Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chai and Beer and Dancing

     This is my second time doing this job, ergo you should trust me. I don’t say that out loud to people here; it’s not the sort of statement that inspires confidence. You would not take your child to a pediatrician who had diagnosed one other adolescent, or a mechanic who had successfully repaired a single prior car. Or perhaps you would, but you would expect their services to be heavily discounted, if not free, which is essentially the deal Supia is getting (with the IFP, at least). I’m learning on the job, we’re all learning on the job. Learning is what we do: we’re students.

     None of which excuses us in any way from doing the job as well as humanly possible. I only mention my very limited frame of reference because it is the lens through which I see this project. Like everyone else here, I have nothing except my own personal experiences with which to compare this new undertaking. Encounters, obstacles, personalities, strategies: they are all either “Like It Was In Tanzania” or “Not Like It Was In Tanzania”. My teammates may very well stab me the next time they hear the word Africa; who can blame them? All of this is the grain of salt. Take it and read on.

     People make projects work or fail. Building relationships with those people is a critical part, perhaps the critical part, of development work. I believe this to be even truer when that work is being carried out without the benefit of external resources (read: money). When building a project solely out of goodwill and need, interpersonal relationships are often the glue that holds the whole thing together. This notion can also be problematic, which I will discuss below. But first, the two events that led me to this conclusion.

     First: on Monday I was alone in Supia, and decided to head down to La Playita in the afternoon. When I arrived I found the vereda deserted, with a tenth of the normal complement of soccer players. I asked what was going on, and found out that there was a multi-game tournament taking place between La Playita and San Lorenzo, which is a town in an indigenous reserve, about 7-8 miles from Supia. After waffling for a bit, I decided to damn the expense, and caught a cab out there, rightly guessing that the investment would be repaid in memories.

     I arrived in the middle of the second game. Too many details will make too long a story, so the highlights: the president of the Junta screaming at the referee like a drunken sailor, two mules taking the field and refusing to budge, a missed penalty for San Lorenzo which gave us the win, a dislocated kneecap for one of my favorite women on La Playita’s team, and that same player finishing the freaking game! After the game we all walked down to the plaza to wait for our bus, which showed up 90 minutes later. In between I facilitated a number of “relationship-strengthening workshops”: they bought the first round, I bought the second. Someone convinced the proprietor of the local disco to hit the lights and pump the tunes on a Monday. Someone else did not think El Oso Blanco could dance.

     And that is how I found myself in a town I’d never been to, dancing with a woman I barely knew, while La Playita cheered.

     Things got stranger on the ride home. It was like a Friday-night football game in the US, if the fans, band, and team rode the same bus, which also had a liquor license. They were rather rowdy. The music got a bit loud. One of the female players started dancing in the aisle of a moving bus. She then requested a male dance partner, in the person of your humble narrator. Who was I to refuse? And that is how I found myself dancing with a woman on the middle of a moving bus, while La Playita cheered their faces off. This is relationship-building.

     The second event: yesterday, we sat down with Luzdary, the lovable volcano of a woman who we hope will run this program. She proceeded to needle me about the events of the previous evening, and most everyone in La Playita broke out laughing when they saw me; it sort of felt like we’d all seen each other naked. But that isn’t the point. The point is that near the end of a long and tiring summer, we were finally able to ask her if she would be the boss of this undertaking, and she said yes. We also asked her about recruiting a local retired cop (Samuel) to be a teacher. She laughed. Samuel is her cousin. So that’s not a problem. Oh, and Efren, the taxi driver who takes us to and from La Playita? That’s his brother, and also Luzdary’s cousin. This is relationship-discovering.

     We’d considered Luzdary as a potential project manager since we arrived here. But it was not right to ask her before; she did not know us, and we did not know her. More importantly, we did not know what the program should be, or whether she would be right for it, until we went house-to-house and talked with the community. Similarly, we knew the people who lived in La Playita before this week. But it is only very recently that they have ceased being “at-risk youth” and “vulnerable populations”, and become friends.

     Am I saying that every development worker needs to make a fool of themselves to be accepted? Or that we should only work with people we know and like? Unequivocally: no. In fact, making the project’s success contingent on interpersonal relationships would be an awful idea; the project should outlast any goodwill which we have earned.

     What I am saying is that there is no substitute for mutual understanding. Even in my limited experience I have seen projects fail because development agents acted without comprehending the problem or the people. They did not do the necessary work, and the fact that some of that work often happens over chai or beer or dancing makes it no less important.

     I woke up the morning after my mobile disco with a small hangover and a sheepish grin on my face. As we walked down to La Playita, I had a moment of self-doubt. “Have I”, I asked Tefi, “lost my respect in the community?”
     “Maybe they don’t respect you”, she said. “But now they trust you.” 

     Given the choice, I’ll take it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Use Well Thy Freedom

Apologies for the long delay. I wrote a post for July 4…but it was garbage, so I did not post it. The highlights:

Woke up on the 4th of July and went for a run. I try to go for a morning run every 7/4. It always makes me happier, and seems to make the day last longer. How better to start one of my favorite days of the year? Went a little farther than I normally do; I tried to make it to the top of the mountain. I’m not sure the mountain has a top, but if it does, I did not get there. I did manage to burn off some nervous energy. This was good. We needed to talk.

Our group has been living and working together for the last 5 weeks…and that’s most of the problem right there. I’m sure one or the other would have been absolutely no problem, but being forced to spend every waking moment with each other had driven us all a bit bonkers. I was stressed out whenever we were NOT at work, others were stressed out whenever we WERE at work, and others were less than thrilled at having their daily rituals lampooned…daily.

