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Music, Health and Art in the Jungle: Parts 1 & 2

Part 1: The Community

It was about 6 AM when we all were awakened to the sweet sound of a 4-year-old blowing full heartedly in the neon- colored, high pitched recorder flute. Flauta dulce, translated as sweet flute, didn’t seem like the most fitting title in that moment, but it still brought out a smile amongst the crew at Proyecto Iquitos. A smile that was filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment that we were a part of something good that might just leave an impact in this small little town called Santa Clara Primera Zona A rather peaceful community just about 100 meters off of the shorelines of the Amazon River in Peru.

Living in a community with no access to running water and only about 8 hours of electricity a week created a big change in pace amongst us highly stimulated, goal oriented and stressed out Westerners. While the people living in the jungle definitely have their own challenges, the way of life here generally brings a sense of calmness, connection, and community.

Just like one would expect in rural and socially isolated towns, news travels like wildfire. Everyone is very well acquainted or even related (people meet their partners usually in football events when the towns gather to compete against each other). Sharing seems to be a common ground in maintaining relationships, so it is customary for neighbors to drop over with papayas or bananas as a gift, or to ask for some of the fresh mangoes that had just ripened from the tree in your backyard. When the overgrown path leading into the jungle and farms needs some clearing, the community arranges a ‘minga’ ( in Quetchua, this means something similar to gathering).

At 5:30 AM you will see grandparents, parents, and children all alongside the path with shovels, machetes and their bare hands ambitiously working at full speed to clear vegetation and overgrowth. At the same time, kids are outside playing until late, everything seems safe and sound. Their banking system is another illustration of their self-organization and communal solidarity. This simple but effective arrangement consists of borrowing and lending chickens, barrels of chicha (a popular, slightly alcoholic, spiced corn or wheat-based drink) and of course money. The degree of self-organization is quite impressive, and needless to say community seems to be everything out here.

As beautiful and unique as these communities are and can be, living in isolation with little to no regulation or law can have serious societal implications. Enforcing human rights and providing proper education on topics such as sexuality violence and addiction is complicated, and as a result often non-existent. Due to the lack of schooling outside of didactic, outdated methods; a few organizations have formed with the intention of tackling this challenge. One of these organizations is Proyecto Iquitos, a school founded in 2017 with the mission to provide a free, arts- based education to the youth of Santa Clara primera zona. The school started off providing a basic shelter with a room, kitchen, and school serving little to no students, but it has grown substantially and now counts 30-50 students per day. The auto-sustainable, free alternative after-school program has gained so much popularity that, thanks to donations, Proyecto Iquitos has been able to expand, constructing another building with more land and space for the students to utilize.

Drawing upon frameworks utilized in alternative education, such as Freire and Montessori, the founders along with several volunteers provide daily workshops usually covering arts, science, dance, and theatre. Typical schooling in the area focuses on traditional didactic methods, which are easier to implement and sustain, but somewhat outdated. As a result one may find students commonly skipping or not participating in class. Having identified this gap in education, the founders also recognized that kids as young as 3 have to work to help support their families (fishing, farming) and that education had to be fun and exciting to work as an incentive for students to voluntarily come. Over time, this organization has become a part of the community, a safe space where students and parents are eager to participate and contribute their gifts.

When I first arrived, I offered simple workshops on music and health. Having a background in these fields, I was impressed with how well these workshops were received by the curious students and parents. This is when it dawned on me how necessary it was to continue this work, but we had limited funds to expand on what I was currently providing. That’s when I realized we needed to set up a fundraiser and we needed to do it fast. We needed materials for DIY instruments, ready made low-cost instruments, music lessons, and health and music focused lesson plans.

We were amazed and touched by the level of support and generosity we received as a result of the fundraiser we held. The initial target of 500 $ was raised and surpassed, we ended up receiving funding that nearly totaled 2000 $, and so ‘Music, health and art in the jungle’ was born.

Part 2: The Project

Just like anything in life, light always comes with darkness and this same concept applies to remote towns like Santa Clara. The more time you spend in a place, the more you get to really know the internal politics of locations and people.

Outside of superficial problems such as constant lice infestations, or unknown jungle skin growths, there are also deeper and darker issues that wallow seemingly unacknowledged within these towns. With hospital visits being unaffordable and the boat ride being too long of a way, homebirth is not only valued but the only option. Birth, however, if not accompanied with a skilled traditional birth attendant and/or emergency kit, is a process that can jeopardize women’s lives.

