Finding mercy in a Peruvian slum
Lilani Goonesena writes: It is a bumpy, unpaved road and our driver carefully maneuvers around the potholes. Joan laughs and says this is her weekly massage. We pass dry, dusty shells of buildings, box-shaped with flat roofs. It seems as though it hasn’t rained in forever. Joan points to a truck coming the other way. “That’s our weekly water delivery”, she says.
We are in San Martin de Porres, a very poor district of Lima, Peru, visiting the extraordinary work of two Australian Sisters of Mercy. Joan and Patricia are not what I would typically think of as nuns. In fact, they are the archetypes of everyday Australian women — cheerful, frank and hardworking. Both in their late 60s, they have spent the last 17 years of their lives here in Peru, helping to improve the livelihoods of people who have adopted them into their community. This year, the district’s 10,000 homes will have running water and sanitation for the first time ever.
Our car pulls up outside a large square building. The Sisters have built their clinic with the aid of generous local donors, the work of Caritas Australia and funding from the Australian government’s aid agency, AusAID. Nearby a group of boys play football on a dusty field. Stray, mangy dogs lie in the sun, barely raising their heads to look at the newcomers.
It is a humbling place to visit but the Sisters love visitors and welcome us in. We are taken on a tour of the clinic and chat with the amazing women who work here. Nurses man the busy waiting room and the pharmacist proudly shows us boxes of medications locked in glass cabinets. A doctor and a dentist visit one day a week. A child psychologist works in a cheery room with the brightly painted mural and a few stuffed toys. Our toddler, Maya, promptly pulls up a chair at the little table and starts playing with a wooden jigsaw.
The clinic aims to provide quality basic health to poor people who would not otherwise be able to afford it. They specialise in women’s health, gynecology, dermatology, pediatrics, social work, legal aid, speech therapy and laboratory work. In pride of place, and under lock and guard, is an x-ray machine — with [former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd smiling down from a laminated picture on the wall. He visited the Sisters in 2008 and has been a strong supporter of their work ever since.
Tucked away in another room under further locks is an ultrasound machine, vital in enabling women patients to view the health of their unborn children. Educating women on maternal health, nutrition, hygiene and family planning is a vital part of the Sisters’ work. A team of 25 trained volunteers gives talks in community meetings, schools and soup kitchens.
The second part of the Sisters’ work is three Women’s Houses, benefiting over 800 women each year. Vocational classes on cooking, literacy, sewing, doll making, crochet, tai chi, hairdressing and computer are run very week. There are also personal development programs on domestic violence, ecology, communications and women’s health.
The women make and sell handicrafts and the Sisters’ latest venture is the marketing and sale of these products. Their current shop is in a tiny room and I happily browse through and collect a couple of armfuls of things to buy. The women thank me for my generosity but I’m just kicking myself for not bringing more cash. There are tablemats and table runners, bags, laptop cases, puppets and toys, all made with beautiful brightly coloured materials. A young Australian volunteer will soon join the centre to help with marketing and communications. It will be fantastic to see these products reach a wider audience.
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