you learned – you loved to learn. When I came back to live here in Lima, I went to a traditional rigid religious school, where I have to say I didn’t learn much. I had stopped thinking for myself. In Venezuela the school was not religious – there was a culture of freedom. No one cared how you looked, how you dressed, where you came from – it was a real feeling of freedom. Here in Lima society can be very cruel, because you are often judged by what you are wearing, which family you come from. I found little sense in any things that were done there.
Another thing I discovered when I came to live in Lima was that my country was a very poor country – in Venezuela you didn’t see the same poverty; the beggars in the streets and poor children wandering around without shoes, and that really affected me. Maybe at that time, I don’t know how old I was, but I was going to do something about that at some point of my life.
So when I was 18 years old, I wanted to change the world. Not unusual at that age, but not so easy also – OK, so I’ve decided the world should be a better place – but not straightforward to achieve. Meanwhile, I enjoyed other things of life: traveling, seeing different cultures and learning about different things, until the time came I suppose, to face the challenge of doing something for my country. I never imagined it was going to be so difficult, but I have learned more than I thought about my own country; about how people live, feel, the way they see themselves, the way they organise themselves. It has been interesting and I think I also feel good because I am making my children more conscious and aware of the place they live in. Many people in Lima exist in a bubble. In Peru, if people from the coast, the sierra, the jungle, the north, centre and south could sit down around a table and see each other as equals we would be talking about a different country.
You quit your job at Citibank and spent more time with your children. As they grew older and more independent I suppose that meant you had a little more time free, and you thought “I know – I’ll set up a school in Villa El Salvador”…?
I’m the sort of person that always has to be busy. I don’t like just lying down and doing my nails. In fact I don’t have nails because I’m always anxious, thinking about how to solve everything. So yes, I had some spare time, although, sometimes I think that if I had known it was going to be so difficult I maybe would never have started.
When was the germ of the idea for La Buena Esperanza?
That was in 2002. We began as a group of 5. In the beginning we were all agreed that we had to do something that could make a real difference to people’s lives, not only giving support when they are sick. We wanted something that would genuinely break the cycle of poverty that people live in here, so naturally we thought of education and children; children being the future and the key to development. And that is why we decided to make a school. I’m not a teacher. I knew nothing about education except from my own experience. But you have to begin somewhere, have to push and pull sometimes, and follow the path and make things happen.
The first year the school opened its doors (2005) was a very difficult year. At the outset, a company working in Peru gave us a lot of money to build the first part of the school during 2004. Unfortunately after a management change, that assistance was cut short, so that in the first year we had no money to pay the salaries for the teachers. I remember the teachers working three months without salaries. At that time, the people who had started the project with me said “We have to close the school, this was a crazy idea, this will be impossible to handle. We can’t deal with it.” But the difference for me was that I had been the one who had gone and talked to the leaders of the community and to the whole community. I had offered them a school, and I just couldn’t close the school in the first year.
Are there specific problems associated with setting up a school from scratch in a community like Villa El Salvador?
Most definitely there are. Setting up a school in an urban marginal zone like Villa El Salvador, or any other in Peru, the first problem is trust. People don’t trust you. They genuinely didn’t believe me when I told them I wanted to build a school and benefit their children. They said, “Who do you work for? What will you ask of us after you do this? Nobody comes here for nothing. What have you done before?” (and of course I hadn’t done anything before). So, it was very hard. In Villa El Salvador they are really organised. Every block (or Manzana) has a leader. Every group of blocks, which is called a group, also has a leader. Every group of “groups” is called a “Sector” which also has a leader, and a group of Sectors makes a territory, which also has a leader. It is a maze. All leaders are democratically elected by their own communities, and everybody knows everybody.
In the 6 years you have been working on the projects, how many representatives have you been dealing with on a daily basis?
I have 3 different community leaders to deal with at any one time. In the beginning we made many mistakes because we didn’t know how people were organised. We went via the Municipalities to offer to build a school. We didn’t ask the community, which was not respecting them, and we were not aware of that. And they of course said to me “Who do you think you are? Get away!” I did not understand their rejection. After all, I was trying to help their children. But it was because I was going about it the wrong way. Finally after I think one year of making mistakes of that kind (many of them!), I realised that if you really want to work with the community, you have to be accepted by them, and to be accepted means that you have to do things their way from the outset. If anyone wants to get something done in the community, they have to go to talk with the community leaders. You don’t talk to the municipality or the church, because the community leaders don’t like it when things go on behind their backs. And therefore they don’t trust.
So after making many mistakes, I arrived in Villa El Salvador. I looked for the community leaders. I told them my plans, and they of course did not believe me. What they did do was to say, “OK, you have to coordinate it. You have to come here at 9 o’clock at night for meetings with us”. They not meet any earlier as they worked and did not have any other time. So I went from 9 to midnight to talk to them for three months. First the leaders, then the representatives (there are reps for health, education, sports etc) I was presented by the leaders to all the people they had around them. So I had to do the same speech again and again. Everybody asked me if I was earning money from it. Who was behind me? What I was going to get out of it. I always told them the truth. One important factor I think is that my conversations with them were very horizontal. So often here in Peru, people talk down to others and are patronising. We were able to sit down at the table and they never felt from my side that I was imposing or saying “I know what’s best for you”, or even saying “hey, in the end I’m doing you a favour”. And it really isn’t true, because they are organised and capable of doing things for themselves.
