As I rode the lime green bus home from work on Friday, my legs turned outward at an unnatural angle so that I could fit into the seat not made for a person taller than five foot four to fit comfortably in, I thought about what the past two months spent working at Casa Mantay have meant to me.
At the beginning of my DukeEngage experience, I had no idea what to expect of my time here in Cusco. Though my mornings have been quite consistent- five days of the week, I wake up (usually ten minutes later than I had intended to), eat a breakfast of avocado, bread, and freshly squeezed juice, and speed walk to the same green bus I take home every day- upon my arrival to work, any semblance of routine other than my breakfast and commute is gone.
Casa Mantay is a home for teenage mothers, ages twelve to eighteen, who have generally been either sexually abused, neglected, or both. Often, they come to live here after their families have turned them away upon learning that the girls are pregnant. Jarringly, even more often, the sexual abuse comes from someone from the immediate family. By the time they are legally considered adults, these young women have long since left their childhood.
It was shocking to realize that the twelve year old holding an infant wasn’t a big sister. It was also shocking how quickly I became desensitized to such a sight. When the babies are in the nursery and the mothers are in the separate room designated for their school time, it is easy to believe that this yellow building merely houses a daycare and a tutoring center. Of course, this is not so easy to believe when a young girl breastfeeds her son while you go over her algebra homework.
My first few weeks were spent working in the nursery, occasionally cooking, and in the second half of the day, tutoring the girls during their homework hours. I was immediately struck by the strange role I have: on one hand, though I am a volunteer, I have a position of authority. I come from the outside world, and my experiences there place me upon a pedestal – a sort of novelty to the young mothers. On the other hand, particularly as I adjusted to the home, it was I who turned to the girls for help and not the other way around; they know how to get a toddler who is only concerned with playing with blocks to eat his lunch; they know how to differentiate between a tantrum and a child who is truly upset; they have put in the hours and know what it means to sacrifice as a parent- not me. During these moments in particular, I truly questioned what I could give as a volunteer if so much of my time at Casa Mantay was spent learning from the very people I was supposed to be helping. Not that I didn’t want to learn, but more so that I didn’t want to hinder a daily routine that was already comfortably set without my presence.
Still, I wanted to contribute something to the home using the skills I do have, and I wanted to involve the mothers. In my first couple of days working, I realized that a lot of the walls, both on the grounds and inside of the building, were bare. I love to draw and paint, and came up with the idea of painting a mural.
My plans approved, I spent about three days organizing a small closet filled with old paint in varying states of decay, that would put the mess in my dorm room to shame (no easy feat). Having never painted anything larger than a canvas, I was quite overwhelmed when I realized that the fifteen foot, crumbling brick wall in front of me was most definitely not “basically the same thing”- something that yes, I had naively told myself before setting out to paint. The following week was spent balancing on a precariously rickety step ladder, painting the wall with the closest color to white I could find in the closet (it ended up being slightly pink). Even if I had not painted anything more, I think I would have been happy with my work given the fact that one toddler had taken it upon herself to consume all of the fallen brick crumbs that lay at the foot of the wall. Somehow though, I was able to cover the entirety of the thing, and, another week and a half later the mural was done.
Here it is:
The names on the tree are those of the mothers who currently live at the home. My idea is that in the coming years, as new mothers come, their names will be painted on in the empty leaves along side the girls of summer 2016. In some way, I hope that seeing their names immortalized (at least until the next rainy season), will provide these young women with a sense of having left a mark on the home in their time at Casa Mantay. I know that being able to paint this mural has done that for me.