THE AMERICAS AND CARIBBEAN feature story for Colombia

© UNICEF Colombia/2009

In poverty- and- flood-affected Nariño Department, Angela Gineth, 9, was able to return to class after UNICEF and its partner, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, provided educational materials for students.


NARIÑO, South-western Colombia, September 2009 - It was almost noon.  For over an hour and a half we had been driving on the road between Tumaco and the Mira River.  We reached the river, got out of the cars and a few of us climbed into a long and narrow canoe with the boxes containing 300 school backpacks marked with the logos of UNICEF and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), a non-governmental organization in Colombia.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Palo Seco school, another rural school in Nariño in south-west Colombia where existing poverty and the effects of armed conflict had been compounded in February 2009 by the flooding of the Mira River, affecting almost all the families of the children studying there.

Some 200 children played and rested in the lot in front of the two classrooms and a ramshackle hut where another class was being held. They all greeted me with a big smile, although nobody knew me.  I talked with some of them.

Jonathan, 13, a fourth-grade student, told me that there were more than 120 children in the school. “In my class there are 7 girls and 20 boys.  Some of us who study here have to come by boat every day and then by motorcycle, or vice-versa.  When the river rose, it carried off the school where we studied.  Nothing happened to this school because it’s farther away and higher.  That’s why we’re here.”

Twelve-year-old Juan Camilo was saved from a landslide.  “A ‘vertigo’ rose as high as the roofs, and almost washed away my uncle’s motorcycle.  It knocked down the school up above.  I live in a place that’s far away, about 7 kilometres.  It’s an hour and a half, walking fast,” explains Juan.

Ángela Gineth is in third grade.  She’s nine, and tells the same story as the others.  Still, it is harder for girls because often, when there is no extra money, parents prefer to send the boys to school and the girls stay home helping around the house.

The lack of money, learning materials and school supplies combined with the cost of transportation and uniforms are the real barriers in this town to a quality education.  At the same time, if the children drop out of school, recruitment by the illegal armed groups or working in cocaine production is their most likely future.

That is why UNICEF is partnering with the Ministry of Education and BBVA – to bring the essentials to provide an education during an emergency.  Inside the knapsacks brought by BBVA and UNICEF are notebooks, colour pencils, modelling clay, scissors, pencils and other school and recreational supplies. These children had lost everything in the floods, and thanks to this partnership they can return to their school lessons and homework.

UNICEF has an ongoing partnership with the Ministry of Education and BBVA to ensure the right to an Education for children affected by emergencies in Colombia.  Pedro Nel Quiñones, a teacher in the Palo Seco school commented on the results of this joint effort. “This is the most gratifying experience I can remember in my life as a teacher, because of the children’s joy,” he says. “Look at their faces!  They’re really happy!  Who comes around here? Nobody!  You’re the first ones.  You’ve given them back their happiness. They’re delighted.”