Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'bout time I told you about my job...

I suppose it's time to write about my work, actually. I've been introducing you to my community (although the lack of cell phone/Internet capabilities there makes my descriptions few and far between), but haven't explained anything about what I actually live there to do. As I'm leaving Internet land again tomorrow and I have a million things on my to-do list, I'm going to make you a list.

Basically, I work with a group called SembrandoPaz (Sowing Peace) that has been a peace and social justice resource for communities affected by the armed conflict on the Carribbean Coast. Most of the communities they work with are displaced- either in the process of return of to their former land or post-return and trying to rebuild their former security and stability. This basically adds up to a focus on human dignity: attempting to rebuild the fractured social fabric through processes focused on dignity. Here's a list of some large and small things that make up that wide vision.

Productive projects: these are agricultural projects that focus on supporting people to work the land again. Because of the Free Trade Agreement and climate change and a zillion other factors that make this region vulnerable, a lot of my current focus is on food security.
Example: The community is frequently left isolated by the rain, meaning that basic food/supplies can't get in. I'm working with several projects that intend to produce things normally imported. One job: I've been sitting around, laughing, teasing and planning a chicken raising project with four young women from the community. It'll incorporate both mass market chickens because they generate capital faster and local, strurdy Criollo chickens, with the hope to eventually phase toward the local chickens. They are about to sign the loan and get started!

Securing farming as a lifestyle: this is part of my job, no big deal. Seriously though, the world over small-scale farming is becoming more and more insecure (working on an article about the role of the FTA in all this, stay tuned). We're trying to support and validate small-scale efforts, attempting to make small-scale more viable as the temptation is to sell out, look for work in the city, or shift to cash crops instead of food production. One of the related strategies is funding/encouraging seed saving- to build up the ability of farmers to continue to produce food, year by year, without needing to use their few resources to purchase new seed. I've been hiking up and down steep hills of ñame plants (described in the last post), checking in on the farmers, making sure they are saving seed, encouraging them, etc. I love this part of my job, especially because it means that I know almost everyone in my community and can stop them in the street to ask about their crops. We have great early morning conversations about rain, market prices, and the quality of ñame.

Women's empowerment: I just wrote an article for the SEED publication about my community and it has a lot in it about gender roles- I'll post that soon, so I won't go into detail here. Suffice it to say that the community is very machista- women always have the second say, and have no choice or way to look for change in their work. It's their place to hand wash laundry, supposedly, and that's the way it'll stay. This is where I have to be the most clever. In a male-dominated community, if I start talking about liberation and mujerismo (womanism), I will likely alienate the men and make enemies fast, for both me and the women in the community. We have to look for ways to reinforce empowering ideas/skills/attitudes in culturally-appropriate spaces. As I work with the women on the chicken project, their husbands are also occasionally present. It's a small thing, but I always direct my attention, questions, and ideas to the women, never to the men. Chicken raising is a gender-appropriate job for women, but they have rarely been in control of the planning, finances, and organization. Having a women-only project is a way of giving them some decision-making power that they desperately need. Also, when I get back, I'm planning a bread-baking workshop for women in the community, as a space for us to get together and start building community outside of kids/husbands. We're going to make naan bread over wood fires.

Hanging out: Literally, hanging in my hammock or hanging around drinking cups of sweet coffee with the neighbors. One of the things that we're finding in our communities is that people are acting on such a level of necessity that there is little time or energy to reflect. Mouths need to be fed, which means early to the fields, hard days, lots of household labor: energy spent on the basics. It's a very reactive pattern- people are so occupied by basic necessities that there is little space to reflect and plan for long term action. I see a lot of my job as hanging out and talking with people, giving them the chance to reflect on their experiences and daily life and wonder about the future. I ask people how they feel about living close to their families, having children so young, not having gardens anymore, gender roles... I ask, paraphrase, process, reflect, encourage.

And the last part of my job- animando, or encouraging: Most of my friends/neighbors/community members are just tired out. They've endured the horrible trauma of displacement and return to empty land and the incredible task of rebuilding. Often, their attitude is a sort of an “it is what it is” feeling. Corruption, violence, individualism, rich robbing from the poor, flooding... these things happen, and there isn't very much you can do about it. So why try? I'll explain more as I explore this feeling in the community in the coming months. For now, one of my jobs is working with a group of young men (I call them The Dude Men in English because they are really into their fashion, hair styles, and being cool) to start a fish farming project. Most of them work a small amount of land or hire out for other farmers, but are frustrated at their dependence on the “old people,” as they call their parents, and lack of options. Our first meeting, I sat with them and asked them a few questions about what their goals were, then struggled to keep up as they threw out ideas, work plans, and started to organize their project. I cheer them on (and remind them of the importance of organization and follow-through).

