As you might recall from my posts in September and October of last year, one of my recent projects has been bringing to life the business plan written by my friend Lorena for her brother Roberto's modern dance school. The business plan was written as a result of the "We are Entrepreneurs, We are Peru" youth business plan course and competition that Business Volunteers like me participated in from April until August of 2012. We won second place in our competition group, which didn't take a financial prize, but armed with a great plan we were able to find the financing elsewhere, with a organization called WorldConnect that finances Peace Corps projects.
The money from WorldConnect arrived in my account in early November. But other things also happened in November. One of Roberto and Lorena's other brothers, named Alex, had fallen ill and had been brought home to Monsefu to be cared for by his mother. He had been living in Lima with another brother and I had actually met him briefly when he came to see Roberto and Lorena present their business plan in the U.S. Embassy. I knew that Alex was sick and that the family was pretty solemn about it, with candles lit by pictures of saints and lots of family gatherings and prayers. But then my sitemate (also named Kimberly, and who lives with this family) said that she had seen thrown-up blood in the bathroom and was getting really freaked out. The family said he had a stomach infection because he wasn't eating good food in Lima (pretty typical non-medical diagnosis around here). They were bringing him to hospital visits but he was never hospitalized and wasn't getting better. Kimberly and I felt that this was very mysterious and concerning.
Things took a very scary turn and Alex was forced to be hospitalized-- he had seizure-like convulsions and became unresponsive. When Kimberly went with the family to visit him in the hospital, his head was turned to the side, eyes not blinking, staring unresponsively at the wall. I can't imagine how horrible this was for the family, but both Kimberly and I were both extremely alarmed and anxious about the seeming lack of understanding and lack of treatment of his illness.
Finally, some new details- the hospital couldn't find a bacteria and couldn't diagnose the virus, so he needed a spinal tap. I did a little bit of internet research and found that spinal taps are necessary to diagnose viral meningitis, which was what the hospital thought he might have. The family did not want him to undergo this exam because they believed he would be left comatose afterwards. Doctors are required to tell the family about the small risks of procedures like this, so the news of the small risk of paralysis combined with the extreme distrust of doctors and hospitals here (for legitimate, historical reasons) meant that the family didn't want to risk the procedure. Kimberly called me with this update and I told her that I had gone through a spinal tap at 8 years old. She asked if I could come talk to the family-- maybe between the advice from her retired nurse mother and from me, we could convince the family to do the spinal tap.
When I got to the house, the mood was desperately sad. Everyone, including his mother, thought that 27 year-old Alex was going to die. But, they seemed convinced by Kimberly, her mother's advice, and my story that they needed to go forward with the spinal tap. But the mother, Margarita, began to talk about how expensive the procedure and later treatment was going to be. This was the indirect, Peruvian way of asking me to help out financially. I offered a small amount of help (and had been planning on offering it before) and Margarita started crying to thank me. She left the room for a second and Kimberly and I began to talk. We talked about how there is an older brother in the family who seems to be very well-off financially and had been paying for all the hospital costs so far. It did seem suspicious that Margarita would ask me and Kimberly for money, because her kids seemed to have it covered just fine. I didn't know what to do; I didn't want to gift money unless the family really needed it, but I definitely didn't want to hold back if they needed money for this potentially life-saving procedure. I asked Margarita to check with her older son if they were going to come up short, and if yes then I would bring over the money.
My conversation with my host family left me even more torn. They kept using the word colaborar (collaborate)- Saying that if she's asking me to collaborate because of this difficult situation, then I should do it. But they seemed to be missing the point that it wasn't clear if they needed the money or not. I was concerned that Margarita, who is uneducated and comes from the "old world" of Monsefú, was seeing me as a foreign source of funds, especially since I had won the grant to finance the dance school in her house. Finally, I decided it was a cultural difference- people here "collaborate" with others who are going through a hard time not because that person can't pay for the hardship by themselves, but as a sign of support and solidarity. Very different from the American mentality.
Whether or not they needed the money, they paid for the spinal tap and began to treat his viral meningitis (Actually, it strongly appears that they didn't need the money, because the older brother funded a very significant Christmas renovation to the house and part of our Dance School). After two weeks of being on the brink of death, Alex recuperated. He's still not 100%, but he walks and talks fine now. Just this week, I had my first real conversation with him about what he went through. He said that he doesn't even remember leaving Lima, because he fell ill very suddenly there (with his only symptom being a sore neck), and his brother brought him to Monsefú when he came home to find Alex convulsing on the floor. The viral meningitis was complicated by gastritis. He said that his family had brought him to many different hospitals but they were told either that nothing could be done or that he needed a spinal tap-- and his family was too afraid of the spinal tap until it was almost too late. I don't blame the family for their mistrust of the doctors and the procedure, because I have heard some truly horrible stories of malpractice leading to death here in Peru... but at the same time, it is mind-blowing that he got so close to dying because of the fear of a procedure that I consider totally safe.
Once Alex was out of the hospital, I asked Roberto if he wanted to procede with the Dance School construction. He said absolutely yes, and we jumped into the project full-speed ahead. The grant money ran out quickly, and we also had not budgeted for a roof. He told me that he had a small amount of savings he had been keeping for the dream of building this dance school, so he would put that all in too. I asked him if he was sure and he gave me a shy smile and said, "This project is to benefit me and my family, so I think it's only correct that I make part of the investment."...he's such a muffin!!! His family, friends, and some local/regional businesses made very significant "collaborations" (there's that word again) to the project. The Grand Opening was a big success and after one full week of classes, the students are very content and the classes are full.
|Dance School BEFORE....|
|...Dance School AFTER!!|
AND... wait for it... I'm teaching dance for 3 to 8 year-olds! Oh yes. It's kind of awesome and kind of a disaster. Also doing exercise classes for women.
|Learning to LEAP!|
|Exercise for Women with my sitemate|
Needless to say, I've been through some crazy up's and down's with this family in the past few months. But it makes me so happy to see Roberto's small business becoming a success. In his testimony to WorldConnect, he said, "Directing this group and dance school brings daily challenges, but every challenge is a joy because the community is content with the results. Believing in myself has enabled me to find success." Sometimes I feel that working with artisans isn't the most sustainable of projects, because they are so resistant to change (only a little bit less so in my site) and might be a dying breed as their kids get better educated and look for professional jobs. So this new youth focus in my second year is very satisfying and hopefully will leave a lasting impact.
Full Photo Album for the Dance School: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100789884157626.2651297.1526375&type=1&l=b8ad87b87c