An image of a precarious home in Colombia.
Sep 25 2017

The precarious home on the hillside

A staff member's reflection on the reality of poverty in Medellin

The image of a vast view of Medellin, Colombia.

The view from the patio of the home of sponsored child Johan in Colombia.

Poverty looks different across countries and regions. What comes easily for one family might be a great struggle for another. From climate to landscape to politics, the conditions of where one lives have a huge, and widely varying, impact on their lives. In upcoming publications, we’re taking a look at the realities of poverty around the Unbound world to get a better glimpse into the lives of the families who are a part of our community.

This fall, we’re focusing that look on the issue of housing, something that impacts every family no matter where they live. Watch your mailboxes for our upcoming edition of Impact on the topic of housing, and read on for a staff member’s reflection on her unexpected experience facing that reality on a trip to Colombia.

An image of a precarious home in Colombia.

Unbound staff members Patricia and Henry (right) say goodbye after visiting the family of sponsored child Johan in Colombia.

By Maureen Lunn, writer/editor

Sitting on a twin bed in a small Colombian home, I felt unusually wary. I’d visited huts and shacks in many countries around the world, but on this visit to the home of an Unbound family in Medellin, I was legitimately nervous. The home I was sitting in felt like it could splinter and fall to the ground far below at any moment.

I was experiencing a visceral reality check. I was so confronted by what it is like to live in poverty that it was causing me a bit of distress for my own safety. The family who sat before me — Johan, a 13-year-old sponsored boy, and his mother, Maria, smiled and chatted with their Unbound social worker, Patricia, who had accompanied me and communications liaison director Henry Flores to visit this family.

But amidst the smiles was the harsh reality of life in this home.

The home was typical of how many people live in this part of Medellin. Two small rooms and a kitchen area, each room with a few beds, colorfully decorated with fake flowers, posters and family photos, the walls around Johan’s bed themed with sports gear and the colors of his favorite soccer team. In the kitchen an arm’s reach away, a massive 55-gallon drum sat front and center, about half full of water.

The house was built with its back on the hillside and its front on immense stilts made of tree logs. Along the front of the house was a set of unsound stairs leading up to a porch, where their cat and dog enjoyed the warm afternoon with no concern that just inches away from their napping spot was a 15-foot drop. I tried to take courage from their lack of concern, but I wasn’t quite used to feeling this unstable.

Maria began to describe life in this house, far up the mountain, only accessible by an urban hike that had me sweating and out of breath by the time we were halfway there. She told us that the drum of water, when full, will last the family about two days of washing, cleaning and cooking. So every time they make a trip, they take a smaller jug along so they can bring water up on their way home. Their home is so high, it’s above the point of access to city water, so it’s up to them to hand deliver a steady supply.

“I was so confronted with what it is like to live in poverty that it was causing me a bit of distress for my own safety.”

She told us that her husband works in another part of the country for two or three weeks at a time, and has limited time at home. When he is home, he’s often working on another property — a house they have been slowly building over the course of three years, and could take a few more to be ready to move in.

“Do you ever feel scared living in this home?” I asked Maria, trying not to reveal my own nervousness.

“Of course,” she said, as if it were obvious.

I had expected her to say no, to say that they were used to it and its commonplace in their community. But her honest answer opened my eyes to the fact that people don’t get used to danger, nor to living in poverty. It never becomes easy.

An image of sponsored child Johan in Colombia.

Sponsored child Johan stands at the entrance of his home. His sponsors are Irv and June in Connecticut.

Maria went on to explain that the moment their new house has walls and a roof, she’ll be relocating her children to escape the danger of their current home.

A few months before, she explained, a storm caused a large tree to fall from the mountain on to the back of their current home, resulting in a permanent tilt toward the lower part of the mountain. Now, when it storms or is excessively windy, Maria has Johan and his brother sleep with her in her bedroom. She’s afraid that if something happens to the house, she would be separated from them if they were in different rooms.

Living in poverty never gets easy. Click To Tweet

Maria isn’t sure how long it will be until they’ll be safely in their new home, which is slowly under construction not far down the mountain, but built of sturdy concrete blocks. But with the help of sponsorship covering Johan’s school supplies and other household goods, they’re using that freedom to save what they can for a newer, safer home.

Read more from my time in Colombia, and watch your mailboxes for our next edition of Impact.

Maureen Lunn

Writer/Editor

Maureen joined Unbound in 2016. With a master’s degree in international studies, Maureen has long been passionate about international development and loves using writing as a means to share that passion. She is a globetrotter, movie lover, Sporting KC fan, yoga teacher and self-designated crazy cat lady. Maureen and her husband, Toby, sponsor an elder in Kenya named Wambui.

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