In the end I think they felt that I was genuine, and finally they agreed to give me a piece of land to make the school. And from that time until now (4 years), it has been a real adventure. After that first year, I started the second year of the school not knowing how I was going to pay for it all, with salaries etc. It was very stressful. We had tried many activities to raise funds, but not a lot of doors were opened. We did just about manage to scrape through the second year though.
We began the first year with 80 children – 2 classrooms for 4 year olds and two for 5 year olds. Each year we grow one grade, (now there are 6) and the idea is to take the children right through their school years – that’s the way we can do a good job. But then I realised my next problem. This is the first year that the parents are paying for the food. Before, the children’s food was paid for through the school funds. But I have learned that you can not solve all the parents’ problems. They still have the responsibility to feed their children appropriately, and I cannot take on board all the parents’ responsibilities. Parents have to play their part. At the beginning I thought I could do everything, but that is simply not true. It’s also not really helping, because you also have to educate the parents and make them assume their own responsibilities in some way. You have to make the people for whom you have created the project want the project to succeed too, so they will fight alongside you for the project. If this does not happen, it is very difficult. The idea is to do it as a team, which is how it works more or less in the school. Now our parents are paying for the food because they really see that the school makes a difference. They always complain of course, but as soon as we say, well if this doesn’t work the school will have to close, they all fold. Nobody wants the school to close.
What is the educational alternative in the area to “La Buena Esperanza”?
There are other schools in the area. There are public schools and private schools, but the quality of education is very, very low in the area. 43 countries were evaluated on reading comprehension, Maths and Science, and Peru came last. We really don’t understand what we read and hardly know how to multiply or divide. So, the treatment the children receive in the school, and the school itself, the classrooms, and equipment and everything we have in the school, other schools in the area really don’t have, so I think the facilities are better. We have clean bathrooms, which other schools really don’t have. Uniquely in the area we also have water. There is no sewage system in the area. The water has to be bought. So I think parents do realise that we are a real concern for the children. We do the best that we can.
So, one issue is getting the money to keep the school working. But also, if I don’t give a good quality of education in the school, then I am just playing to have a school, and where is the value in that? Maybe children would be in a better environment, be better treated, a little bit more stimulated, but if we really want to make a difference in their lives I really have to give good quality education.
So, I know I have to improve the quality of the education the children are receiving. I also know I have to improve on the really low teachers’ salaries. I need money to invest in improving the quality of the teachers – giving them courses, teaching techniques etc. It’s a process. But I strive for my school to be like my school in Venezuela. Maybe these children in the future will in turn want something better for their kids, and they will struggle and fight, and maybe recognise the importance of education so as to improve things for future generations. The parents don’t realise what they are making. Some of them might. I’m not sure they are aware that their children when they are grown-ups will have more strength to fight for better things, than maybe the strength their parents have now, because their children will have seen better things and will have more tools to achieve their dreams.
Your plan is to educate them to improve their own area, whilst education is often seen as a means of escaping one’s roots and upbringing.
Yes – I think many of the children will have to go out of the area to do more things, but I think you should never forget where you come from. And I think that Peruvians generally have a responsibility to their country, and at some time in your life you have to give something back to your country. That is the focus of education.
There is also one other cultural thing here in Peru. We have inherited the “shoes of the losers” from the Spanish Conquest. Generation through generation, we have only had 500 years since the Spaniards arrived – not many generations at all. What many children are taught is that we can do nothing to improve our lot. The Spanish conquered us and that’s the way it is and now the Chileans are taking things from us. It’s a Peruvian way of looking at life. “We have no tools, we cannot do anything. Why does everybody come and take everything away from us?” Instead of standing up and saying – what can we do, and looking for help – they don’t even think of looking for help. Really it’s an attitude that you have for life. You inherit that. We’re used to receiving handouts. It’s cultural. If you can persuade the children in Peru that the story can be changed, you can show them a different movie of what their lives could be like, I think Peru would also be another country, but the only way to do that is through education.
Do you get any help from the Peruvian government?
No. I have been trying to get help for the past two years with no success. This project has to be a sustainable project, and in order to be sustainable the idea is not to depend 100% on donations from companies or abroad. It has to keep up by itself. But there are not many projects that can survive without government assistance. What I want is for the government to pay some salaries. But the ministry is so disorganised and bureaucratic. And also they place conditions on any assistance to private projects. With their help comes the requirement that the Ministry chooses the teachers…and I do not want that. I want to choose my own teachers, which is my only guarantee of controlling the situation. If something goes wrong, I couldn’t just fire them as they’d be government employees.
For all the effort I’ve put in up to now, I don’t want to put it all on risk. However, let’s see what happens. I will continue to try.