There is a boy who lived in Guido Almada. His name was Ivan Fariña and when I arrived in that place sometime in December of 2011, he was only 2 years old. At the time, he was just learning to speak and as he began juggling Guarani and Spanish, like most young Paraguayans do, he also began incorporating me into his daily life. I worked extensively with his family over my time in Paraguay and his home became one of my favorite and most frequented stops on my rounds through the community or for parties or during the holidays.
Ivan was a troublemaker. He loved finding his boundaries, testing his limits and then stepping over the lines ever so slightly. He was an incredibly smart little kid although he never learned to pronounce my name properly. To him, I was always “Mano”, the name he would yell from his grandfather's lap every-time he saw me approaching. He knew how to endear himself to people, if at the same time also push their buttons. And he was a total ladies man.
I cared deeply about this boy. I spent many afternoons watching over him while his parents were out in the fields and tending to the animals. I helped him eat and kept him in line during some meals when his mother was too busy to babysit. We played with his few little toy trucks in the dirt patch in front of his house. We kicked the soccer ball. He was a happy, bright, beautiful little boy. After two years and countless time together, I came to love him very much.
Ivan was never a sick boy, at least no more so than any other poor Paraguayan children tend to be. Of the few times I remember him being ill, it hardly ever seemed to sap his energy and certainly never diminished his spirit.
The week after I left Paraguay, Ivan became very sick. He was hospitalized for several weeks, then a month. It seemed like he was getting better although so much time certainly took its toll on his small 4-year-old frame. I imagine his body becoming worn and ragged by some disease that he just couldn't seem to shake, but his smile, his light, never dimming even for a minute. Then several nights ago I got the news: at 10 pm, Ivan passed away. A child, a little 4 year old boy, a beloved son and a grandson, my little buddy, fell victim to some illness, some terrible disease, to the poverty of his people. He was dead. That light had been irrevocably extinguished.
The cemetery in Guido Almada is not large. The community itself is comparatively new and though many people have passed, the plots are modest, as much a product of economics as necessity. I have been there many times. I have prayed there many afternoons. It is a beautiful place, beautifully Paraguayan in its setting and the surrounding landscape. But it belies one subtle and yet heartbreaking reality: most of the graves are small. Child sized.
Child mortality, something heartrendingly inconceivable to many in the developed world, is something much too common for children and families in the developing world. Out of all the families I lived and worked with during my time in Paraguay, all of them had either lost a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, or a cousin at some point in their lives. In the absence of decent medical care and without the financial means to access the paltry facilities that do exists, people face death—real, tragic, human death—as a matter of their daily lives. Women must give birth to stillborn babies. Parents must watch helplessly as their children wither away. Brothers and sisters must say goodbye to their closest companions before the age when they can understand what death is all about.
I don't mean to paint a picture of some sort of hell or holocaust. Surely, it is not so bad and for the most part, despite their poverty and circumstance, these people live happy lives. But we should not forget: the chasm between the developed and developing world still exists today and we should do everything in our power, especially in this modern day in age, to close that distance. I don't care with what religion or political ideology you affiliate; I don't care how you label yourself or what you feel your moral obligation is to the world: the fact that daily thousands of children die of preventable diseases, malnutrition, and neglect is simply unacceptable. In our own way, we all bare some of the blame and some of the responsibility for this state of our world. Even you. Even me.
I wrote the preceding few paragraphs some weeks ago. I didn't have the words (and still don't) for so much of what this transition home from the Peace Corps has been like. I have almost decided to give up on trying to communicate it entirely. If anything, that is what two years in the campo have done for me: made me really good at dealing with my own shit without relying on others. Still, I have forced myself to write this story down and share it with people—for Ivan's sake and for the sake of the thousands of other starving, sick, dying children there are in the world tonight.
When I received the news of Ivan's passing, I felt as if my heart fell straight down and out of my body. My lungs stopped working. I broke down into a pile of sobbing, chaotic tears. I didn't know what to do, how to help, and I couldn't begin to imagine the emptiness that my friends, my community, my Peace Corps family must be feeling. For them, I have few words except for I love you, I will always remember, and I am sorry I had to leave when I did. I wish I could be there to share the heartbreak with you. I hope you know how much I care.
So as I exorcise these last emotional demons from a body and mind that has been so thoroughly (and thankfully) ravaged by two years of life in a poor Paraguayan community, I hope that I can move on with a purpose. That I can take the lessons I have learned, the lives I have shared, and the love I have been given and make a difference in this world. And even though I daily feel as if I am now living and working in his memory, it is too late for Ivan, but not for the countless thousands of others out there.
I love you, little buddy. I miss you. I will remember you always.