A roof for all
We sent a message on Whatsapp without much hope he would respond. It took us several weeks to get his number. Two minutes later he wrote: “I am waiting for you in 15 minutes.” It was just a 1 kilometre walk to his place. 1 kilometre between heaven and hell, between the homes of the rich and the poor district, the “campamentos”. And you don't enter a slum without permission. Even if you are invited by the priest.
That’s how Techo was born
It all began in Curanilahue, to quote from the book written by Don Felipe Berrios.
For us it began in Curitiba, Brazil, the first country we visited in South America.
Marcele Borges, Techo employee, Curitiba: Techo, as an organization, appeared in Brazil in 2007, although it all started much earlier in Chile. We mainly build houses, so-called mediaguas, for people in the favelas, the Brazilian slums.
Mediagua, according to Wikipedia, is the Chilean name for a house built of ready-made wooden elements, a kind of Ikea-style house. Usually 18m², it serves as a temporary solution for victims of natural disasters or a cheap shelter for the homeless.
Marcele: It is a small building, but usually much bigger than the one in which the family used to live before. We build it in two days, together - a selected family from the favela, their neighbors and volunteers from outside, mainly university students and employees from corporations, which also help us financially.
Felipe Berrios (1): This modest mediagua is not only a chance for a given family to get out of the circle of despair in which they live, but also to save themselves from death due to pneumonia, to stop the sexual abuse of girls or the possibility of conceiving a child in decent conditions.
Sebastian Errázuriz, co-founder of Techo and Actitud Lab: It all began in Curanilahue, southern Chile, in its poorest part. We went there on a mission with a large group of engineering people from the Catholic university. We couldn't believe how these people lived. We came with Felipe, a fantastic man. He motivated us to dream big. It started with the idea of building 100 houses for the poorest, we ended up announcing the construction of 2000 houses for the year 2000. It was 1997.
Felipe (2): It is not our fault that the Son of God didn’t have a proper place to be born ... but it is our responsibility that on his 2000 birthday everybody has such a place.
2000 houses were built already in 1999. So why not building next 2000 houses in the year 2000 alone? At that time under the name Un Techo para Chile – A Roof for Chile. Although the initiative has been developing at a dizzying pace from the very beginning, no one had predicted that in a few years Techo would become one of the largest and most influential organizations in Latin America.
Felipe: In 2001 there was an earthquake in southern Peru. We went to help, getting Peruvian youth involved. Then, there was a flood in Mexico, we had to react. Various Techo Para Mi Pais (Roof for my country) were established: Argentina, Colombia ... we were growing rapidly.
Sebastian: It all started in Curanilahue. Our perception of the world has changed completely that day. Earlier we used to think: “Oh, it is snowing, we may go skiing”. From that moment on we asked ourselves: “It's raining, how will the people in the slum do? What can we do for them?”
Marcele: The whole process of building a house begins with finding the right family. It's a long process, we are looking for people living in the worst conditions, we want to be sure we act for those who really need help. The task of the selected family is to find construction helpers and a place to sleep for external volunteers. We come to the favela on a Friday evening, and on Saturday from the early morning we start working. To build one house we need two full days, usually several dozen people are involved.
Guilherme Prado, Techo volunteer from Brazil: When building a house with Techo, I entered the favela for the first time. I had never even thought about doing that before.
Felipe (3): Nobody could predict what would happen to Techo. But we felt that if we take a kindling, mix it with fuel and ignite a spark, something must happen. We felt that joining those who have more chances and opportunities – the university students - and those who have nothing at all - residents of poverty districts - will strengthen our faith and the resulting sense of justice, and the idealism of youth will do the rest. That’s how Techo was born.
Sebastian: It's hard to say who is the founder of Techo, it basically has no founder. Many people worked at its foundations. I think we were around 25. I was the youngest. Starting, we didn't even dream of creating something so great, an organization operating in all countries of South America, involving hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom run nowadays their own organizations, businesses, they work in education and politics. I think we are the beginning of a new Chile. We are a generation that believes in changing the world, improving the living conditions of people in Chile and other places. I remember the endless conversations with Felipe, who was asking how we imagine Techo. We replied that it would be nice to have branches in Santiago and several other cities in Chile, maybe one day in other countries around. And he asked us: “What about Africa? What about other continents?” He believed in the power of young people. We were 18, 20, 23 years old and he made us believe that we could change something, step by step. All we needed was faith in a vision and a good team of friends. Felipe always cared the most about the team. First, we lived next to each other, we built relationships among ourselves, but also with people from the slum, we created friendships, even couples. Then we built Techo. Felipe is its architect, a visionary. He now lives in Antofagasta, a city in the north of Chile, in the poor area of La Chimba. People put a bed, a piece of roof anywhere. They live at the edge of a garbage dump, where they actually feed themselves. Felipe undertook this challenge after returning from Africa, where he spent several years.
