Living among death

In Bolivia, Mateo is one of 848.000 working children. His workplace is the General Cemetery of La Paz City.

Friedhof La Paz

As many other children Mateo got to work to buy food. He cleans the graves on the cemetery.

When someone talks about death, Mateo is not afraid. “I live with her”, he saysAutorenbild_Libertad casually, while changing the water in a vase before placing it on the grave of a person he never knew.

He earns some coins as a “water carrier” in the General Cemetery of La Paz city, where I met him. It is located in one of the most dangerous areas of the city.

Part of the eight year old boy’s job is to keep the flowers fresh and to clean the graves. Instead of playing with friends, going to school or enjoying his childhood, he takes care of the final resting place of the dead. According to data from the Ministry of Labour, 848.000 children and adolescents work in any activity and almost half of them are under the legally permitted age to work – which is 14 years old.

“I know, that one day everything will change”.

Like Mateo, thousands of “water carrier” children are doing this job at the cemeteries in different cities in Bolivia; they are well-known by visitors to these places. And since the dead not only visit during the week, but also during the weekends, the children hardly have a day off. The job at the cemetery is not only difficult for Matteo because of the amount of work, but also because of the sadness of others that he witnesses up close day by day.

Friedhof La Paz

Even though the children have to work hard they usually earn little money.

But although Mateo has witnessed many funerals to date, none of them ever made him feel as sad as the day he realized that his mother was slowly losing her battle with alcohol. The family – Mateo, his mother and an older brother – used to live in a simple room near the cemetery. One day his mother gave up out of despair and his older brother chose a local gang as his new family. One of his aunts allowed Mateo to stay with her; however, the situation is not easy. There is not enough food, and the food is not shared equally between him and his four cousins. Therefore, working as a “water carrier” allows Mateo to at least pay for some food and notebooks.

I talked a while with the young boy. When I said goodbye, he answered in his shy voice: “I know, that one day everything will change”.

SOS Children’s Villages support children in need. We give them a new home in one of our villages or help them through the SOS family strengthening program. However, we cannot save all the children of Bolivia. Sometimes, this just breaks my heart!

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