Many small feet had pounded the dirt floor smooth and hard.
Benches allowed more kids to crowd in and find a seat than individual chairs would have. Long wooden planks served as common writing surfaces.
Bright clean faces filled the rows in classroom of the two room building in a squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguay. The other room served as a daycare.
The corrugated aluminum roof paid for by international aid dollars provided a dry space for the children on the cool rainy day when I visited them.
The children’s surrounding homes often cobbled together from scrap materials scavenged from the nearby municipal dump were less secure.
Their mothers in this largely single parent community did the best they could.
Many eke out a meager livelihood by gleaning recyclables for cash from the dump as well.
The plight of the poor simply was not a priority for General Alfredo Stroessner, the longtime dictator of this land-locked country in the heart of South America.
He still had a firm grip on land when I visited it in 1986.
His regime, which fell to a coup’ d’etat in 1989, put its energy into maintaining internal security.
Corruption and gross human rights violations coupled with crude authoritarian measures achieved this end. His Colorado Party maintained itself in power after his fall.
The Sunday before last, Paraguayans elected Fernando Lugo, a 56-year-old former Roman Catholic bishop as their president.
The ‘bishop of the poor’ broke 61 years of control by the Colorado Party.
Liberation Theology, which placed the Church squarely on the side of the poor in opposition to the decades of corruption by the elite, motivates Lugo.
He sees Paraguay’s social and economic plight as rooted in rampant greed.
Nearly 43 per cent of the 6.5 million Paraguayans today are living in poverty according to an April 20th Associated Press article.
Paraguay’s elite ruled this land at the expense of the urban poor, indigenous people’s like the Aché and its many subsistence farmers.
The second-poorest country in South America Paraguay has a per capita GNP of just under $1,200. This compares with Canada’s at well over $31,000 or 25 times that of Paraguay.
President-elect Lugo has his job cut out for him.
The future of the children I visited that day, who now probably have their own families, depends on changes that will bring about a just and environmentally sustainable society in their country.
This won’t be enough though. The changes have to be global.
Yukon children like those in Monica Best’s Grade 2 class at Holy Family Elementary in Whitehorse intuitively know this already.
I visited them last week to share some thoughts on social justice.
At the end of our class conversation I divided up the 19 students in proportion to people living on the world’s continents.
Then I set before each group plates with cookies also divided but by the share each continent has of the world’s wealth.
Asia with 11 of students got only four cookies.
North America with just one student received seven cookies. They all knew instantly that this wasn’t fair. And their answer to the problem was as direct; share.
All went to recess happy with a cookie in hand.
Our current environmental crises, the energy crunch and world food shortages all point to an increasingly dire future.
Unless we begin to fundamentally reshape our global relations right now we know who will pay the price of our inaction.
Children will suffer.