Arjona

The Society has been supporting the work of the Carmelite community in Colombia, in particular a house for young girls whilst they complete their education. Sophie Douglas, a language student at Manchester University, spent part of her third year with the Carmelite community in Arjona.

I went to Colombia to the town of Arjona, 30 km from Cartagena on the north coast.  Arjona is a small town and the enormous wealth divide that afflicts the country as a whole is ever present. I knew very little of the town or what I would be doing there before my arrival, knowing only that I would be staying with the Carmelite community and that my aim was to help out in the local school and improve my Spanish. The 5 months I spent there were the most interesting and rewarding of my year abroad and when the time came I was not ready to leave the community which had welcomed me wholeheartedly. 

 Upon my arrival it became obvious that - as a young English girl - I was something of a novelty in the town and it seemed everybody wanted to talk to me and find out about life in England, though many people didn’t really know where England was.  This was understandable since many of them would never leave Arjona. 

 Colombia has been at war with itself for 50 years now, but as peace seems on the horizon the country is developing and growing very quickly. What struck me first of all were not just the levels of poverty but that the community is teeming with children, everywhere you look.  The Carmelite mission provides much needed support for the ever growing number of families in the area.

 Father Lauro, an Italian, has been in Colombia for over 30 years and is at the centre of life in Arjona.  He set up the monastery with a local missionary Oliday over a decade ago and it now houses 13 postulants. They have been working ceaselessly for the community as they have been trying to expand their social projects. 

 The school teaches children from the ages of 4 to 18 and it was in the lower part of the school that I spent most of my time. Charitable support has allowed the school to develop and not long ago they were able to build some much needed classrooms and buy some computers for. Since it caters for so many children, students attend either in the morning or the afternoon to make the most of the space and the resources available. Though it is small, it is a beautiful place and the students seem happy and eager to learn. What impressed me so much was the inclusive ethos surrounding the school and the entire community. Everywhere you look in the school there are paintings and murals emphasising the importance of the mix of ethnicities within the community.

The Carmelites also run several free canteens in the community to ensure that the many children - whether they attend their school or not -get at least one good hot meal a day.

One of my fondest memories is of Easter time in Arjona. In the nursery school we organised a re-enactment of the Last Supper.  After a rehearsal, the children performed a Via Crucis down the lane from the nursery up to the senior school.  Many of the parents ensured the children were properly dressed with the majority of the boys dressed up as roman centurions, charging around with swords. 
  The girls were all told to wear scarves and to weep.  After the fifth station of the Cross some of the much smaller children lost concentration a tad and the wailing women became giggling girls and although I don't think the story normally involves Jesus and Pontius Pilot hugging and skipping off holding hands, it does make for jollier story.  

 From donations from Italy the Carmelites have also been able to build a state of the art community centre equipped with a main hall, several air conditioned classes and a canteen. They hope that soon they will be able to use the classrooms to teach university classes but in the mean time the space is used as a cultural centre with many dance lessons and performances. Not long after I arrived the Cartagena Film Festival took place and I was able to attend a special out door screening of several of the short films entered into the festival on the patio of the community centre.  It was a real treat to be able to watch some of the best cinema produced in Colombia out under the stars.

 After 5 months I was very sad to leave Arjona. The community spirit is so strong there and at the centre of the community are the Carmelites. They are continually working to help the poor, to educate the young and to develop the town.  Despite hardships the community remains close knit and positive and I believe this is down to the work that Father Lauro, Oliday and all the others are doing. After all it is isn’t often that Mothers' Day Mass is finished with all the mothers being treated to a glass of champagne and a few songs from a Mariachi band!