In short: jokes are only funny if both people laugh, talking about work in the pool is not always welcome, and spending 18 hours a day with most humans will lead to you wanting them dead. Luckily we were able to resolve our problems non-violently, and could enjoy America Day without all of the frosty cordiality that had been pervading our group for the last week or more.

It was a fun day after that. Qi and I went to watch Colombia’s team lose to Brazil with this wonderful family up in the hills above our town. We ate with them, prayed with them (they’re 7th Day Adventists), and got shown around their sugar-cane farm. I also got a healthy dose of local history, which is always interesting: how the Spanish couldn’t make the locals work, so they brought in slaves. How the indigenous reservations still maintain uneasy relations with the rest of the town. How there are 500 year-old rock carvings of faces in the river. Yeah. Pictures forthcoming.

Got back and shot pool with Javi and Juan P for a few hours, then we hit the town and had a great time at Fuego, the new discoteca in Supia. Danced with a lovely older woman, and then we cleared out when a fight started to break out over a girl. The boys were back in town.

But the greatest part of 4th of July weekend was the 5th of July. Why? It’s complicated. Qi, my lovely companion, was born in China but grew up in Queens. She speaks very good Mandarin and some Cantonese. I mention this, because on our second day in Supia we were shocked to find out that it has a Chinese restaurant. They’re everywhere, apparently. Qi felt slightly awkward about striking up a conversation with the proprietor, with the sole basis being that they were both Chinese. But when she did end up talking with the woman, that woman proved to be a saint. She was overjoyed to talk with Qi, and she invited us over for a big meal on Saturday. And what a meal…one of the best I’ve had in my life. There was soup. There were fried whole snappers. There was Kung Pao chicken. Beef and Broccoli. Delicious sticky rice. A plate full of strawberries. Another covered in melon slices. She just kept on bringing out more plates, to the point that we were laughing in disbelief. For once in my life I forced myself to eat slowly, and savor it. We were there for at least two hours, dining like emperors and enjoying the company of a friend, who used to be a chemistry professor in Medellin, and who had spent time studying in Russia. Among our group, we had every continent pretty well covered. I’ve spent three out of the last five July Fourths outside of America, and there’s a way in which you just appreciate the holiday so much more, and want to share it.

Fast forward to this last weekend. I needed to do some work on my individual project, which involves Colombian welfare programs and attitudes towards them. To do this, I took a bus three hours into the mountains, to a village where two other New School students are living. It was a good old-fashioned bushwhack of a bus ride: dirt roads, wash-outs, huge drops off either side. I loved it. Incredible views.

The town itself was unbelievably beautiful, especially considering how hard it is to get to. The central plaza (every town has one) is built on the slope of the hill, and done so with tremendous elegance. After work was over we spent an hour just relaxing in it, and soaking up the beauty. We were accompanied by a lovely engineer, who was also a stranger to the town, and who wanted to learn English. We traded questions and opinions and useful verbs under the boughs of a beautiful old tree, in the sight of a magisterial old church. It’s an amazing place.

But the work. The women from our project (two from New School, one from the University of Manizales) were nice enough to let me accompany them to a meeting with a number of local women (I was the only hombre present). These local women, seven in all, were community leaders, and represented other women, all of whom are victims of partisan violence within the last 20 years. Mostly (though not always) that means that their husbands were killed by revolutionaries or paramilitaries.

The women are working with vulnerable populations like these, and attempting to help them develop income-generating projects. One of the greatest obstacles is that people here do not talk about their stories. This is a problem, because within groups there can be tremendous unspoken resentment. In a bold (and potentially dangerous) effort to overcome that, our team had them do an exercise in which they wrote down 10 crucial moments from their lives, then placed those on a timeline, and shared their discoveries with the group. We did a sample version of this in our first week in Colombia. People shared experiences in quiet voices. I remember one of my friends bursting into tears during it, and I distinctly remember warning the women running it: you don’t know what is going to come out if you do this. I still thought they should do it, but that they needed to be responsible for anything that happened.

I was somewhat right: things did happen. But our team was perfect in handling it. Here are my notes on what was said (coming from the women, through the translator, and then through my interpretation):

     Woman #1: Was abandoned by her mother at a very young age (maybe in the hospital?). All she wants is to be a better mother to her children, and to give them all the love that she possibly can.

     Woman #2: Her mother died when she was 11. From that day on, she ran the house with five siblings. Then she had children at a young age and ran both houses. She believes that the most important thing in life is to share successes and hardships, as a community.

     Woman #3: She had a difficult childhood. Had her first child @ 16, and had 6 in total. Three of them were taken away by her boyfriend’s family, and today they resent her. One word to describe her life: suffering. But she also said that the only way to get through it is by sharing these stories, and surviving them together.

     Woman #4: Says she is 34, but she feels like she is over 60. “Why do we have to live so quickly?”

Almost every woman that spoke wept during their stories. The experience was clearly painful, but it also seemed cathartic. When the women were asked at the end for their impressions of the activity, they were overwhelmingly positive. One of them said something that I hope I never forget. I'll post again this week, with other, lighter stories from Colombia. But for today, there's this:

     The suffering makes us stronger. The wounds become scars, and the scars become memories. It’s like this: you can be healthy and happy one day, and then suddenly become grieving, sad, and sick. But you can overcome it. You can be happy and whole once more.