Colombia part IV: in the slums of Medellin

My final two weeks in Colombia were spent in Medellin, one of the biggest and most notorious cities in Colombia (drug lord Pablo Escobar used to live and reign here). In this very place I was going to work in a project in the slums called Pa’ Mi Barrio (“for my neighborhood/slum”). I found it through a German missionary, who (partly) runs this project, and during the rest of the time works as a schoolteacher with kids of the wealthiest families in the city. In this way he is trying to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
Now how did I end up with this guy? Well, in December 2010 I was visiting relatives who live in eastern Germany. On Sunday, in their church (where he’s originally from), he was there to hold a presentation about his work in Medellin. At the time I already knew I was going to Colombia so I asked if I could come by for a few weeks to help out with Pa’ Mi Barrio.
We kept in touch and on the 15th of January, over a year later, I arrived in Medellin.

view over Medellin

The slum where they’re running the project is called 8 de Marzo and when you learn more about it, your heart just might break.

The need here is incredible. Problems like drug- and alcohol abuse, poverty, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, homelessness and unemployment are widespread. It’s not that people live in cardboard boxes, most of them have stone houses, but the houses are small, in poor condition, and often inhabited by a lot of people. The kids who haven’t dropped out of school, go to a public school, but the classes are big and the teaching is poor. Many kids are likely to end up as a street vendor, that is, if they don’t join a gang or get (forced) into prostitution. While I was Medellin, a 14-year old girl was kidnapped by a taxi, and later her mother was told she was forced into prostitution.
The gangs of 8 de Marzo are at war with gangs of La Sierra, one of the bordering neighborhoods. Just last December there were shootings going on in the streets. So it wasn’t very safe for me to be there, and I couldn’t go outside by myself. I was told the gangs are always watching what is going on; sometimes they would send kids to spy on me and see what I was doing. But many people prayed for me while I was there, and nothing happened. Thank God!


Trailer of a documentary about La Sierra, also shows a bit of what these neighborhoods look like

The goal of Pa’ Mi Barrio is to have a positive impact on this neighborhood, through education and practical help, from a Christian perspective. It’s mostly aimed at kids; every weekday they offer a free lunch for underfed kids, and throughout the week they have a kids club with singing, games and education, and some workshops like guitar lessons. They also offer some educational programmes for young teens and adults.
I got to help out with all kinds of things: translating the project’s website into English, teaching some English and guitar skills to the kids, practical work like cleaning and organizing stuff and helping out with the activities.

"How are you?"

celebrating my goodbye with ice cream

trying to teach an English song to some teenagers (didn't work..)

Though it wasn’t always easy, I was really happy to be able to do something for these people, even if it was for a mere two weeks. And it was incredibly rewarding.
When we’d arrive, the kids would be waiting for us on the street, so happy to see us. We got responses from parents, saying things like: “Wow, my son greeted me in English today, this is amazing!”. Or one of the mothers of a teenage girl who had attended an event: “I haven’t seen my daughter this happy in ages!”. On my last day we had a little goodbye party with the kids, and some of them had written me a goodbye letter, so sweet!

a goodbye letter from one of the kids

During my stay I was living with my German friend (although one night he tried to let me sleep under a blanket of the German Football Association. Some friend..). He rents a room with a Colombian family, in one of the better parts of the city. It was nice to have my ‘own’ place and the family was incredibly hospitable.

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my German friend that I was staying with almost had me sleep underneath this blanket.. no way!

In the weekends I had some time to check out some of the sights that Medellin has to offer, like El Pueblito Paisa and the view over the city, Parque Arvi and the cable car going up there, a German castle, and a spot way up in the mountains where people go paragliding over Medellin (made me wish I’d gone paragliding here!). We also went out to the cinema and out to eat a few times. I discovered my favorite restaurant in Colombia here: Crepes & Waffles (they have a whole section of vegetarian dishes, and that in Colombia!). This almost saved Colombia’s reputation as having the worst food in South America. Almost, but not quite. I got to meet some awesome people, both Colombian and European, who are living and working in Medellin.

Medellin by night

IMG_1846.JPGhow did the cat get so fat?

Parque Arvi / Botero statue

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with friends

Medellin is a great city of incredible contrasts. There are very modern, organized and rich neighborhoods, with fancy malls, not much different from Western cities. Then there is the center, which is typically South American; busy, dirty, chaotic and ugly. Here I saw more people living on the streets than in any city on this continent. And then there are the slums..
Though it’s much safer than in the days of Escobar, it’s still not without its dangers. One night, while sitting in someone’s apartment we heard some gunshots outside. We looked and saw the police coming, later the ambulance and then a hearse to pick up a person who had died. We’d driven through that street just an hour earlier. To me it was surreal, like watching a movie. I couldn’t process it as reality.

Medellin - view from my friends apartmentsome fancy mall in Medellin.. with an ice skate rink?!

The area where the shooting took place / a fancy mall

It’s been quite an intense experience, but I feel like God was working in it all. Everything seemed to come together and that was amazing.

At the end of January I moved on to Central America. It’s possible to do this ‘overland’, not actually crossing the Darien Gap (which is extremely dangerous), but with some short boat rides along the Carribean coast, and then a flight to Panama City. But I wasn’t really up for this, so I decided to be lazy and fly straight from Medellin into Panama City.

More pictures at https://picasaweb.google.com/112053475507360621124/LatinAmerica201112Colombia

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6 Responses to “Colombia part IV: in the slums of Medellin”

  1. Anja Gielen Says:

    Wow… we zijn dankbaar dat je niets ergs is overkomen! Je bent een zegen geweest.
    We wensen je weer een goede tijd toe!
    Groetjes,
    Erik & Anja

  2. Li@ Says:

    Ademloos heb ik jouw verslag gelezen Edwin en ik krijg steeds meer bewondering voor jouw avontuurlijke reis!! Ook bijzonder te lezen hoe jij opnieuw tot zegen mocht zijn daar waar mensen zo hulpeloos lijken te zijn! Wat zul je ongelooflijke indrukken hebben opgedaan en ik hoop dat je dit allemaal een plek kunt geven. Nu op naar jouw volgende doel Panama City en opnieuw: “Heer leidt mij……”
    Gods zegen en warme groeten
    Li@

  3. Tim Says:

    Mooi verslag weer Ed! Geweldig om die dankbare reacties te krijgen van je werk in Medellin. Ga je ook nog een kijkje nemen bij het Panama kanaal?

  4. Jelmer Says:

    Hey Edwin

    Wow wat een verslag weer, jij gaat ook niets uit de weg. Goed om te lezen dat je het allemaal veilig hebt overleefd en heel veel succes bij het laatste stukje (toch ongeveer wel?) van je reis!

  5. Liza Zandee Says:

    beste Edwin!

    Mooie ervaringen zeg!
    Nog een mooie tijd gewenst.

    Liza

  6. Anoeska Says:

    Ha Edwin,
    Mooi om te lezen. Ik kan me voorstellen dat alle nood ontzettend op je afkomt. Er is zoveel te doen….En…wat een grappig filmpje! Ik geloof dat jij echt wel een goede leerkracht zou zijn!:-)Goede reis terug, strakjes en ik denk dat ik je wel zie in Adam, einde van de maand!
    groetjes, Anoeska

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