Understand the poor, to whom nobody asks for their opinion
We decided to change our travel plans and head towards Antofagasta hoping for a meeting face to face with Felipe. The closer to Antofagasta, the more people told how their adventure with changing the world and social involvement began by volunteering in Techo. We collected individual stories, trying to get in touch with the priest himself. A lot of people had the contact, a few promised to share it, eventually nobody did. It felt like Don Felipe was surrounded by an invisible wall, in theory accessible, he did his best to hide behind the rattletrap curtains of his current community.
Felipe: In Chile I became too popular, people started to treat me like a hero, they created myths, but also a lot of rumors - that I robbed someone, that I have children. All I have is a twin brother and he is indeed the father of six. People confused us, sometimes consciously. I asked for the opportunity to go on a mission in Africa. I've been there before, I speak Swahili.
Sebastian: Felipe likes to question, argue. Every time a journalist came to see him, the church was in trouble the day after.
Felipe: I had to leave, they needed me elsewhere. I couldn't let Techo become my property or the consequence of the fame that surrounded me in Chile. (4)
I came to Africa to continue my life project. I lived in Burundi, a country of exhausted hunger. We founded an educational center in a farming region trying to fight malnutrition. We gave families a newborn goat, they raised her until she could give birth and passed her offspring to other families. It was in 2010. In 2012 I went to Congo, to a refugee camp, I worked with former child soldiers. It was probably the most difficult experience I’ve had.
I wasn’t able to communicate, I had no way to move, in the most basic matters I depended on others. It's like being a child, dependent, defenceless, a certain step back to what is most important. This is a fundamental experience. As priests, we would be completely different if each of us had this type of experience: not to preach, but to listen to others. We begin to understand the poor, to whom nobody asks for their opinion. (4)
Marcele: When we enter the favela, we always come from the position of those who listen and I think that's why Techo is still working. We don't impose anything, we don't say we will do this or that. We listen first and this sets us apart from most organizations. Then, we talk and act. Together. Not only by building houses, but also by creating social and educational projects.
Sebastian: Many people from Techo believe we are a pituto for poor people. Pituto in Chilean spanish is the informal network. I know many people, I am looking for those who can help and I say: “Try, he is a good boy or a great girl”. Poor people have no network, no friends. We are becoming part of their network. At Actitud Lab, the organization I currently run, we connect people with no opportunities with companies. At the beginning only to let them see what life in the company looks like. Then comes education, work and other opportunities. Techo taught us to help the poorest, those who need it most.
Felipe (4): The gospel was written for the poor by the poor, which is why I went to Africa. The most disenfranchised live there: they walk kilometers barefoot, fight for water, firewood, food all day and they go to sleep not knowing if they will stay alive until dawn. Modern society convinces us that life is our right, but it is first and foremost a gift. Another dawn, without a deadly bite, without a disease, is a miracle. I went there to change something, not for social tourism. I thought I would stay there at least a few years, maybe a lifetime. I let God decide.
Make love with life
God decided that Felipe would come back after five years. Some superior from the Chilean church called him to serve. He settled at the far end of Antofagasta - a city of a long and narrow silhouette squeezed in between the ocean and the desert - next to a dump, in a slum, which you do not enter without permission, especially with blond hair and blue eyes, something in this region does not allow anonymity.
After several weeks of traveling through Chile, we arrived in Antofagasta without any contact, despite long seeking. We had 48 hours. Accidentally, we slept at Lucie's place, the only person who accepted us on couchsurfing. We told her about our challenge. The day after she brought the priest's phone number from a local journalist:
- He doesn't answer the calls, but there is a chance he'll read the message on Whatsapp.
Without much expectations, we put together a few sentences in our broken Spanish. He wrote back immediately:
- I am waiting for you in 15 minutes.