These are my jobs! I'm working on a framework of values/principles so I can feel more centered in my work, but for now, this is what I understand. Of course, my job is so dependent on the community's goals, desires, styles, processes....that I often find myself in balance-and-adapt mode. We'll see how it changes in the coming months.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I have rain boot tan lines (late October post)

Rain has been my constant, frustrating companion and patient teacher these last four weeks. Yesterday we had the blessed break of a sunny afternoon, but most days have been the gray of thick clouds and the brown of muddy paths. Winter here means rain and lots of it, but I can't help but attribute some of the excessive downpours to the chaos of climate change. I think about all of the rich farming regions of the world and how they are bewilderingly trying to adapt to less or more rain, like this village of farmers who dig their living out of the mud. I have been both despairing of and thankful for the rain these days, but I have been constantly reminded how important and defining the rain is for this region. I'm going to share a few stories of the reality of life here, on the rainy days.

Yesterday, I accompanied six campesinos to, literally, dig their living out of the mud. We were pulling out ñame, a giant white root that is probably in the yam family and the most common food here. The organization with which I'm working, SembrandoPaz, started a seed-saving project last year, in which they give out a sack of seed in agreement that the farmer will demonstrate that they have saved at least the same amount of seed at the end of the season. My job is to check in on the farmers to make sure they are “capando,” or pulling out the root to eat or sell but leaving the vine to grow seed. Because ñame grows best at high altitudes, this collective of farmers (12 in total) pooled their seeds to plant high up in the mountains. In other words, we set out early for a two hour trek, crossing the river twice and walking through a stream for at least half the time. We all rode, some mules, some donkeys. This was the only day in the last two weeks that the journey was possible, because of the mud and the swollen river. After a dry day and night, the river had decreased some, but it was still hip-deep where we crossed. We had to dismount for the last mile or so of the trip, to let the animals struggle up and down steep, muddy hill faces. We finally arrived to do the same steep, sliding work on the ñame fields. They are almost vertical faces, planted with vines. The work is to find where the vines enter the ground, cut off the vine, and dig/lever/haul out the root (average size was 10 pounds) with a pointed stick. After four hours of standing on the steep banks bent over digging and hauling out roots, the men (with my small contribution) had accumulated about 16 50-kilo sacks of ñame, about 1900 pounds in total. The animals hauled out 12 of those sacks and we walked out in our rain boots. Imagine, a donkey fighting for purchase on a muddy, vertical path, loaded with an additional 240 pounds of ñame, with us following them, urging them on. The work is downright hard, made even harder by the constant rains.

The day before, I had enjoyed my morning coffee watching out the front window at the road. The week before had been vacations for the schools, so many of the teenagers studying in Sincelejo had come home to visit. Because of near constant rain for three days, the river was neck deep in places and running fast. No trucks had been able to cross it, so the only way to get in or out was walking or riding. That morning, I watched about a hundred donkeys and horses, laden with sacks of yucca or ripe avocadoes, walking out. The crops had been ready to ship out but sat slowly spoiling as they waited for the trucks. I also watched the teenagers, after missing two days of classes, riding out with their backpacks.

Shipping things in is equally difficult. When the trucks can't get in, the local stores, who depend on the same few trucks for everything, slowly run out- of meat first, then cheese and sugar, even rice. A few folks went on donkeys to fetch their orders, which had gotten stuck downriver, returning with wet sacks of cigarettes and limp vegetables.

School was out for an extra week as well, since the teachers have to cross the river three times to reach the school. We scheduled a community meeting, but the rain came exactly ten minutes before and stayed for two hours. No one came, logically, because the road had turned into a swamp. Today was election day, and solid rain for four hours in the morning must have been discouraging for the politicians. I watched several people going to vote, walking with towels or plastic bags on their heads, carrying their shoes. Most rode, but many stayed home. (The ironic part was that the road was so bad that the government had to helicopter the vote-collectors in. You think they would realize that the road condition really is dire.) The rain is also discouraging or encouraging for the crops, depending on what is growing. It's impossible to predict how much it will rain a given rainy season (last year, for example, it rained for 10 months straight), so most farmers guess for the best. Right now, those who planted rice are delighted, while others with corn, sesame and ñame are worried. The crops are drowning, they say.

It's a tricky game- guessing when the rain will or won't come. When to do laundry, when to travel, when to order more rice, when to pick avocadoes. The other game that comes hand in hand is guessing when the electricity will go out. Usually it goes along with the rain, although sometimes on a sunny day it will blink out surprisingly. Today, I woke to rain for the next four hours, and had a hankering to do some rainy-day things- finish writing this blog post, for example, and bake bread. Unfortunately, both require electricity-for the computer and my toaster oven. I wondered for the first few hours if the power would go out, playing with the idea of putting bread to rise (if the power went out, I couldn't have even put it in the fridge to wait, since the fridge also turns off). When it didn't, I went ahead. I'm still crossing my fingers as it rises.

As I've said, I'm learning a lot. I'm learning not to try to get something done even though it looks like rain, because you might get stuck across the river overnight. I'm learning to ask people if they think it will keep raining. To take advantage of electricity when I have it. To give thanks that I bought a gas-not electric- stove. To understand why people miss meetings. To consider learning to cook bread over an open fire. To appreciate when the power goes out and the neighbors can't crank their soundsystem. To sit around and simply talk as the rain pounds on the tin or palm roof. To slow down, a little, although I'm not sure I'll ever learn that quite like the folks here.