Sr Isabel Miguelez in the mountain-top shantytowns of Lima, Peru. Photos: Sr Isabel Miguelez
Sr Isabel Miguelez spells out the stark dilemma facing the poorest members of her parish, a former Columban-run area on the edge of Peru’s capital city, Lima. How do you resolve this dilemma? How do you feed people hit by a double disaster, especially when they live in such inaccessible upland areas?
“Simple,” says Isabel with characteristic understatement. “With our ‘kitchens in the sky’!” Most of these people survive in the informal economy, living from hand to mouth on what they can sell on the streets or earn as day labourers. For them, the pandemic was a dual catastrophe. With Peru’s vaccination programme painfully slow, they were the ones most at risk from infection and the ones with the greatest responsibility to self-isolate when necessary. However, this meant they could not go out onto the streets to earn a meagre living, resulting in hunger for themselves and their families.
This is where Isabel, a Carmelite from Spain, came in. Backed by her congregation, the parish, and with supporters like the Columbans, she met with the residents and got them to set up a series of kitchen cooperatives (ollas comunes in Spanish - literally, communal saucepans). She started them off by donating stoves, gas cylinders, pots and pans. The men carried these up the mountain paths. The women served as cooks.
A typical residence in Lima’s expanding shantytown of San Albino. Photos: Sr Isabel Miguelez
Isabel explained the system as she gave me a guided tour, speaking as we marched single-file up dizzying goat tracks. In each case, a committee, usually all women, is elected. This committee selects a site, sets up the kitchen, buys the food and establishes a cooking rota. Interested families must register and then they receive one meal a day, six days a week. The participants need to cover the cost of the food, but there is no fixed rate. Each Saturday, they meet and set the rate for the following week, according to current food prices and people’s ability to pay.
As well as the initial investment, Isabel and her support group guarantee fuel supplies and the maintenance of equipment. She goes around the area every day, visiting the kitchens, inspecting, encouraging, congratulating, cajoling. Her energy and enthusiasm seem endless.
What struck me as I struggled after her was the sheer scale of the challenge. I remembered seeing those same hills years back when the Columbans had the parish, and they were bare. Now, they are completely covered with flimsy dwellings. Isabel pointed out that over recent years the population of the parish has exploded, with people flooding in from the countryside in search of a better life in the city. As demand for space increased, land prices soared, forcing the poor higher and higher up the mountainsides.
Fr John Boles scaling a goat track path in the shantytown parish. Photos: Sr Isabel Miguelez
The pandemic and ensuing national economic collapse only served to accelerate this process. “It was like watching bread expanding in the oven.” Isabel said. “Houses just seemed to rise up the hills overnight.”
When I visited, there were three kitchens in operation, providing a total of 270 meals each day, a veritable lifeline for families that otherwise would have struggled to survive. Nevertheless, as Isabel herself admits, this is only the start. This scheme will need to expand in the future. Even if the pandemic was to disappear tomorrow, Peru’s economic woes will worsen, and migration up the hills will continue. Not that this serves to discourage Isabel. Just the opposite. It seems to motivate her even more.
Benefactors like the Columban supporters may provide the money for worthwhile projects, but it is from people like Isabel that the inspiration comes. The sort of inspiration that produces miracles like her kitchens in the sky. With Columban support, Sr Isabel Miguelez is helping feed mountain-top shantytown dwellers in COVID-19-ravaged Peru.
Columban Fr John Boles lives and works in Britain.
Listen to "Kitchens in the sky"
- Read more from The Far East - October 2021