Felipe: You came here on foot?! You can't just walk in here, especially when it is already dark! You must get back by bus with the rest of our students! Come here, I will show you something. This is an educational center that we have opened for the poorest. In each part they learn a different profession - here is a salon for hairdressers, there for mechanics, next one is for cooks. A new profession will help them go out of poverty. Some people are from this slum, some come from other parts of the city, for those we arranged a bus so that they can get home safely. 98% are migrants. As a child, I had never seen a dark person on the street. Then, they started to appear, rich tourists, from the USA. Poor African-Americans are new to us. Chile has opened up economically, now it's time for a cultural opening, and the same applies to all of South America. 85% of people who start learning with us reach the end of the course, which is not so obvious. We recently lost one woman from the evangelical church. We are also working here on their sense of dignity and emancipation. The pastor didn’t like it. I tried to talk to him, but without results. Machist culture is still very strong here. Men, when they see that women learn faster, even electronics or mechanics, cannot cope with it. We had to separate the groups. We also don't allow the students to come with their children. We encourage men to take care of them. We want women to be able to do something for themselves, empower them and learn from them.
The educational center was designed by Felipe himself – flexible rooms that can open up and become a proper workshop. He is creative and limber to adjust spaces to the personal and cultural needs of those who use them. In his chapel the image of the Mother of God intertwines with a graffiti of Pachamama, Mother Earth. Mothers, women and what could be called feminine values seem to be at the center of his focus.
Felipe (4): We need to feminize, in the sense of humanizing, the concept of efficiency and success. It's not about who wins the race, who will be first, but how can we all get to the finish line. We must leave behind the macho culture, a patriarchate that harms us all so much: men live in constant rivalry, some exploit women, bully them, or behave like one more child to deal with instead of supporting them. They still don’t know how to be partners, how to share their lives and duties. Women are exhausted, they have to reconcile professional work with work at home and they still feel guilty about it. It's time for a change.
Change according to Felipe starts not only from our approach to women but, above all, from the way we deal with the youth.
Felipe: We teach young people to dream, we teach independence. As adults, we instil too much fear in children. We protect them too much. Once there was an experiment on panda bears, they gave male individuals Viagra to encourage them to reproduce. Instead, they began to masturbate. They didn't want women. They saw no sense in reproducing while being locked up in prison. Today, young people are also caged. Overprotected. They can't do this, they can't do that. In this way they lose their sense of meaning. They masturbate with life instead of making love with it.
Belief in young people is my strength. Techo is not an organization for young people, it is an organization that belongs to young people. They are responsible for it, they solve problems. Sometimes someone would call me to know if they can send volunteers. I always answered “ask them”. You can point at the problem but not provide the solution. The solution must come from people affected by the problem. When I first arrived in La Chimba I had a problem with rats, I couldn't get rid of them. My twin sent me a device that connected to electricity sends signals which should discourage rats. They learned to dance to that rhythm. Then he sent me a poison from Bolivia. They got thicker with it, they liked it very much. I finally consulted my neighbor and she gave me a local cat. The rats are gone. It was enough to ask the people from here, to listen. All problems related to ecology, inequality, injustice, hunger ... it makes no sense to look for solutions, even the smarter ones, if they don’t engage people. First of all the youth. To be young it means to take risks, to put your heart in what you do. Young people today are old before they grow up. When I was young, we used to play a game called lugo - throwing a disc, one step forward, then back, forward again, in constant motion to catch the disc at the right moment. I learned to play lugo with my life. Today's youth play chess: they make a move and stop to think over the next. They are old already.
We think today that if we live a healthy life, exercise, don’t smoke, we will live forever. But that's not true. Jesus died naked on the cross. Alone. And how will I die? I keep an old biography of Che Guevara on the shelf. He had many shortcomings, but he died in accordance with his values, and that’s not common today. We have to spend our lives in action. Bring something to the world. We need to discover the Don Quijote inside ourselves.
1P. Felipe Berrios, S.J., Un techo para Latinoamerica, Chile 2010, page 40, translated by A. Ksiazek, A. Pucci
2P. Felipe Berrios, S.J., Un techo para Latinoamerica, Chile 2010, page 38, translated by A. Ksiazek, A. Pucci
3P. Felipe Berrios, S.J., Un techo para Latinoamerica, Chile 2010, page 37, translated by A. Ksiazek, A. Pucci
4https://web.archive.org/web/20141022074609/http://www.verdugo.cl/berrios.htm# , translated by A. Ksiazek, A. Pucci
More about Techo: techo.org