On Monday 24th October, nearly 3 weeks ago now, the volunteers at Fundacion Mariposas Amarillas (FMA) made a joint decision to close the school in Barrio Oasis for two weeks. We had had a meeting the previous Friday and people felt that certain issues needed to be addressed and resolved to ensure the long-term sustainability of FMA. Such issues included rules, discipline, incentives, punishments, timetables and setting up a Colombian board of directors, to name but a few.

So for two weeks, we brain stormed, put pen to paper and thought of the best ways to resolve these issues. It wasn’t easy and at times I felt we didn’t make any progress at all. For example, the children’s behaviour is probably the biggest obstacle we face. As some volunteers had their own rules to others we decided it would be a good idea to come up with 4 basic rules (No grito, no corro, no golpeo a otra persona and no robo cosas) which would be constant throughout the whole school. By that way, a new volunteer could start and keep to a set of rules right from the start which the kids were used to. The timetable that Metka, a lady with over 30 years teaching experience in Slovakia, has drawn up is also simple. But again it allows new volunteers to fit in right from the start and see that, for example, on Tuesday we do Maths and on Wednesday we do art.

We also gave the school a new lick of yellow paint, its current coating slightly faded and covered in bits of graffiti. As soon as we arrived in the Barrio the kids rushed over to us, eager to see  why we were carrying a large pot. As soon as we opened the paint pot carnage ensued, every kid wanting to lend a hand even though we only had two rollers. But a hand full of smaller brushes were found and 3 hours later, plus a few skirmishes later, the school had been re-painted, yellow and white paint everywhere.

The following day we went back into the Barrio to continue our “spring clean”. Like normal we took a taxi, but as we approached the entrance to the Barrio our driver slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. Up ahead the residents of Barrio Oasis had put up a road block consisting of large branches, tyres and rotting sofas, across La Via Alterna, an important ring road around the centre of Santa Marta. In the middle of this road block stood a yellow, green and white stripped flag saying “Junta de Accion, Comunal del Barrio Oasis” in large black capital letters. I spoke to a lovely old man with a patchy, wispy white beard who explained to me that the residents of Barrio Oasis were fed up with the lack of suitable drainage in the Barrio. Too often, he said, it tips it down with rain and the water lies stagnant for days in the streets and very close to people’s houses, attracting swarms of mosquitoes come night-time. The road block had been set up at 6am that morning and despite a visit from the newly elected Governor of Santa Marta and numerous police officers, they planned to keep on protesting – The road block eventually came down on Wednesday, 6 days later.

Panos and I also walked around the  Barrio inviting the parents and their children to the re-opening of the school on Monday 31st October. It was a fascinating walk. We scrambled up steep outcrops of rock and up hills into parts of the Barrio I had never seen before. The houses on the edge of the Barrio, a lot poorer than the ones in the centre, made of odds and ends of wood and tough plastic sacks, cling to the hillside, supported underneath by tyres.

This Monday, which turned out to be a Bank Holiday as well, and the re-opening of the school had arrived. At first 3 ladies arrived. “Great” I thought, Panos and I had handed out 60 invitations the previous week………but slowly but surely, as word made its way around the Barrio, more people turned up and by the end we had at least 15 adults. Of these, only one was a man. Oscar gave a speech, encouraging them to send their kids to FMA and for the kids to respect the school and volunteers. We also asked the parents to fill in a form with their children’s details so that we can have a better record of who is attending.

I have been put in charge of Class 2, the middle age group. This will definitely be a challenge but a challenge I am up for. There are between 8 – 12 kids in this class, but one or two notoriously naughty ones. Tuesday was my first class with them and to start with everything went according to plan. But half way through things went downhill quickly. The exercise of drawing what they wanted to be when they were older was obviously a lot easier for some than it was for others. The ones who finished first, grew restless as they waited for the others to finish. Before I knew it there was fighting and a lot of racial expressions aimed at one girl in particular. Coming to lessons prepared with at least 6 different ideas is going to be paramount because once these kids realise you are flagging and struggling for ideas, they will take advantage of you and this is when things become difficult and disruptive.

Thursday has become sports day too. Everyone knows I love my sport. But in previous weeks we hadn’t done many sport related activities – relying on a Colombian P.E teacher to turn up was a waste of time –  except for the old game of football, of course. Two Australians, Ed and Jess, however, have set up a sports programme, not just in Barrio Oasis but also in Barrio Fundadores and one other Barrio through another charity. For two hours, the kids and volunteers played Bull Dog, running races, ten pin bowling with half full water bottles, basketball and football, occasionally pausing for a water break. Unfortunately my game of throwing and catching a tennis ball, which always went down a treat in Tonbridge School 2nd XI cricket practices, wasn’t as successful as I thought it would be! But there is always next week! We want these games to encourage the kids to work as a team, be honest, play hard but at the end of the day, have fun – the idea that “It’s not the winning that counts  but the participation” (Thanks for teaching me that Dad!) During one of the drinks breaks, I also gave an interview to two journalists from Hoy Diario de Magdalena, Santa Marta’s daily newspaper, about volunteering with FMA. Watch this space……!

In other news, the Colombian Army shot dead Alfonso Cano, the leader of FARC, last Friday 4th November. I didn’t realise this until Sunday when Rene told me. Having said that I did notice a much stronger military presence in Aracataca, the town where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born, and Santa Marta over the weekend. What Colombians now want is for Cano’s successor to open talks with the government about demobilization. We will wait and see.

Hasta Luego,