Child Malnutrition – Libras de Amor, First Visit

My field work has begun.   On Wednesday, February 10th I left San Salvador for Apaneca, a small mountain town in the west of El Salvador.  It was a short visit but was important for me to meet with Libras de Amor, one of ArtCorps’ partner organizations, with whom Antonietta, the actress from Chile, will be working for the year.

The trip was very easy, and definitely further insight into Salvadorian economics.   I got directions from Antonietta the night before I left and was expecting at least some hassle in the route, however I was happily mistaken and arrived without one mishap.  The bus system here in El Salvador is great, at least I think so – could be because of my flawless first impression so I will not rest my case just yet.   Anyways, to get to Apaneca, I took a cab to the Terminal de Occidente, one of a few main bus stations in San Salvador, and got on bus 205 to Sonsonate.   Its nice to get on a bus without paying, and another great moment when 25 minutes out of the city on route to your destination someone comes to collect your fare and asks for 0.75 cents.   For an hour and fifteen minutes on a bus, this is more than a reasonable price, in my eyes its unsustainable – considering the current price at the pump is 3.75 a gallon.   I later looked at my reciept and was confused when I saw that it listed the price of the fare at 0.76 cents rather than 0.75 and have to just assume that it was a typo because it would be too funny if it was easier for the buses to collect fares at 0.75 cents even if the fare was actually 0.76.

Another interesting, and simultaneously annoying aspect of Salvadorian transportation is the travelling salesman.   Every stop, at least one person would get on the bus, without having to pay of course, and try to sell something he or she had in a backpack.   In short, they were like traveling salesmen, moving throughout bus routes trying to sell whatever it was they had that day.  Some were selling chocolates, others hats, others little kitty key chains and even some medication for serious illnesses.  The best and worst part of the experience was their pitch.  No salesmen can sell anything without convincing those with money to give up that money, and these salesmen are no different.   There was one guy selling cream that would put the sham-wow guy to shame.  This cream supposedly cured everything from discolouration, to acne, to fungus and wrinkles.  It came in a sleek, homemade container with what seemed to be several labels over several other labels with the product ingredients and user instructions.  Anyways, his sales pitch was long, loud, and direct.  I am pretty sure I lost a bit of hearing after this incident.  It was like watching an infomercial without the power to change channels.  For twenty five minutes he talked to an audience of passengers, either asleep, listening to music, talking to their friends or loved ones, or like me, who could not keep my eyes off this truly amazing sales pitch, about the benefits of this cream and why we ought to give him one dollar for it.  I almost did.  Almost.  Although humorous at the time, it got me thinking about the economics of this type of work.  I saw maybe three sales out of thirty people selling on my two hour journey, not exactly a bustling business.  So the questions that came up in my mind were:   1.  Where do they get the products to sell?   2. Do they work in groups?  Is there someone getting them these products to sell? – and if so – Is this person(s) making a reasonable profit from this activity?  Is it holding these people back – or are they better off for it?  (sorry thats five questions in one)   The basic thought was, this appears to be almost at an industrial level from the limited time I have spent so far on public transportation and there must be a reason for it.  What is it?

Upon arrival in Sonsonate, my transfer point, I was helped by a very nice older lady who was sat next to me.  She told me where to go to catch my next bus to get to Apaneca.  It was bus 249.   After waiting about fifteen minutes it arrived and again I got on without paying, and again, later gave 0.75 cents to travel another 80 km (this time the receipt did say 0.75).  I arrived in Apaneca and walked around until I found the Libras de Amor office.

Libras de Amor (http://www.librasdeamor.org/index.php) is a branch of Fusal, a non profit orgnization in El Salvador aimed to spread social responsibility within the private sector through health and education.  Libras de Amor was created in 2004 to direct special attention to malnourished children in communities throughout El Salvador.   When I arrived in Apaneca I was greeted by Aimet Siliezar, one of the heads of the program.  She introduced me around the office and explained the basics of the work that the were fronting.   Only an hour after I arrived I jumped in a pick up with three other workers heading to a local community called El Arco to give their bi-weekly workshops with the mothers and their children.   These sessions are part of a program to monitor the growth and development of children within each community who are extremely malnourished and to monitor their progress over time.

Aimet and Antonietta

It is always hard to see poverty in its extreme cases, even when you have seen it before.  We spent thursday moving around to a number of communities scattering throughout the mountain region of La Naranjita.  These meetings, I was told, had quite a regular turn out of local women, unlike some other communities where participation has proved more difficult.   The meetings were a chance for mothers to check if their children were growing at a safe pace, whether or not they are underweight and by how much.   We met with some children who were serious cases and have now recovered and are continuing to improve – they are success stories.   There are some aspects of the support that Libras de Amor provide that I do not support – however I have only spent a couple days observing their methodology – so I could be wrong.   What I see, is the “give a man a fish” problem.    That is to say that it seems that these communities are becoming used to receiving hand outs from Libras de Amor (as is the case with many development organizations) and instead of focusing efforts towards fundamental changes that will help solve the problem that exists, community members are happy just waiting to receive more hand outs.  This statement has some falsity to it – Libras de Amor does use education in its methodology, strengthening the importance of nutrition and child development as well as health and sanitation – so they are trying to attack the problem from a more strategic position, the extent to which it is working I do not know.

Some children in these communities are seriously malnourished.   Many babies at ten or twelve months looked like they were two or three, and some children of seven or eight years appeared to be no more than four or five. Later in the afternoon I spoke with Manuel Vasquez Santo who works at the Ministry of Health in El Salvador.  We spoke for a while about the situation in these communities.  He explained it to me very sincere and simple.   The land in the mountain regions of El Salvador is owned by the large coffee farms, and they have prohibited cultivation of any crop other than coffee.  This means that small isolated communities cannot use fertile land for the growth of food and are limited to the small lots of land on which they live, which are extremely small and not very fertile – some women told me they could grow a few different types of vegetables such as carrot, cabbage and potato – but not enough to feed their entire family with any consistency.   The main form of income for these communities is coffee harvesting said Manuel – he told me that workers are paid in one of two ways, $4.15 USD per day, or $1.00 USD per 25 lb of harvested coffee bean.  I asked him how many pounds of coffee bean a worker could potentially harvest in a day and he told me that the strongest and fittest could harvest no more then 75 lb in a day, for a grand total of $3.00 USD.    With this income, people must buy enough to feed their families, and there is no access to food where the majority of these families live which means a minimum two hour walk into the nearest town.   I have no solution of the top of my head, however I do understand the basic problem.   How do you get people in these situations to provide for their families if they cannot grow their own food or earn enough to buy what little is available to them?

I look forward to returning to Apaneca to continue the documentation of this organization and of Antonietta who will be using her experience in Theatre and Acting to help convey the importance of nourishment and heath in the communities where Libras de Amor work.

Women of El Arco, a community near Apaneca, wait in turn to weight their children in a meeting with Libras de Amor who visit the community every two weeks in a program to monitor the growth and development of malnourished children.

This sunday I head to Honduras to continue the tour.   Stay tuned for posts on the trip.

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