Not for the first time I am in Santa María de Fé and, not for the first time, I am reading The Magician´s Nephew, by C S Lewis. That´s the story in which Polly and Digory move between our world and other worlds, including Narnia, by jumping into different ponds.
Perhaps because this time I am reading it in Spanish, it gradually dawned on me that Santa María is like The Wood Between The Worlds because I have only been here about a week and already I am finding it hard to remember a time before Santa María or what I was going to do next. All I am really concious of is that I am here. I am teaching one or two English classes a day and we have got the instrument repair classes up and running.
Santa María has lots of young people learning to play the violin, etc, but up until now, it had nobody who could carry out basic repairs to the instruments. So I have been going round, meeting people, talking about the situation and encouraging them to have a go. And the upshot is that we have a small, very mixed, group of people doing exactly that and we are all having a lot of fun!
Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in South America and since the collapse of the local industry a few years ago, Santa María has been amongst the most deprived. If you have a spare £10M – or more realistically probably £20M that you would like to throw at the problem, you could probably change everybody´s life here in Santa María but without eduacation and employment it will all run down again and all the people will have left is the resentment at being patronised by your handout. You can´t measure poverty in terms of new cars or flashy electronic goods – people here don´t have any realistic expectation of those – and in the household where I am staying, my landlady cooks in big saucepans on an open fire in the garden because she prefers it that way. Poverty is about whether anybody in the household has a job and whether there is money coming in to supplement the self-sufficiency of the fit and able who are subsistence-farmers in their big back yards. Poverty is about the sick and disabled having no food in the house and the poor selling everything that they own in order to try and get by. But poverty is also about the spirit of community because you can be sure that, in the evening, the neighbours of the sick, hungry woman will ladle out an extra bowl of the wonderful, nutritious Paraguayan food and set an extra place at their table.
This spirit of community goes back a long way. At least fifty years ago, the church promoted the idea of Christian community where people would band together to support fairness and justice in response to oppression from the dictatorial governments prevalent in South America at the time. In Paraguay this was taken as a direct threat by the military governent and there were terrible atrocities committed against the the population by the armed forces; atrocities which in Santa María have been faithfully documented in their “Bayeux Tapestry” made even more chilling as the innocent style of the artwork contrasts starkly with the subject matter.
And the spirit of community is very much what the Santa María Education Fund is all about. It supports the local “technical college” providing a free education with recognised qualifications. It helps students study for university degrees, supports a local workshop cooperative and has helped the town start to develop a tourist business with a hotel and a network of guest houses. New jobs and new opportunities are spreading through the community, and the community is spreading the benefits.
So, I am very happy here in The Wood Between The Worlds, where the past is a distant memory and the future doesn´t feel as if it is about to happen to me anytime soon. And I am happy to share the things that I have brought with me with a community that shares everything with me.
Eventually it will be time to move on again but Santa María is a place that stays with you wherever you are. It has brought me back for this, my second visit, and I feel that it will bring me back again.