Iquitos (population 325,000), near the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru, is the world's largest city accessible only by air or water. Its poorest district, Belen (population 65,000) serves as a riverport for lumber, charcoal, fish, vegetables, fruits, and produce from the surrounding Amazon jungle. The Belen neighborhood nearest the river, Pueblo Libre (population 15,000), is the poorest neighborhood in Iquitos and has been described by Peruvian government officials as "the horror of Peru." High population density, unemployment, lack of clean water and sanitation, and inadequate housing, healthcare and educational services create a setting where family and community violence, alcoholism, malnutrition, HIV, teen pregnancy, prostitution, child sexual exploitation and many other sequellae of poverty and oppression are rife.
The Belen Project, begun in 2006 by Gesundheit! Institute (G!I) and Bolaroja Clown Doctors of Peru (BR), was developed after a clown visit to Belen in 2005. Working in collaboration with Pueblo Libre citizens, G!I and BR, a project was enacted April 2006 in an attempt to address the many complex problems of Pueblo Libre with simple low cost interventions. In 2007, the project was joined by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and University of Peru Cayetano Heredia Medical School (UPCH). A two day meeting in Iquitos, underwritten by G!I established a network of organizations with an interest in helping Pueblo Libre. The 2008 Project was an expression of the comprehensive reach of this network and as in previous years, was based on the action of clowning as a means to more direct engagement in collaborative relationships with Pueblo Libre citizens, in the contexts of work and play. The red nose gave us access to Pueblo Libre hearts and minds.
Clowning, as it is referred to by G!I and BR, is best described as spontaneous improvisational play, which allows creative engagement and collaboration between participants. In the 25 year experience of G!I, in clowning in war zones, natural disasters, refugee camps, and impoverished communities around the world, we have experienced the joy of collaborative play and work in activating the optimistic and creative potential in traumatized and oppressed individuals and communities. Never before had we returned to a community as we have with Belen. Never before had we attempted community development on such a scale.
Our collaborative successes in house painting and art workshops with children during the 2006 and 2007 project visits also have allowed us to expand on our mutual goals. Painting every house seems more possible. The growing sense of solidarity and trust between volunteers from inside and outside Pueblo Libre is palpable. Specific 2008 goals included painting 133 houses on Calle Miramar; providing 35 workshops in art, dance, theater and also nutrition, HIV counseling, birth certificate registration, and more; clowning in hospitals, hospices, HIV centers, prisons, nursing homes; painting a large mural in collaboration with local residents; and for the first time, establishment of a "Healthy Belen Festival", offering many events and workshops in a large public space in Pueblo Libre, free to the community. The Belen Municipality provided logistical and material support (a stage, sound system, tents, communications) as well as ladders and scaffolds for painting, and a screen for the presentation of a free movie after dark each night for the Pueblo Libre children, most of whom had never seen a movie on big screen before.
August 1-12, 91 volunteer clowns from 14 countries, through G!I and BR, gathered together in Iquitos to begin the work and play. After an orientation and a parade through Pueblo Libre, the project commenced in earnest on August 2. Teams of clowns painted or clowned or participated in workshops or mural painting in any given morning, with a lunch break and siesta and then again in the mid afternoons. Meetings in the evenings in small "family" groups helped inform clown volunteers of the next day's what, where, and when. Days were hot and humid. Water was plentiful and shade welcome. Pueblo Libre streets were busy with clowns carrying ladders and basins or buckets of paint, and with the day to day activities of residents; children playing or helping family members and clowns paint; clowns and residents standing on ladders or scaffolds with others holding buckets for painters; the paint barn a hub of activity and a place of rest, in shade; mothers breastfeeding or selling food or cooking; teens and young adults playing volleyball or soccer; men painting or working, like beasts of burden carrying produce from the river to upper Belen. There was leisure time and a more relaxed pace to life here in Pueblo Libre where people walk slowly, sit and talk, take naps. Laundry is done by hand in basins, clothes hanging on the line. Food was cooked over open fires inside and outside houses. Open sewers crisscrossed the streets. The streets filled with people strolling in the cool of the day when the sun goes down.
The streets also were dangerous at times. Violence is an everyday event in Pueblo Libre, especially at night, between gangs. A melee broke out between rival political factions near the workshop sites. Near the paint barn, police fired gunshots into the air to clear the intersection of a mob forming in response to a drug arrest. Pickpockets were a constant concern, and we only lost one camera and one cell phone, thanks to the sharp eyes and help from Pueblo Libre citizens. We were joined by tourists and travelers in Iquitos, who painted and clowned with us and who will widen the Belen Project network. We were joined by local volunteers from Iquitos, many of them students wanting to join the fun and the work and the dream.
Two days before leaving, the central network of organizations in the Belen Project met. Amazon Promise, La Restinga, Selva Amazonica, Bolaroja, PAHO, Gesundheit! Institute, Belen Municipality together brought into focus the different lines of influence and participation of the last ten days. Specific goals for the future were identified and plans for carrying out these goals were made. By no means comprehensive, this process coheres the available resources into identifiable realistic actions, addressing problems such as literacy (just 30% of Pueblo Libre children can read); reproductive health, nutrition, HIV education and prevention, healthcare, environmental health initiatives, violence prevention, community organization, and more. A community center will be created in Pueblo Libre by PAHO, offering a much needed place for community adults and teens to meet, work, and play. Collaboration between network participants has deepened and continues to evolve. Amazon Promise and PAHO have plans to bring full time healthcare to PL. Scholarship programs for PL children, keeping them in school for one more year, are in progress (Last year 70 children received scholarships from the 2007 Belen Project group). Best of all, we engaged the spirit of the community of PL which activated an atmosphere of hope and optimism.
The Belen Project has kept every promise it has made to the people of Belen, and we now have their trust. There is progress happening in health care, clean water and sanitation, literacy, and community development, as other organizations join the clowns and Belen in the fun and spirit of world making.
With simple tools and open hearts and minds, we have applied ourselves conscientiously. We have made mistakes and we have learned from these mistakes. We have done this at very low cost, directing limited resources with increasing precision, based on an understanding of where specific needs can be met, an understanding created through dialogue, by clowning, by friendship, by play.
Inquiries concerning the Belen Project can be made by contacting John Glick MD at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 540-421-6421. Tax deductible donations can be made by check (made out to Gesundheit! Institute/Global Outreach) and mailed to John Glick MD 15250 Hammer Lane Elkton, Va 22827.
$45 keeps a child in school for one year, $100 sponsors a single mother in a microeconomic enterprise, and larger donations can help build a community center/clinic. $50,000 will completely fund a comprehensive 2-week mission for 45 clowns.
The Belen Project is planning to return in August 2009, with a 7 day mission December 2008.
Our specific goals:
Watch a 10-minute documentary about this project, "Art, a Bridge to Health in Belen, Iquitos, Peru" by the Pan American Health Organization here.