WORKING IN PARADISE:
COLOMBIA, SOUTH AMERICA: 1972 – 1974
Colombia is a South American country rich in natural resources. Its lush plains to the east, the Llanos, grow rich rice and cotton crops and succulent beef is raised “on the hoof” in great ranches called fincas. The Llanos merge into the tropical rainforests, where indigenous Amazonian Indians grow corn, fish, and produce artwork for the tourist market. Deeper into the forest live tribes who are less welcoming to outsiders. In the mountains, the northernmost parts of the Andes, minerals are mined including the famous Colombian emeralds, silver, and gold. Coffee is grown and exported from the more temperate foothill regions and is famous worldwide. The Colombian coastline is dotted with ancient Spanish fortresses and golden beaches and the Pacific Ocean provides fresh seafood and a thriving tourist trade. The Colombian people, many a mix of Spanish and Indian, “the meztizos”, are beautiful, intelligent and generous.
Such resources should have made Colombia very rich but lack of organization, the drug trade, and, almost constant, guerilla warfare have kept the country impoverished. Towns are a study in contrasts: rich, modern buildings, museums and palaces surge up from the city centers, while, on the outskirts, sprawl the “barrios”, square miles of shanty neighborhoods without electricity, fresh, running water or sanitation. A lack of social services leaves abandoned children running the streets of the cities: the gamines. Most of the abandoned babies and children die young. It is a child with a strong constitution, a will to live, and enormous luck that survives this treacherous start in life.
This was the world into which I stepped in 1972. Fresh from a social work college in Oxford, England, I volunteered to spend two years working at a Colombian orphanage, Paraiso Infantil. I went out under the aegis of Voluntary Service Overseas to work for two years at an orphanage which was run by American missionaries. When I first applied for the post with VSO, I had little idea where Colombia was. The orphanage was situated on the eastern plains, in the tropical shadows of the Andes foothills, and my two years of service ranged from the mundane to the exotic. From mid- 1972 through 1974, over fifty orphan babies passed through the nursery and were adopted into American homes. Almost all of the babies and children were abandoned: mostly from Villavicencio and Bogotá or the surrounding countryside: left on church steps and in trash cans, and warehoused in local hospitals and state orphanages. The majority of the infants and children were suffering from severe malnutrition, parasitic and other infections, and developmental delays. The lucky ones found their way, through caring social workers and missionaries, to Paraiso Infantil. During those years at the orphanage, I kept a daily diary and wrote letters home to my parents, which they gave me when I returned to England. Being a “packrat” I kept these records plus photos and other memorabilia for many years.
Letter writing seems to have become a “lost art”. This is unfortunate; as letters afford us a window into the past, provide important, first-hand accounts of historical events, and intimate portraits of people and places. Emails and text messaging can never match the experience of reading a personal letter, written over a period of time, when the pace of life was less hectic. Not that we were less busy, back then, but we took the time to sit down to read, write letters, and think! The sending and receiving of letters from home was an important “touchstone” in my life and the journal entries served the same purpose. Many of the entries are mundane, accountings of everyday life at the orphanage, but within the pages are rich descriptions of a foreign culture which delighted, educated and, often, bemused me.
Attitudes, too, have changed and I am now older and wiser. Back in the 1970s at the orphanage, the young women assistants were called “girls” and the young men, who worked on the orphanage farm, were called “boys” regardless of their age, which revealed the perceived social distance between the white missionaries and the Colombians. Reading the letters also reveals the arrogance of the missionaries in their searching out “lost tribes” in the Amazon jungle to Christianize. Disregarding the thousands of years of cultural history of these tribes, the missionaries introduced disease, greed, and warfare while trying to foster education, health programs and social justice. Deaths of white missionaries occurred frequently as indigenous tribes defended their families and their culture from outside interference and influence.
There are other differences between then and now. Back then, I was young and naive. On the hazardous rides between Bogotá and Villavicencio, I believed that, if I was needed at the orphanage, God would not let the bus fall into the steep ravines, despite the many mud and rock slides. Perhaps this was wishful thinking but it kept me safe. I walked around the dangerous streets of Bogotá, with impunity, and bussed out into the Colombian mountains, risking ambush by communist guerillas, and enjoyed the scenery along the way. It was all one, big adventure!
Colombia is still a dangerous country, perhaps even more dangerous than it was in the 1970s. Over the past decade political mercenaries have kidnapped and killed missionaries and their families serving in Villavicencio and the Llanos. Many of the grown orphans want to go back to look for their families but I try and dissuade them. It is still too dangerous and, perhaps, it will be that way for many decades to come. One day, Colombia may advance and become the educated, sophisticated country of commerce and culture that it strives to be. But that time has not yet arrived.
Over the past thirty years, the orphans have grown and graduated, some have attended college, spent time in the services, and many have children of their own. Quite a few of these individuals have found me, via the Internet, and have inquired about their early years at the orphanage. I have been happy to provide them with helpful information, photos, medical information and details of the day-to-day life at Paraiso Infantil. The following pages are a transcription of journals and letters home that tell the story of my volunteer service at the Paraiso Infantil orphanage, about the town of Villavicencio, the city of Bogotá and the beautiful country of Colombia. This recounting is dedicated to the now-grown orphans: the survivors.
Publishing Editor’s Note: This is the intro to Dr. Angela Thompson Smith’s book about her true life adventure in Colombia. Her book is a work in progress and we are fortunate to be given a sneak preview of what’s to come. I will keep you updated on her book’s progress. Please take a moment to read about her incredible life on our Contributor’s Bio Page. The orphanage photo was supplied by Angela.
UPDATE: Angela’s work on this amazing story continues today. Since this story was posted, a few former orphans have been in contact with Angela requesting more information, which she has graciously given.
On a personal note, please accept my apologies for misspelling Colombia in my note.