I still vividly remember the first day I went to the primary school in the community of Bena Jema. It was a hot, steamy Monday that I went with my colleague and fellow Eco-selva volunteer Anna, who had already been working for one month in the school.
The primary school in Bena Jema
I was very nervous and at the same time very happy and excited. I had many questions in my mind: What would the work be like? How would I get on with the kids? What tasks would I have to do?
As soon as we arrived and got out of the motortaxi, about twenty children came up to us. “Hello, teacher”, they yelled in chorus. They greeted Anna, who they already knew, with hugs and kisses.
“Who is the new teacher? Who is she?”, they asked with a lot of curiosity. The children wanted to know many things: “What is your name? And where do you come from?” All of them were really interested in the arrival of a new person at the school and at the same time seemed a little timid with me. But that did not last long, and already after only a week, I was being greeted with great happiness and lots of hugs and kisses.
I have now been in Pucallpa ten months during which time I have continued to work in the small primary school in Bena Jema. I have become used to daily life at the school – now I know both the children and the teachers well.
With some of the children from third grade during their mid-morning break time
For the first two months, it was hard work for me to get used to my new life outside Germany. The work at the school was not easy, especially as I had to adapt to many new things in a world completely different from the one I was used to. On the other hand, I learned an enormous amount.
I was often thinking about doing something further in the school, apart from the classes I was helping with, that would give me the feeling of contributing something useful in the lives of the children, which would be in the area of both learning and fun. Finally I had an idea I could put into practice.
One of the biggest problems I had seen over time was the lack of a healthy and balanced food intake for the children.
Sometimes, the children neither had breakfast before coming to school at 7am nor ate in the school mid-morning break. A list was stuck to one of the school walls naming the mothers of the children at the school who supposedly should come on different days to prepare food at the school. Sadly, this system was not working well.
Many times the mothers did not come because they did not realise it was their turn or because they had other things to do. When they came, they mainly gave out milk, and sometimes prepared simple meals like noodles or rice with canned tuna. However, I never saw that the children received vegetables or fruits. This was due principally to lack of money.
Children waiting in a queue for the food that the mothers at the school were preparing
The school receives some basic food stuff from the regional government, but it is not enough. The government provides principally basic food like milk, oats, and rice or noodles. These are also what the children mainly eat at home – a typical dish could be rice with banana and egg. Also, depending on the income of the family, the children ate chicken and/or fish. Occasionally, they ate fruit, but almost never consumed vegetables.
Because of this, the children were not used to eat other kinds of foods. Many of the children did not like vegetables. Some of them had never before come across vegetables like carrots or beetroot.
This led to some children having a food intake very lacking in vitamins, which can lead to serious health problems, even though a great variety of fruits and vegetables are available in the Peruvian Amazon.
From considering the kinds of foods the children were eating, and the lack of certain foodstuffs to ofer a more balanced diet, the idea arose to do a project based on nutrition. This would have a theoretical part as well as a practical part and would be based on the preparation of a healthy breakfast at the school once or twice a week.
in December, we experimented by cooking one time with the children to see how it would work out. That day we ate potatoes with egg, beetroot and carrot
After the long three month school holidays over Xmas, Anna and I talked with the teachers to hear their opinion about the idea of a nutrition project. One of the three teachers was especially interested in the theme of healthy food for the children and was a great help for the project.
The school has three classrooms for six grades, each of which has two grades combined of 30-50 students. We decided to prepare a meal once or twice a week for each classroom at a time.
Normally, we took out three or four children from the class we were cooking for so they could help us to cook. Of course, we did not want the children to lose the time they would have spent learning in the classroom, so generally their teachers took out the most attentive students who would suffer least from the time they missed in the more formsl environment of the classroom. Sometimes, I chose the children to help cook who could best remember what they had done in the previous class.
Generally, we prepared a simple breakfast. We made a fuit or vegetable salad, or we cooked potatoes with other ingredients, and occasionally rice with vegetables.
The main aim of the project was to give the children a better idea of what was a healthy diet.
Leydi, Celia y Fran (cooking assistants from second grade)
The other aim was to help increase the capacity of the children to concentrate as I had realised that many times this was at a very low level. One of the reasons for the lack of concentration seemed to be that the children felt hungry – especially those who had not eaten all morning.
I am sure that the children have learned a lot doing this project. Now they want to do everything without my help and they say to me: “Now I know how to do this teacher, you showed me how to do it!”.
Estéfani y Mateo (sixth grade)
I still want to improve many things, for example the teaching of the nutritional part of the project. That would give both the children and the teachers a better undesratnding of what we are trying to accomplish with this project.
Also, many times the children did not understand why we always wanted them to eat fruit and vegetables. I still have to find a way to explain this better.
Teaching the “food pyramid”
Another part of the project to improve would be greater involvement and integration of the mothers. I think that it would be very useful to prepare the food together with them so they also understood what was a more complete and healthy breakfast that offered a balanced nutrition to their children.
As I am going to leave Pucallpa soon, as my year here is nearly finished, I am not going to be able to put these improvements into practice. However, I am hoping and planning that the next volunteer who comes for a year this August to replace me will take the opportunity to use the funds that remain, which I found for this project, and can continue it benefiting from the good foundations that Anna and I have established.