Shining Bright in Colombia

March 29, 2024

Ann Edmunds, Community Health Care Manager, writes:

IMC (In Ministry to Children), Colombia – led by Nancy Centeno - invited Links to do some Community Health Care training amongst the Wayuu people living in the La Guajira area, in the northern part of the country. Along with me was Carolina Gisbey, Joe’s Colombian wife. It was a great blessing to have Carolina alongside as a friend, as interpreter and to bring a greater understanding of the Colombian culture.

IMC also have a sister Board of Trustees in the UK - an Act4You account holder with Links. Seren Boyd, the Chair of Trustees, has been involved with IMC over many years and has an in-depth knowledge of their work and ministry. So, it was fantastic to have Seren also join us, on this visit.

Early in the morning of Friday 1st March, we landed in Bogota - situated at an altitude of 2,640m, the fourth highest capital in the world. After a short rest in our accommodation, above Comunidad Mosaica Church, we headed out for Los Alpes, a slum area of southern Bogotá which is part of Ciudad Bolivar, accompanied by IMC administrator Jennyfer and IMC Projects Director, Yancarlos (plus Carolina’s niece, Gina).

Seren describes these first two days well and I’ve used some of her words to give an idea of the context and experience…

…We took two buses and then ascended higher still by cable car, the buildings becoming more ramshackle, chaotic and susceptible to landslides the higher we climbed. Nevertheless, people come in desperation and build where they can – using whatever is available, such as breeze blocks and corrugated metal sheets. Most families are displaced people both from outside Colombia, such as Venezuela and from within, often indigenous groups who are amongst the most vulnerable in the face of ongoing development within the country. Such groups often don’t know their rights and so when displaced are very vulnerable to human trafficking.

We visited the Robles de Justicia Church where about 32 families (60 children) receive food and spiritual input twice a week, funded by IMC. We were greeted by Maicol, a former IMC ‘boy’, rescued from the streets of Bogota as a young child and now a paid IMC social worker! After a brief word from the pastor, school packs were given out to all the children - funded by donors to the Links Education Appeal. Then a meal, cooked by the pastor’s wife, was served to all the children and families before the children headed out to the local school for their lessons.

The following day we visited a similar IMC project in Fusasugasa (abbreviated to Fusa). Jennyfer informed us that there is a great deal of drug misuse and child prostitution in and around Fusa and the work of IMC is seeking to protect children from getting drawn into the drugs and gang scene. On a good day, Fusa is around a 2-hour drive from Bogota. As anywhere though, it all depends on the traffic and road conditions, and they were not in our favour this day. Traffic was at a standstill in places, and it got hotter as we headed through the lush countryside where plant nurseries become more frequent the closer you get to Fusa. Along the route we learned of another former ‘IMC boy,’ rescued from the streets at a young age, who owns one of these plant nurseries and has ambitions to become a local community leader, standing for election last year. 

Our arrival was a little later than expected but everyone had waited so patiently, and once again, we were given a lovely warm welcome by the IMC social worker, Maicol and the gathered children.  

This programme is run by the church of Pastor Jair Garcia (Reyes de Israel Church) and funded by IMC. After lively songs and an interactive message from the church team, packages of books and pencils were distributed, once again provided through Links donors. Refreshments were then served to the children by Sofia, a long-time IMC volunteer. Sofia had herself been a recipient of IMC support when she was a single mother with her very young children. She now volunteers much of her time, giving back into the lives of these vulnerable families and their children.  

From Fusa we headed back to Bogotá and specifically to a restaurant owned and managed by another former IMC ‘street boy’, Ruben. There wasn’t a dry eye around the table as we listened to his story…

… the story of a little boy abandoned by his mother, on the streets of Bogota. He spent two years living on a farm where people were abusive to him and escaped from there back to the streets of Bogota, with pluck and ingenuity managing to survive, from the age of 7yrs – 9yrs. He was found and rescued from the streets by IMC and from there his life took a completely different trajectory. He eventually trained as a chef and now runs his own award-winning Colombian café/restaurant in Bogota, ‘De La Loma’ and has plans to add another restaurant to his repertoire. He gives back too, offering apprenticeship opportunities to some of the poorest and most marginalised in Bogota. It hasn’t been an easy journey for him by any means but as his life changed so he decided to be known by his second name, Dario – the little street boy had become a new man!  

What a privilege to meet him and to hear the testimony he shared. IMC no longer run children’s homes as they did many years ago. The focus now, is to give the whole family and the communities in which they live, material and spiritual support and agency, to care for their own children.

Only two days in and already we had seen and experienced so much of the work of IMC and so much of the life of Colombia!

Day 3 (Sunday), we had a domestic flight to the coastal town of Riohacha, ready for the Community Health Care training in La Guajira, amongst the indigenous Wayuu people - the largest indigenous group in Colombia and Venezuela.

A rancheria is a small rural community of Wayuu people and there are several such communities in the area. Many aspects of poverty in the area are not dissimilar to my experiences in many African rural communities – a lack of resources for sanitation, hygiene, safe water, nutrition, education, medicine and so on. The resulting health challenges include, diarrhoea, malnutrition, dengue fever, parasite infections along with the rise of non-communicable diseases.  

As a country, Colombia does have some services in place that could give a measure of support, but the indigenous people are generally discriminated against, unaware of the help they are entitled to and struggling to make their voices heard. IMC are partnering with churches in the area to seek to advocate and positively change the health and wellbeing of these marginalised people.

Monday to Friday we drove to the Brasil rancheria, which has a brick-built school classroom, to which an additional two classrooms have been added, funded by donors to IMC (UK). We were able to use one of the classrooms as a training venue and a core group of about 30 people of mixed gender and age, attended the CHC training each morning. In the afternoons, we visited rancherias and projects in the La Guajira area, connected with IMC.

For many the CHC training was a very new learning experience but nevertheless, the participants engaged well with the small group discussions and interactive activities, often with much laughter! We started by giving time to consider the impact and challenges, both positive and negative, since the Covid-19 pandemic. We were surprised by the appreciation expressed at being able to talk together about this - an opportunity they’d not really had before but was clearly of value. Following on, we spent time exploring what we mean by health, identifying health issues in the rancherias, raising awareness, and understanding and encouraging the learners to explore their own solutions to the challenges they had identified.  

We had brought with us eleven copies of the book, ‘Where There is No Doctor’ (Spanish version). We spent the penultimate session looking at how this reference book can be used and stressed that for those who are given guardianship of a book comes the responsibility to share its content with the other learners, so that preventative health becomes increasingly learned and understood. Other skills demonstrated and experienced were handwashing, constructing a ‘tippy tap’ and making rehydration drink (ORS), with the hope that these will be shared more widely in the communities. We finished by gathering the learners into rancheria groups to discuss their next steps and then certificates were given along with our blessings and our goodbyes.  

Time had been at a premium and went by so quickly, but seeds have been sown. Over the next months, we’ll keep in touch with Nancy and hopefully learn of encouraging signs of the beginnings of new growth and change leading to transformation in the health of these communities and most especially, amongst the children.

Thank you for your prayer support and for bringing SHINE to these precious people!

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