Tuesday, July 24, 2012


This weekend, I was reminded of the scary fragility of my body, and of being far away from the people I love. Before I say anything more, I want to say that I'm shaken up but ok, and taking time to heal. The story seems so extreme, and although I really am recovering well, I got really close to not being here at all. I was swimming with friends (Emma and Jess) on vacation, a little out from a beach that is just for swimmers, and was hit by a motorboat (it's all right if you need to laugh, I've laughed a lot about how absurd it is). It swept over me and hit my lower back/ tailbone, which bounced me down away from the propeller. I came up kicking and yelling for help, and within seconds, several people had heard me and were heading to help. I sustained an impact to the lower back and a short cut on my elbow. After an afternoon in various hospitals, we got results that I am not fractured, but need lots of rest to heal.

Accidents are terrifying. There is no warning, no chance to plan ahead, and they can go both ways, toward a miracle or toward so much pain. The same night, I called my Mom and realized that it was the anniversary of my grandpa Joe Shenk's death, which came on the heels of my uncle Reuben's death. Joe was hit by a truck while running in Nyabange, Tanzania, and died several days later from complications that went undiagnosed and unoperated, in some ways because of the unavailability of medical care that might have saved him. On Saturday, we explained that MCC will pay our bills. We called an ambulance, and although it was poor quality and unequipped for real emergencies, it still got us quickly and safely to the clinic. In the first clinic, they wheeled us past lines of waiting Colombians, many of whom were thinking about their bills, how and when and who was going to pay them. The security guard looked at me as we were heading out and said something like- “look at how well they treat the blond girl.” We went to a second clinic, a private clinic, and paid for another consult, saw a specialist, were attended relatively quickly, and paid the bills.

I am not skimping on my care. MCC is good about saying that we need to take care of ourselves, whatever it takes, because a sick worker can't do nearly as much as a well one. We must heal ourselves. Guilt is powerful though. Accidents are equalizers- everyone hurts, and everyone deserves what they need. I went to the emergency room in the US with a friend a year ago and was horrified. In other wings of the hospital, you hear mostly English. In the ER, I heard many languages- there were so many immigrants, undocumented or documented, without health insurance, with many more hoops to jump through.

Through talking about priviledge with the other Seeders, I think we've come to think about things in terms of basic rights. If I have access to clean water, it's not smart to give that up to be in solidarity with those that don't have clean water. I should fight all the harder for everyone to have clean water. I had potentially life-threatening injury and I needed urgent care. I want that to be true for everyone. It isn't, and that breaks my heart, but it should be.

The other week, I had a long conversation with Ann and Jim Hershberger, who turned out to be the MCC reps in Nicaragua who had received the body of my mother's cousin, Dan Wenger, who was an MCC worker there in the late 80s. He died in a car accident during his term. As we talked about Dan, and now, as I reflect on my accident and that of my grandpa, I'm shaken. I never want to live scared. I believe in what I do, and I want to continue to travel, to work in service, even though the roads might be worse, the water might be contaminated, and the levels of crime or urban violence might be higher. Accidents happen everywhere, and we have to be smart and safe. The hardest thing is that an accident far from home is more traumatic. My family can't see me or know that I'm well. I feel so far from them right now, and am all the more aware of what could happen. I'm not leaving though, far from it.

A day later, my sister's best friend was killed in a car accident. She was sixteen, blooming, growing, full of light. It is such an enormous loss, and so arbitrary. I am healing, she is not. We both were in accidents. Horrible things happen all the time to people who never deserve them, and we are left with no way of dealing with them. There is no motive, no justification. How does my sister lose her friend? How do we say goodbye when we can't prepare or reason? When I ask people in my community about their losses in the massacre of 2000, they all tell me that there is no why. They were left with no way of understanding why their family members were targeted, for what motive they were taken away. How do you heal that?

The only thing I can think of right now is presence. I am so profoundly grateful that I haven't been alone in this. Emma and Jess made sure that the nurses stopped fiddling with my elbow and let me lay down to ease my back pain. They fed me sardine and mustard crackers in the clinic and cracked jokes about the ridiculousness of the succesive injuries in the Seed group (and how I have now one-upped everyone). The other Seeders and MCCers have been calling everyday. My family lovingly posted alarming messages on my facebook wall. My mom, who is confronted by several tragedies at once, is strong enough to keep calling, to keep talking about all of it. We were talking about what to do about my sister's friend, and she said that Thandi's mother had just asked her to sit down with her and eat food- there was so much food, and nothing else to do. I remember that during the horrible weeks of my uncle and grandpa's death and funeral, my aunt Rose had so much food to eat, and through the fog of dealing with unimaginable loss, we sat and ate. These things are terrible, but Anna and I will sit in Sincelejo and make chocolate cake and eat vegetables. Gilly and Mom with go to Thandi's house and eat with her family. I will keep sitting with people in my community, telling stories and cooking and taking one step forward at a time.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fourth of July, a few days later

Once more, living outside of the U.S. has meant that the fourth of July has snuck up on me, unheralded by department-store sales and recipes for red, white, and blue desserts. In my small town, there will be no fireworks. All the men will go to work in the morning, hiking into the hills to check on the corn, and will come back sweaty and hungry to their wives, who will have worked all morning to clean the house and put sancocho (the CosteƱo stew) on the table.

