The clowns returned to Iquitos, Peru for the 7th Annual Belen Festival August 8-18, 2012. Gesundheit and Bolaroja Clown Doctores brought 106 clowns together from 10 countries (including big groups of clowns from Argentina’s Payamedicos and Los Payas). Peru-based La Restinga took a greater leadership role this year, as the project was revisioned in response to the catastrophic Amazon River flood, inundating Belen from February to May. Water rose 11 meters (rather than the usual 6 meters) for 4 months, leaving hundreds of families homeless , lacking food and clean water, and suffering illness from Dengue fever, leptospirosis, and diarrhea. Scores died.
Life is hard even in good times on the riverside- lack of clean water and sanitation head the list of hardships for the 12,000 citizens of Pueblo Libre, Belen’s riverside community, the most hard-hit by the flooding. Men carry heavy loads of produce, charcoal, fish, the bounty of the Amazon, half a mile uphill to the sprawling Belen market, feeding the city of Iquitos, or they paddle dugout canoes transporting people and goods up and down the river. Women and children sell these goods in the market, on the street- fruits, herbs, all foods to eat, drink, all day long. These are the fortunate ones, earning 2$ a day. The most needy cannot find work, and resort to whatever they can steal, beg, borrow, or worse. Too many parents struggle to provide the basic necessities for their children, resulting in higher rates of teen pregnancy, alcoholism, drug addiction, gang and family violence, and malnutrition. Belen, since the flood, survives mainly on fish, rice, yucca, cassava, more expensive now since flooding destroyed crops.
Belen now is busy with rebuilding and the essential work of daily living. Many houses were utterly destroyed, but most still stand, in various stages of repair. We hear the sounds of hammering, sawing. We hear music blaring from inside houses, vendors calling out, the laughter of children; we smell the salted fish in the market, the whiff of the open sewer, mototaxi exhaust, sweat, perfume of the young women walking by. Belen is resilient, and resourceful.
In our opening and closing parades, led by the Peruvian Navy marching band, hundreds Belen’s people marched with the clowns, singing, dancing in the streets. Drums boomed, stilt walkers towered over clowns and children of all ages. Belen joined hands with clowns. We recognized old friends, made new ones. The clowns returned. Belen endures.
In past projects, great effort went into painting houses (more than 700 to date). But in response to the public health crisis, La Restinga, Bolaroja and Gesundheit decided to collaborate on a series of health interventions in Pueblo Libre. Teams of 2-3 clowns went house-to-house and street-by-street performing a 25 minute skit teaching disease prevention through hand washing, simple clean water strategies, covering of food, and trash pickup.
10 clowns in a pair of giant hands joined a troop of clown actors in street performances demonstrating the essential components of the intervention-hand washing, clean water, food hygiene and living space cleanliness.
Clown volunteers with backgrounds in psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry heard the stories of hundreds of people in a series of free mental health clinics, in the streets and a busy river port, in Iquitos, and in Belen, with the logistic support from Patty Webster and Rosa of Amazon Promise. A Gesundheit clown brought her exam table onto the streets and provided chiropractic care to hundreds of men and women drawing crowds of onlookers. Volunteers were impressed by the willingness of Belen residents to tell their stories of struggle, despair, and resilience, and their response to being heard, cared for.
Meanwhile, La Restinga and clown volunteers painted many small murals on latrines in Pueblo Libre, over open sewers, with vultures, rats, chickens looking on. Clown artists collaborated with scores of Pueblo Libre children in a series of murals on walls and buildings, bringing color to some of Belen’s darkest places.
Workshops for Belen children this year included dance, hoola hooping, murga (the high energy Argentinian music and dance form), origami, puppet making, drumming, and eco-theater. Through out each day, clowns roamed the streets of Belen, engaging in spontaneous improvisational play. Small groups of musicians made a joyful noise, parading in the streets throughout the community. Volunteer clowns this year were given numerous workshops on clowning, awareness, movement,, dance and the Belen worldview by Bolaroja, Gesundheit, La Restinga and Los Payas clowns. Drs. Carl Hammerschlag and Patch Adams shared their wisdom in 2 evening circles.
Clowns each day engaged in spontaneous improvisational play in the streets of Belen. Clowns crossed the Itaya River to play in the San Francisco community (rapidly growing from the influx of flood refugees from the jungle) , and throughout Iquitos in orphanages, a prison, a hospice, a hospital, a psychiatric hospital, a nursing home, an HIV residential center, and other care organizations.
GI clown volunteers living in Iquitos have developed an environmental education workshop for primary schoolchildren in Belen , "LOS PAYASOS AMBIENTALISTAS" in conjunction with the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) and their Environmental Volunteer Network. They also initiated a small business cooperative with Belen seamstresses “Made in Belen”, designing and producing clown clothing (see hechobelen.blogspot.com).
The Belen community center (CC) property was purchased by the Belen Network in 2009 made possible by a grant from the Fred Foundation. Adjoined by a piece of land donated by the Sector 6 community, the CC will provide space for volunteer activities in Belen, meeting spaces for community members, child and adult education, health care, prevention, art/music/theater classes, and pilot projects in home gardening, eco-friendly cooking, sanitation and clean water. If construction has not commenced by December 2013, the land will revert back into the hands of Sector 6. Clown volunteers, along with La Restinga, have made a commitment to raise the funds necessary to begin construction after the seasonal flood subsides June of next year. Some materials (the foundation poles, to be set 5 meters into the earth), have been purchased, and will support the large multi-level structure. $43,000 will build the foundation. If you are interested in helping this effort, please contact John Glick at email@example.com or 540-421-6421.
Thanks to Bolaroja, Gesundheit and La Restinga for staffing, organizing and conducting a complicated, multi-component volunteer program of events during the festival. We also are grateful for the guidance and support provided by Lucia Ruiz, whose efforts on behalf of Belen have inspired us all. Thanks also to Amazon Promise for their logistical support in providing the mental health clinics. Thanks to the Peruvian Navy Marching Band for their appearance in the opening day parade. Thanks to the Peruvian Air Force for getting the clowns to Iquitos and back to Lima (even with that 8 hour delay. I guess we are not the only clowns in transit!). Thanks to Wendy and Patch for the vision.
And most of all, thanks to the wonderful people of Belen. You inspire us to learn by your example , of the possibilities to do much with so little. We love you.
Photo credit: Claudia Cordova & Lars Adams