Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Free Food!

I think I'm the cheapest MCCer on the Colombia budget this year. If we're only talking about the food budget, I'm sure. Last week I think I spent three to four dollars on food, and part of that was because I had visitors and I had to buy real things to eat. If it's up to me, more often than not I just eat an entire avocado and that's that. (It's avocado season, and there are thousands, literally, on trees and kitchen tables and the ground, in sacks and trucks and everywhere. The average size is four times the puny black ones you find in the States.)

The reason I spend no money, according to some of my male fellow seeders, is because I eat unfathomably small meals. The real reason, according to me, is the incredible generosity of my community members. I know that most folks who live with host families overseas have stories about the ridiculous amounts of food that are placed in front of them, and the moral dilemma of appreciating the gift but really not wanting to explode and/or gain absurd amounts of weight. I have enough of these stories, from Spain (paella!), Palestine (pita and labneh!), Sudan (posho!), and now, Colombia. One of my friends never, never fails to feed me lunch, no matter if I visit at 11am or 3pm. If there is food nearly ready, ready, or on the stove, I'll be handed a plate. Many evenings, I'll be cooking in my house and open the door to find the small neighbor boy with a Tupperware and a cup of juice. I hate it sometimes, because of my ruthless independent streak and need for control, but I love it too. If I don't eat all the rice, after all, I can just feed it to the chickens and eat the eggs later- win win! The best part is that this is not just true for me, as an outsider (although it might be a bit excessive), but is true in every house, for everyone. If food is served, it is served to everyone who is there, the second-cousins, the neighbor kids, the truck drivers, even if everyone knows that they are on their way to another meal in their own house. Two of my older women friends are used to cooking for a ton of kids and have just kept on cooking large pots of food, just in case someone shows up. I just love that.

This weekend I helped facilitate the first MCC delegation visit of my time here in the community, and once again, I helped coordinate the food. The cooks and I decided that we wanted to cook almost completely with food grown here, so the day before, I went looking for fresh yucca, ripe avocadoes, milk and eggs. A friend had already brought ñame the day before, and the garden is producing all the vegetables necessary except tomatoes, so we were doing well. I had some money and receipts in my bag. Two hours later, I staggered home with 15 pounds of yucca, ten platanos, about 15 almost-ripe avocadoes, a bag of fresh-picked cherries for juice, and all the money I'd left with. I just popped my head in doors, asking after ripe avocadoes, and people loaded me up. When I indirectly mentioned money, they brushed me off. Of course not.

That evening, four more avocadoes showed up. The next morning, people brought 10 more. I was so proud to tell the folks on the delegation that almost all the food they were eating was gifted, and even prouder to see friends of mine, two days after the delegation, walking home from church with a bunch of platanos. It's normal- everyday, with everyone- to gift food. We live in that abundance, and it's beautiful.

I think a lot about the strange nature of community here. As those of you who've been following my few-and-far-between blog posts know already, most of my job is fighting tooth and nail to get people to come to meetings, to work together, to put effort into a group initiative, and to swallow their pride for a minute and collaborate, admit that someone else may have a point, and try to reach agreement. I wonder if I just have the wrong framework in my brain for community- maybe meeting attendance actually doesn't matter, but we can measure community through something else...

What I see is that people here are magnificent. Powerful, surviving, proud, industrious, intelligent, and individualistic. Surviving in the past necessitated people like this- when the farms were miles apart and the market was farther, so families had to settle difficult land, grow all their own food, and haul their goods to market, all alone. And they thrived. They knew and know the land and are damn proud of it, and understand their wealth in terms of land and the food they grow. They survived, and they enjoyed the abundance together, but they managed and manage their lives fiercely and independently. This is what I feel when Dorka hands me a bowl of rice, chicken, and green beans- one of the million meals she's cooked with her feet squarely planted on this ground.

But I am still left with questions- today, we are seeing that the forces of change are too great for the good people to be islands. Today there are mining companies, highway construction, erosion, armed conflict, poor schools, free trade agreements, global warming.. We have to look for solutions together; we have to lock arms and hold each other up. Stubborn independence is lonely when everyone else has to sell out because the prices are dropping. How can we learn from the beautiful way that people share the abundance of food to build the abundance of community? How can we strengthen what is already here, and stand on it to face the future?

Reflections after intense days of travel

We are all connected. That's the painful and powerful reality that keeps resounding in my head after the week of Seed workshops and travel to visit the placements in both the city of Medellin and the department of Choco. As Seeders, we are members of a team, and although we spend most of our time working within our individual jobs and communities, we also are necessarily linked with our fellow Seeders. This means that, as a team, we somehow have to figure out how to handle vast differences in living style, work requirements, and contexts. We have to negotiate the differences in a way that doesn't make us resentful, and allows us to confront our own choices. It's a challenge in dialogue- can we talk our way through circumstances that try to separate us?

Colombia's vast geographic diversity manifests itself in incredible regional differences. At the start of the Seed program, our facilitators told us that each region was almost its own country, because of its particular accent, culture, industry, level of poverty, climate, etc. I didn't fully realize just how different the regions were until seeing three- Medellin (Antioquia), el Chocó, and the Carribbean Coast in a space of two weeks.  

