Lilani Goonesena writes: It is a bumpy, unpaved road and our driver carefully maneuvers around the potholes. Joan laughs and says this is her weekly massage. We pass dry, dusty shells of buildings, box-shaped with flat roofs. It seems as though it hasn’t rained in forever. Joan points to a truck coming the other way. “That’s our weekly water delivery”, she says.

We are in San Martin de Porres, a very poor district of Lima, Peru, visiting the extraordinary work of two Australian Sisters of Mercy. Joan and Patricia are not what I would typically think of as nuns. In fact, they are the archetypes of everyday Australian women — cheerful, frank and hardworking. Both in their late 60s, they have spent the last 17 years of their lives here in Peru, helping to improve the livelihoods of people who have adopted them into their community. This year, the district’s 10,000 homes will have running water and sanitation for the first time ever.


Our car pulls up outside a large square building. The Sisters have built their clinic with the aid of generous local donors, the work of Caritas Australia and funding from the Australian government’s aid agency, AusAID. Nearby a group of boys play football on a dusty field. Stray, mangy dogs lie in the sun, barely raising their heads to look at the newcomers.

It is a humbling place to visit but the Sisters love visitors and welcome us in. We are taken on a tour of the clinic and chat with the amazing women who work here. Nurses man the busy waiting room and the pharmacist proudly shows us boxes of medications locked in glass cabinets. A doctor and a dentist visit one day a week. A child psychologist works in a cheery room with the brightly painted mural and a few stuffed toys. Our toddler, Maya, promptly pulls up a chair at the little table and starts playing with a wooden jigsaw.

The clinic aims to provide quality basic health to poor people who would not otherwise be able to afford it. They specialise in women’s health, gynecology, dermatology, pediatrics, social work, legal aid, speech therapy and laboratory work. In pride of place, and under lock and guard, is an x-ray machine — with [former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd smiling down from a laminated picture on the wall. He visited the Sisters in 2008 and has been a strong supporter of their work ever since.

Tucked away in another room under further locks is an ultrasound machine, vital in enabling women patients to view the health of their unborn children. Educating women on maternal health, nutrition, hygiene and family planning is a vital part of the Sisters’ work. A team of 25 trained volunteers gives talks in community meetings, schools and soup kitchens.

The second part of the Sisters’ work is three Women’s Houses, benefiting over 800 women each year. Vocational classes on cooking, literacy, sewing, doll making, crochet, tai chi, hairdressing and computer are run very week. There are also personal development programs on domestic violence, ecology, communications and women’s health.

The women make and sell handicrafts and the Sisters’ latest venture is the marketing and sale of these products. Their current shop is in a tiny room and I happily browse through and collect a couple of armfuls of things to buy. The women thank me for my generosity but I’m just kicking myself for not bringing more cash. There are tablemats and table runners, bags, laptop cases, puppets and toys, all made with beautiful brightly coloured materials. A young Australian volunteer will soon join the centre to help with marketing and communications. It will be fantastic to see these products reach a wider audience.

The third facility by which the Sisters are supporting the community is through the jardins (childcare centres). They accommodate up to 70 children daily in a safe and caring environment with a further 40 kids in an after-school program. Mothers attending the vocational centre can send their children free of charge. Many work far from home as nanas (maids) or in the local markets. Sadly, more than half the children are malnourished and so, the jardin provides nutritious meals to boost their growth and development.

There are a few success stories in the community of children who have survived poverty and domestic abuse to graduate from school, attend university and go on to find good jobs. One young woman is even back in the same community as a paid kindergarten teacher in the jardin. It is an inspiring story of rising above the odds.

The afternoon we visit, Maya and I sit down in the jardin for a while. It is full of little girls busily playing with blocks. Spanish music fills the room through an old CD player in the corner. Two tias (teachers) are on hand to look after the girls.

There are also tales of sadness. Disabled children born because their mothers had no means of diagnosing their condition prior to birth, and a 17-year old teenager who died during childbirth because she didn’t have the means to get to a hospital in time.

This community will soon have running water and sanitation in their homes for the first time ever, which will make a huge difference to their health and wellbeing. The excitement is palpable. One woman showed us a toilet seat cover she had sewn in anticipation of her first ever toilet.

Afterwards, Patricia takes us for a walk up the hill behind the community. “I like to bring people up here so they can really see what it’s like,” she says. The sun is setting and we look out over the community — a sea of thousands of dusty, mud houses and shacks with whole families living in just one or two rooms. Walls and roofs are sheets of corrugated iron, chipboard and tarpaulin.

Stray dogs wander everywhere, children wave and at almost every door, people come out to greet Patricia. Everyone knows the Sisters. Their dedication and work in the community has given it not only fantastic community facilities but hope for a brighter future.

Lilani is an Australian living in Santiago, Chile, with her partner and toddler daughter. She also blogs at three amigos in Chile