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TCU Magazine "Academe"

My rewarding summer in Peru

By Jennifer Klein '01

In May 2001, as I crossed the stage in Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, my parents prayed that their Horned Frog would finally be on a path toward happiness and financial stability. They're still pondering the stability part, as I seem to have landed on an international road to poverty.

A semester at TCU's London Centre led after graduation to Mexico, Japan, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and, last summer, the highland city of Abancay, Peru, in the Andes Mountains. The handful of other foreigners caught in this remote outpost were either sent by God or the United Nations. I was in the latter cohort, assigned to Abancay as the only summer graduate student intern for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Peru.

My UNICEF work took me from Abancay up to an oxygen-deprived 11,000 feet, where nine indigenous communities had one phone, one shower and four flushing toilets. Since some of the communities did not have roads, I was forced to do something few Texans ever do: I walked. And as I tottered precariously across the crumbling face of an Andean landslide, I couldn't help but look 10,000 feet below and think, "So this is why UNICEF made me buy life insurance."

Officially, my job was to design and test an information-gathering system that Peruvian officials could use to evaluate the educational network in the indigenous communities, to find out if their policies were working. Most days I sat down with local teachers, parents, community leaders and children and chatted about their schools. I typically found myself living as the teachers do — sleeping in the schools, working by candlelight with no electricity and bathing when I returned to civilization in Abancay.

Between interviews and travels elsewhere in Peru, I took pictures. I wanted to show that richness and beauty flower amid the poverty. That even when women are denied an education and treated as property, they possess amazing strength and kindness. That in children's eyes, hope abounds.

I now know that the key to reducing world poverty is empowerment, not pity. Opportunity, not charity. I believe that improving education in other countries will empower the impoverished and give them the opportunities they crave for economic prosperity.

"Forgotten and Forlorn" Abancay 

I was tempted to give some guidance every time I saw another  foreigner on the  streets of Abancay — Hey, Machu Picchu's  10 hours that way. With a guidebook describing Abancay (left) as a "forgotten" and "forlorn" stopover on the death bus between Cuzco and Lima, any foreigner walking the streets must be lost. But living on the set of a History Channel documentary on the Andean highlands did have a few perks: I had a room with a view, the most expensive meal in town was $3, and when asked if they've heard of McDonald's, residents affirmed that the chain has not spread heart attacks and Happy Meals to every forgotten corner of the globe. McDonald's? Isn't that a restaurant in Lima?


Claudia manages a tiny store in a dirt hut while watching over her five children. In traditional communities, women are seldom asked to share their opinions, and many local mothers shied from my interview questions. Claudia calmly shared her hope for her children's future through education but still expressed resentment for the teachers, whom she believes do not understand the community and indigenous way of life. "They sleep when they are supposed to be teaching, and some days they don't come to school until 10 a.m., if they come at all," she said.

Since teachers in isolated indigenous communities have no outside supervision and face extremely difficult living conditions, they often have little motivation to stay or excel. They are known as "Tuesday/Wednesday teachers" because some only teach two or three days a week. Motivating and monitoring teachers is a struggle for governments in developing countries that strive to provide an equal, quality education for all children. 

One successful solution is to empower mothers like Claudia to participate, and informally supervise schools to ensure that the cycle of educational inopportunity and social exclusion ends.

No Car and Out of Gas

 After a long day hiking to the top of the Andes, the UNICEF education consultant and I were out of gas. Our next stop was 2.5 hours down the mountain, and throwing ourselves off the cliff, hoping we'd land in a community below, was looking more appealing. While I was interviewing parents, the consultant struck a deal with a local woman: $6 for her horse to take our packs down the mountain. "Too much!" the woman said, insisting that we pay half our suggested price. In most places, locals think "foreigner" and "millionaire" are synonymous, and they have no problem redistributing the wealth through overcharging the unsuspecting.

Maybe this was a sign that mankind is innately benevolent when seeing another human being in need. Whatever her rationale, our blessed savior, wearing shoes made of tire rubber, and her faithful steed beat us down the mountain by 20 minutes.

A Safe Place for Children

I began my interview with the 11 students of the tiny elementary school with an icebreaker. "Do you like your teacher?" For the first time in all of my interviews, the students answered almost in unison: "NO." Why? "Because he beats us." Startled, I tried to clarify: "But, why does he beat you?" "Because we don't learn."

The parents later confirmed that they could hear screaming coming from the school. Still, things were better now than in the past. The teacher only taught one week per month before the 2005 school year, and having a teacher who beats the children is better than no teacher at all.

The teacher defended himself when I talked with him, saying that the children were being abused in their homes and never wanted to leave the safety of the school. He may not have been lying. There is no safe place for some of these children — school or home — as long as parents, teachers and community members do not understand that children have rights.


While in the middle of nowhere in Peru, my mom called and kindly offered, "Jennuh-fur, do yew wont uh rahhnestone belt? They're awl thuh rage in North Texas!" I was spending my days with women wearing their only clothing. Their accessories were a man's hat with an artificial flower, peacock feather or satin ribbon, which designated their home community, or a backpack for carrying the youngest of their two to 13 children.

Grand Champion Llamas, Deep Fried Guinea Pig and Indigenous Spectator Sports

I went to Cuzco expecting to see the city and visit Machu Picchu. I ended up at the Peruvian version of the State Fair of Texas. I snapped photos of the grand champion llamas and alpacas, enjoyed a bit of llama herding and gawked at the teepee-shaped mountains of fried guinea pigs, a traditional Peruvian dish.

Stocks, Bonds and Education 

For many Peruvian parents, discussing education is like a visit to your investment banker. "Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Hugo Chavez, I hear you're considering making an investment in little Shakira here. If you keep her out of the fields for a few years and put her in school, you'll get a great return on your investment. She'll be educated. She'll make more money for the family in the future."

In the U.S., the government has already discussed the investment in education and made the decision: Children must be in school until they're 16. The same type of law exists in Peru, stating that all children will have nine years of education, but no one has the capacity to enforce it. And authorities know that for some families, enforcement might mean starvation. Children must work to support their families. If they can, families usually will invest in their sons. This beautiful girl in the photo will be lucky if she can read the card in front of her; in 2006 nearly 100 million girls and boys throughout the world will suffer the same fate. 

Plagued by the travel bug following two semesters at the TCU London Centre, Jennifer Klein '01 has been globetrotting. She taught high school and university-level English in Toluca, Mexico, then elementary and junior high school English in Nagaoka, Japan. In May 2006 she will graduate with a master of science degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, with a concentration in international development and certification in refugees and humanitarian emergencies. After graduation, she hopes to continue following "the road to poverty" with Save the Children or UNICEF.

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