Peter Donaghy, Principal lecturer in Spanish at Newcastle University, suggests that if we are bent on searching for 'shanties' we need look no further than our own front.
I RECENTLY had the opportunity to make a short visit to Santiago, the capital of Chile. On my return, after two weeks there, practically the first question I was asked was "what did you think of the shanty towns?"
I detected a mixture of Surprise and disappointment when I replied "Well I'm sorry but I didn't see any." I found myself apologising for not being able to present a graphic account of the grinding poverty of' large numbers of people attracted to the periphery of major cities or driven by economic pressures fom their rural surroundings who set up "home" in makeshift accommodation which for most becomes a permanent abode.
Why was it that 1 had not been? To tell you the truth nobody took me nor did I seek myself the path that might lead me there.
Let us examine for a moment why no one took me. The answer was surely straightforward. 1 was a visiting "businessman" and it did not occur to my counterparts that this was something that should be included in my itinerary.
There could be many explanations for this but perhaps we only need to ask ourselves where we normally don't take visitors, to come up with a sound reason. Why then did I not seek out these poor areas for myself?
A lack of curiosity perhaps? Fear? Or just a feeling that as a temporary visitor I was not there as a factfinding member of a United Nations working party?
Would my presence have helped those unfortunate souls who live there or would it have been a piece of bravado or voyeurism on my part? Do I need to justify myself any further? , Perhaps by now you arc feeling confused. You have every right to be so, because that is just the impact that the experience itself had on 'me. I feel guilty that I did not visit the shanty towns but perhaps that is just because of the expectations that my journey seems to have aroused among my friends and acquaintances. But do we usualfy seek out the more deprived quarters of the town we visit?
Without actually penetrating into a shanty town you can very quickly sense that Chile, like other Latin American countries, presents a series of different and contrasting lifestyles to our own. There are many signs of affluence, large cars, luxurious high priced goods in elegant boutiques, fine individually styled housing whose neat gardens can be seen over high protective fences and whose pathways are kept clean by an army of domestic servants.
On the other hand, there is more overt poverty and begging th,ait one normally encounters in the U.K. Thus old men have their regular "patches" where they rattle meagre coins in cups appealing for alms, younger men attempt to trade in any possible trinket, and young children, often very young ones, and old women, often very old ones, approach cars at traffic lights in search of a coin or two.
The term "conscientization" has entered our language from Latin America. Literally it means "to awake consciousness of", "to make aware of" and it was originally applied to the process of awakening the poor to the reality of their situation and what they might collectively be able to do about it. Now it carried a broader message. It involves making everyone aware of their own reality and their responsibilities to their fellow men and hence to God.
Nowadays we know about the existence of shanty towns through the images of degradation and poverty that television can quickly bring into our homes. This knowledge should help us to realise our responsibilities to do what we can to alleviate such sufferings, and there are many channels open to us. We can provide aid through relief organisations, we can pressurise those with political power.
However, there is a danger that we may be so distracted as not to become aware of the poverty that surrounds us. What do we really know about the shanty towns that are around us? How familiar are we with the poor sub-standard housing in our own town? Who and where are the 40,000 homeless of London? Why do so many children die in home fires? How did a young mother and her two children come to die of cole in their London flat?
The inadequacy of State-aid for the sick, the homeless, the handicapped, the underprivileged is endemic to man9 Latin American countries. The need for reform is apparent to us from our standpoint and tradition. However the very existence of such support facilities often serves as an excuse for inaction on our part here within our own society. "Well I don't need to do anything, the social services will look after that".
Yes, we do well to know that shanty towns exist but it would be as well if we remembered that they are not necessarily only found in other continents. Are we doing enough to "coriscientise" ourselves and our neighbours regarding the problems that may be only a few miles or yards from our own doorstep?
Are we familiar enough with the helping and caring agencies which support those less fortunate than ourselves?
Are we able to learn anything from the experiences of others in the third world?
Amid the aparent despair and hopelessness there are people working together, priests, nuns, lay-people who can provide models of community action teams that we could do well to emulate.
By all means let us ask about and learn front the shanty towns elsewhere, but let us not forget that they are all around us and much closer than we often think