It’s impossible to walk a block in Sucre without tripping on a handful of child workers. Their lives are a paradoxical mix of hustling for a few bolivianos and acting as their own boss while trying to stay kids for as long as possible. This is where Linda de Jong, the Dutch owner of Amsterdam café, comes in. Tall, blonde, and fluent in three languages, she’s been Sucre for five years and is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to looking out for the child workers. She was travelling through and ended up staying “for the kids!” Like most travelers who pass through, she began by working for an orphanage, and phased into working for Ñanta shortly after. Amsterdam Café, a cozy spot on San Alberto and Calvo, is a welcoming watering hole which directs all profits straight into Ñanta.
Ñanta has become the city’s biggest ally for the hundreds of kids who are forced to pay their own way in life. Linda recounts the story of Ñanta’s beginnings, when they began with about 25 workers coming to the center on a daily basis. Help was basic—a little money here and there to make ends meet, and cooking when they didn’t have food. Support and funding was raised by home countries of the volunteers, who hailed from several European countries.
In 2002, they realized that building an organization outside of foreign volunteers would be crucial to continue the work of Ñanta. Extranjeros who were only in Sucre for a few weeks or couple months at most simply couldn’t fill the role of local stability. The search began for Bolivians to work with the kids on music, artesania and cooking, as well as drawing and writing for the Ñanta magazine, which is created entirely by child workers on a quarterly basis.
Ñanta now supports roughly one hundred child workers on an average day, with up to twice that for special events and on weekends, when many kids come into the city to work. Word of mouth amongst the workers spreads quickly in the plaza, particularly since the center provides three meals a day for the kids. Workers pay 50 centavos (roughly 7 US cents) for a meal as a symbolic way to take an active role in the center and pride in their participation. The center also offers support for schoolwork, continuing education, and recently added information studies to their curriculum. There are also several sports for the kids to participate in, including football and swimming. Ñanta Magazine, Jallpa, is produced every few months and created entirely by the teenagers and children working in Sucre. A local press prints the magazine and the majority of customers are the tourists passing through the city.
Linda’s voice gets louder as the conversation turns to specifics of the children’s lives. Their jobs are as varied as their histories: shoeshiners, gum sellers, windshield washers, market vendors, brickmakers, singers on busses, house cleaners, nannies, cooks, and newspaper sellers are frequently children barely into adolescence. Although many of them attend school, “survival comes first, and school comes second” in their lives. She estimates that about 99% of child workers arrive from surrounding countryside when their parents relocate to create a better life for their families. The reality upon arrival, however, is that speaking only Quechua prevents them from finding work and the entire family has to take part in bringing in income. Since children usually pick up Spanish more quickly than their parents, they find work faster and have to act as the major breadwinner as well as translator for their families. In addition to the difficulty of attending school and earning enough to make ends meet, there are more subtle impacts of working so young that ripple under the surface. When a boy of 12 or 13 is providing most of the family income, the role of the father gets lost and confused and family structures deteriorate faster. The independence of working on their own also makes it difficult later for the kids to work in more traditional jobs, since they are totally unaccustomed to having a boss and a schedule.
The challenges these kids face are immense, but made more manageable by a place that provides some food and encouragement before they head back out to the streets. If you’re travelling through Sucre and want to help, your options are myriad. “Come and drink!” Linda laughs, and perhaps the easiest way to help the cause is by showing up at Amsterdam, having a beer and spending some time with Linda herself. Although most travelers’ budgets are stricter than hefty donations will allow, if you have a few bolivianos you can stop by the café and will be warmly welcomed. For those with more time, volunteering at Ñanta (minimum of six weeks) will plunge visitors directly into the kids’ lives and is time well-spent—this rowdy bunch of hard-working, grimy kids needs every bit of affection and attention they can get.