Earlier this year I fulfilled a long cherished dream to visit Peru. It was an interest and fascination with the land and the people, the Costa, the Selva and the Sierra, the Incas, their startling independant civilisation and the massive stones knit together. I felt for the Quechua in their struggles against their colonial masters and the indifference of the ruling class in Lima and I prayed for them during the dark days of the Shining path. But the reason for going was to keep a promise I made to our Peruvian son, Edwin. He lived with us 5 years ago and I always hoped to go, but it never seemed possible until this year. It was a trip ,I will never forget. We spent days in the dusty slopes of the pueblo jovenes in Southern Lima, a week in the jungle city of Tarapoto an idyllic few days in la chacra, a village deep in the Selva and an unforgettable trip to the Sierra to Cuzco, Macchu Pichu and Ayacucho .
It was a breathtaking experience, but I was totally unprepared for where this would lead. I had no idea what I would find. It was In a little hotel, up a narrow street in downtown Ayacucho, that I met Raquel Quicaña. Her family had suffered terribly during the civil war and I had read about her cousin Romulo Suane Quicaña a pastor and bible translator who was murdered along with four others by the Shining path as they were returning from a church dedication in 1989. Raquel was a nurse who ran a clinic inside the hotel and when we met, I felt I had known her all my life. It was as if she had been expecting me. She invited me to visit another clinic that she looked after which was 35 kilometres from the city and further up in the mountains.
The village of Quinua is famous as the site of the battle of Ayacucho when the patriots defeated the colonial army and Peru won her independence. Raquel had patients to see so with my companion we visited the battle site on a plateau overlooking the town with the city of Ayacucho far below and surrounded my the majestic Andes. It was a beautiful scene but the picturesque quality belied the desperate poverty of the people. The clinic a plain concrete building was desperate in its own way. Water was seeping between every wall and roof junction with green algae on the walls. There was no sealing of the buildings or protection from the elements. It was the middle of summer, but it felt quite cold and I shuddered to think what it would be like in winter. The medics described carrying out consultations wrapped in blankets with a hot water bottle at the feet and one on the lap. It was also desperately in need of accommodation for medics and patients on short stay. Some travel for days to get there. It is the only medical facility in the area and supported entirely by voluntary donations. When Raquel said “I hear that you are an architect… we have a problem with our building” I knew where this was going to lead and I knew I had to help.
So began a series of email discussions, plans and sketches, cost estimates and thinking through the feasibility of what could usefully be done. From the start there were challenges not least over effective communication, learning new construction terms and costings in Spanish. But there was also the deeper issue “what was I doing?” . In the controversy over short term mission, would this end up like so many ventures, doing more harm than good? Should I, Just because I could? Would it really help or was I simply feeling good about the idea of being needed? Was I coming in to do something locals could already do? Did they really need a white man to help? Were there no architects in Ayacucho ? It was important to ask all these questions. I had to face up to these challenges and examine my own motives. It would be easy to get carried away. It would be easy to spin the story and fulfil my own prophecy.
Sometimes, however, you first instinct is the right one. I knew in that moment on the rooftop among the puddles of water the debris of pipes and cables and makeshift solar panels, with the clouds receding over the Andes in the distance, I knew then, what I had to do and the later conversations with friends and family, the advice of experts and confidants and the support of so many people, simply confirmed it.
It seemed clear that I would need to make another visit, meet with folk involved, talk about the project, the practicalities of construction, the time scale, the costs and how it could be realised and what help we could usefully give. I needed to plan another trip across the Atlantic, south across the equator , down the coast from Lima and up into the Andes and that begins tomorrow.