A tiny enclosed home sits off the sidewalk that borders the large central soccer field that is the main feature of El Chino, one of a number of small river towns on the Tahuayo River, about twelve hours by river bus from Iquitos, Peru. Deep in the Amazon, these towns were once thriving centers, until over fishing and hunting, and more recently, climate change caused damaging floods have caused economic challenges.
Villages like theses have long been populated by people with no access to education at best beyond kindergarten or a few years of elementary school, leaving most illiterate. Most farm and fish, and up until recently the women gave birth to between eight and twelve children. Those children went on to poverty guaranteed by illiteracy, also fueled by alcohol driven by cheap rum easily obtained locally.
Until very recently most of the river towns had no access to a high school education. That has changed. Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not-for-profit dedicated to educational, social, economic and health issues of the river communities, has been working hard to change all that. For the last twenty years, this tiny, tireless Peruvian and her network of sponsors has been focused on bringing a special kind of transformation and support to the people of the Tahuayo while ensuring that their customs and way of life are not lost in the process.
A brand new high school recently opened up in a clearing in the jungle just behind El Chino, a modest village on a remote tributary of the Amazon River about twelve hours by river boat from Iquitos. A new Artesan Center stands proudly in the middle of the village. Small new stores have popped up in houses around the town. However, not everyone has benefitted, although Dolly continues to work hard at touching all the lives she possibly can.
Dolly and I walk up a plank into the wide open home of Judith, a thin, frail women of indeterminate age (she thinks 32 but isn’t sure) whose four children hide behind posts or wander around the yard. A smoking stove is in one corner. There are no walls, and biting flies attack us at will. The elements will pound into this house during rainy season. The roof leaks. Judith’s husband is rarely sober enough to repair it so the family is miserable during storms.
A seven month old baby rocks in a hammock with an net over it, the latest of her children.
Dolly explains to me that the husband is a problem. At times he beats his wife. When I reach out to greet her, rather than a hug around the neck and a kiss on the cheek typical of other wives, she avoids eye contact and barely touches my hand. She casts her eyes downward. Her voice, when she speaks at all, is a dry, hoarse whisper, sounding like an 80 year old woman. She sits curled into herself.
The house is a riot of trash and piles of clothing heaped onto clotheslines strung across the middle.
Judith’s husband has at times worked for Dolly, but she has offered to use his wages to buy needed household supplies for the family so that he doesn’t drink them all away. He’s at times agreed. That periodically means a meager income for this family of six.
The real “father”of this endangered family is the eight year old boy, who today is out on the Tahuayo River fishing to provide food, as the father is nowhere to be found. If not for this man-child, there would be nothing to eat.
Dolly understands that while Judith and her husband may be beyond her help, the children are not. She can and will influence their lives with potential sponsorship and that is why she continues to show up and support this family. Even where there appears to be no hope, there is always hope.
Judith squats on the floor (there is no furniture but for a hammock and a worn bench) near her baby. She avoids eye contact and speaks with the numbness that addresses the extremity of her life.
Dolly explains that she refuses to consistently bring food or give money to this family unless the father reciprocates with work, for it would simply teach the father that he need do nothing and his family would be provided for. That’s the critical lesson of welfare. As long as there are others willing to give constant handouts that allow people to avoid responsibility, there will be freeloaders who will take advantage.
In addition, she has been clear with all her male employees: you beat your wives, you can’t work for me. The wages offered by the Tahuayo Lodge are the best and most steady in the area. The work here is prized by most. To lose it in a fit of drunken rage could devastate a family, which is why she uses this as a social lever. It fits in with the notion of earning for pay.
It’s a battle of methods at times. One only needs to go to certain African countries to see where too much tourist and NGO charity and handouts have backfired to highly aggressive panhandling and “tourist taxes,” where a traveler in a safari car is charged an extra payment at a makeshift gate for “seeing our town.” The town might be a complete dump of cattle manure and foul smells, but this is the outgrowth of handouts and the flaunting of wealth. In other countries where it’s banned, people want to work for that same money, and would be embarrassed to beg.
This last is the value that Dolly hopes to instill. Even where desperation grinds out daily and women and kids suffer, and sometimes the women are part of the problem, she won’t give in to temptation. She demands change, creates work opportunities and works hard to establish the effort for wages or tips value system that can be passed along to children so that the poverty cycle can be broken. Otherwise women like Judith, imprisoned in an open shack, her children hunger-endangered and lost, would be the norm.
Even in the challenging situation where Judith sits with her children, Dolly understands that Angels of the Amazon has critical work to do. Here even more so than where parents are enthusiastic supporters of her efforts. Judith’s daughter peeks at us from behind one of the columns of the house. These children have choices, Dolly knows, and getting them to school, given them options will break the cycle. That’s where Angels of the Amazon makes its greatest inroads- ensuring that the children of the Tahuayo know that someone like Dolly is willing to fight hard for their future. Sometimes that is the only thing that provides them with hope- the tiny tornado that is Dolly Beaver, and the network of support of Angels of the Amazon that she built.