Additionally, the elderly and young receive little to no medical care when ill, so communities rely heavily on neighbors or health promoters to share or buy medication (to my surprise people seemed to believe in Western medicine over their own traditional methods of treatment). If you’re lucky, one of your neighbors might be able to lend you some medication for your sick child, or if you’re pregnant, you might be able to receive help from your cousins’ friend who lives a few communities down and is a traditional birth attendant. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch the lack in support from topics such as mental health and emotional development. Besides having minimal needs met on the physical side of health, children and youth seem to grow up in a cycle where dangerous societal issues such as alcoholism, violence, and machismo take an underlying predominant role in their communities.

These rather complex and difficult to discuss challenges and the idea of incorporating arts to bring light and fun into complicated, yet important topics is why ‘Music, health and art in the jungle’ was created. In light of making the efforts of the project more relatable, I’ll list a few examples:

When the town throws their yearly anniversary celebration, parents proudly present their daughters in some type of beauty contest and residents vote on the most beautiful one, who then is awarded the prize of having to dance with members in the town. Having a beautiful daughter is considered honorable, which just encourages this tradition and motivates families to continue on volunteering their daughters. By the time dancing continues, most of the people at the celebration are drunk, most notably teenagers and older men.

Being raised in a context where machismo and patriarchy seem to be an engrained aspect of culture, men and boys aren’t just expected to replicate behavior observed at home, but to also to pass it onto their peers and following generations. This type of behavior may allow for public shaming and abuse towards girls and women, which then feeds into a cycle of oppression. At the core of this, to list a few, is the possible lack of education, proper role models, and mental instability.

Needless to say, inappropriate photos and wandering hands are a common occurrence and the winning contestant is simply expected to deal with it. This experience was so severe that one of the girls, who won the year beforehand stayed in at home and didn’t partake in the event out of fear that she might win again and would have to endure the same overly sexualized behavior. Besides having beauty contestants exposed to heavy amounts of groping, children starting at the age of 6 also lip synch Reggaeton (often with highly sexual content) and perform rather sexual dances in mini skirts and crop shirts. When persistently asking whether we could perform a self-made piece for the event, we were disregarded and treated rather like an annoyance. After being delayed and postponed for hours, we were canceled as a whole. Fueled and determined to not let this sort of passive rejection shut us down, we ultimately went on stage right when the event ended and performed our piece anyways.

One of my older students, J. age 21, ended up standing up for his mother when his belligerently drunk father was yelling at her. In the heat of anger, his father struck him with the dull side of his machete to break up the argument and what I assume to establish dominance. Thank goodness no one was injured and this action resulted in the man being thrown into “prison”. This conception of prison consisted of a semi-open-box like structure, located on the outskirts of the town, supervised by two volunteers with self-made uniforms labeled “policia”.

This form of self-organized justice, comprised of a penalty of around 10 hours of prison time without fluids or food, seemed to be fitting to most of the community members. The son however, having attended a few workshops on violence we held at the school a few weeks before, approached me with a few written lyrics covering four types of violence (physical, psychological, sexual, and economic violence). Amazed by his proactive and creative drive to express himself, I then encouraged him to continue writing the song/rap he had showed me. Within 2 days we finished the piece, just in time to perform it at the finale concert for ‘Music, Health and Art in the jungle’. At this event children, clowns, musicians, volunteers and – most importantly- family members of the students (including the parents of J.) attended and partook in the display of talent and self-empowered expression. In this photo you can see J. and me performing his piece about violence for the community.

Amongst this powerful example, other opportunities arose for youth to perform and show their newly found skills and work. “Tiene que estar”, a song we arranged, wrote and finally performed with instruments and theatrical motions, covered topics such as children’s rights and having one's basic needs met. These ideas and concepts were gathered in several workshops initially discussing what human rights were and then asking the students what they believed they could be. Finally, their thoughts were summarized and completed in form of a song.

Another moving example was discovered when we compared interviews from the beginning to the end of the project. One question that stood out to me, was whether the kids had a dream for when they grew up. To my surprise, many responses consisted of dull, “I don’t know” types of answers, usually expressing what they thought they should respond based on popular belief in the community or what was an immediate replica in what they were seeing in their parents. When I revisited this particular question towards the end of the project, a majority of students responded that they wanted to become musicians. This was very touching.

In all, these are just a few examples of many, but the idea of this blog is to give a small overview of the setting and what we did. In just as little as 4 months, we watched children learn how to share thoughts and emotions in various different mediums, learn how to listen and respond to negative and potentially damaging experiences, and support their growth as stronger, more stable, empowered beings. We are hoping to expand this sort of pilot throughout various settings in the world and to share the joy of health and music.

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