I have spent the last seven months adjusting to life on the coast. I live in an extremely rural, isolated context, in a community where everyone farms, even the teachers and shopowners. There is no industry, and everyone, although rich in food resources, is very poor. Many are illiterate. The schools opened two months late, there is no health clinic or even nurse for two hours in every direction, and in the rainy season, the road becomes completely impassable. Also, the community is rebuilding their former strength after being violently displaced by paramilitary and guerrilla forces twelve years ago, then returning slowly over the last ten years. The community is made up of fiercely independent Afro-descendent and indigenous Colombians, who have organized into a community council that struggles to unite the community in its search for economic development and social healing. My work is often difficult, and made up of thinking about how to address high levels of material needs and the complete lack of services or economic opportunities, alongside the distrust and reluctance to collaborate among the wider community.

As I boarded the plane to Medellin, my stomach sank with worry. I didn't know how I was going to react to being in one of Colombia's beautiful cities, especially visiting the work and apartment of my dear friend and fellow Seeder, Jessica Sarriot. I have become quite defensive about the difficulties of the coast, both in the work and in the lifestyle, and being in Medellin was just going to make things worse. I spent the first few days amazed at just how opposite our lives were, as we took taxis, drank the tap water, and visited with some of her professional, well-studied collegues and friends. One of the evenings, we went downtown to the largest sports complex in Latin America to play beach volleyball. I became more and more confused. How could we enjoy this, I thought, when most of the coast doesn't have adequate roads? Of course, there was a huge group of police searching the grounds outside the stadium for knives, hidden while people attended the soccer game, reminding us that Medellin has one of the highest levels of urban violence and narco-traffiking in the world. How can we relate our work- on one side almost completely defined by the poverty of the region, and on the other, connecting the work of the church with the context of urban violence? How do I keep from resenting her internet access, metro system, and botanical gardens, and how does she keep from resenting my I've-got-it-the-worst attitude? Above all, how do we understand and work in a country where one region has world-class social and cultural institutions, prolific industry, and strong public services, and another isn't even able to open its schools on time?

Then we went to Chocó, and things got more complicated. The heat as the plane door opened reminded me of the coast, but disembarking, I realized that it was completely different. Just forty-five minutes away by plane from Medellin, we were in the middle of dense, humid forest, where almost all transportation is by river. However, I was amazed as we arrived at Istmina, the town where the Seeders Carolina Perez and Cellia Maria Vasquez live, at just how developed it actually was. I was expecting something similar from the isolated, poor, small-scale farming towns of my region, and was completely unprepared to find a bustling city.

Choco's industry is mainly gold mining or coca cultivation, both of which yield much more money than standard crop farming. Perhaps there is more money moving, but the region is startlingly precarious. Because many farmers have switched to grow coca, food is imported from the same Medellin, at sky-high prices. Environmentally, gold mining threatens the richness of the soil and the entire water supply, especially the massive river systems. The presence of the federal government is laughable, made up mostly of army fumigation campaigns and corrupt police stations. As we walked through gold mines where mercury is used for extraction then discarded in the water supply, talked with coca farmers, and quietly discussed the obvious presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups in the towns, we began to realize just how huge the threats to stability and peace actually are.

I grappled with the new information as we saw more of Chocó and returned to Medellin. The puzzle of Colombia was becoming more complicated with each new piece that we added. The Seeders gathered for a discussion about how to understand differences in context, especially relating to vacation and days of rest. This conversation and various others that took place that week weren't easy, but I found myself profoundly grateful for the perspective offered by the other Seeders. We discovered that, now matter how good our intentions, we still compare and feel jealous or guilty about the difficulties of our placements. Some of us can see fellow Seeders more often; others are more in touch with their families. Some of us have the anonymous freedom of cities, while others are in small communities where everything they do is known. Although we naturally compare, we have to recognize that every place has its difficulties and strengths, and each of us must be allowed to feel freely, without guilt or resentment.

During a late night discussion in Chocó, Carolina and I talked about the word “solidarity.” Even as we seek to be in solidarity with our communities, we have to remember that Seed is also our community. If the way we live doesn't allow us to be in solidarity with the other Seeders, we have to question ourselves. If my lifestyle means that I close my heart to empathy with Jessica in Medellin, I need to make some changes. If my defensiveness about the hardship on the coast means that I can't see the justice issues in Chocó and talk about them honestly with Carolina and Cellia, I need to take a look at myself.   

Perhaps it is a big jump, but I believe that these conversations are the same ones we must have about the various strange puzzle pieces of Colombia. The regions are so different, but we can see uniting threads of economic hardship, violence from illegal armed groups, the enticement of illegal crops, government abandonment, and many more. The challenge is to refuse to divide and separate, but to see every problem as interconnected, and to likewise build an interconnected movement for peace and justice. In the same way, perhaps, we Seeders strive to look at a wide field of experience and difficulty, and construct a community vision of solidarity and hope.

As I dig deeper into the Seed program, I am finding a richness that challenges me in ways I did not expect. Through community, through dialogue, through walking with each other and talking things out, we are challenged to wake up to difficult realities, and not just shrug at difference, but try to actually wrestle with it. I am so grateful to those who are walking with me through these days.