My brother was just here visiting from the same U.S.A. for a few days, and besides the early morning cow-butchering and horseback trek to visit someone's fields, we spent a lot of time chewing on the stark differences between our current lives. I think, for my part, this translates into me venting about various aspects of my job. Perhaps venting isn't quite right, but I remember that I would repeatedly have a conversation with a community member about some aspect of our work, then as I translated to Dylan, I would explain why this part of my work was frustrating. The word I use most often is “try,” as in, “we're trying to involve the younger men in our projects” or “we're trying to promote democratic participation” or “we're trying to creates channels of communication between leaders.” Once more, I feel like the beautiful conflict analysis diagrams and development project plans from EMU are bare guidelines, and the real work is just years of slugging away, piece by piece building process.

I asked Dylan once if he thought I was being overly negative about my work, and his reply put to voice something I'd been thinking for a while. He said no- rather the context was wrapped in negativity. The people here are extraordinarily brave and loving, but they wrestle constantly with a host of things that try to cut them down. I think living here is most importantly an experience of structural violence in almost every form, and I'm not exaggerating. This is a community of poor peasant-farmers, living on rich land, but without the tools to profit from it. They are recovering from a massacre and mass displacement, which caused unimaginable material losses, tears in family structure, fear and distrust in others from the community, and on and on. The government is unresponsive to their pleas for better roads and schools, and folks here are too busy, without resources, and underprepared to organize well. The worst part is that most of the influences around appear to be working against them. The Colombian and international vision of development doesn't have a place in it for the preservation of the small-scale farmer. Reparations and aid for displaced people tend to be monetary hand-outs, which negatively affects the pride and resilience of independent farmers, now reduced to spending days filling out paperwork in Colombia's bureaucratic behemoth. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against them. An unscientific understanding sees climate change warping the rainy season patterns, meaning that every year, many of the farmers simply bet wrong. As we speak, there is rice turning yellow in most of my friends' fields, thanks to the lack of rain all June.

Over and over, I get this feeling that this village is at the algae end of the food chain. A rural agrarian community in a country hell-bent on reinventing itself as an economic power... globally, it is not a promising story. Another village of campesinos is expendible, especially if there is something valuable under the soil. The passion that people have for their yuca crops, the knowledge of exactly which tree has the best mangoes, the lengthy arguments over the price of cows, and the fierce bonds of family and community... these things are not worth developing or preserving from the standpoint of progress. I should say, from the disassociated plans for progress. If we educate, if we rethink, if we rehumanize, if we listen to the campesinos themselves, these things can be understood for their true values. How strange, that something can be worthless from one angle and priceless from another.

And so we keep on trying. I keep on trying to express to my community my vast appreciation and wonder at this way of life, and we keep thinking of ways to strengthen it.

As we approach July fourth, I find myself in a different place than last year. Last year, I thought long and hard about the things I loved about the U.S.- especially the brilliant, vibrant people who resist the push for global dominance, by living and loving each other in their own communities. This year, I'm trying to understand a helpless fury drected at the top of the food chain. I could qualify this fury for pages- I know that the American Dream isn't true for so many within the U.S., and I know that it isn't the only factor that plays in Colombia's (or many other developing nations') path to economic and political success- and it isn't helpful to flatly blame anyone, especially not a nation as huge and diverse as the U.S. I do know that something is deeply wrong, and I think it's perhaps the myth of the American Dream. Maybe it's still the blessed myth of the bootstraps that stalks us, as we desperately try to believe that the problems in a Colombian village are centered around lack of organization, not the demoralization of centuries of having everything held just out of their reach. Maybe it's the fact that people in my village ask me over and over about the U.S. as if it's the promised land, not the land that has stolen that promise at some point from every country in Latin America.

I don't know where to direct my anger. I don't know how to understand the incredible gap of opportunity and possibility for myself and the average 23-year-old in my town. I don't know how we can start to value community, sustainable planning for the future, resilient economic systems, and transformative relationships. I don't know how not to feel guilty about everything (although I cope, and I ignore, and I don't). I don't know how to talk about development- what is essential? What is a right?

The only thing I can think recently is that we have to learn that not everyone has bootstraps, and maybe a better model is talking about hands. Maybe we need to reach out our hands more often, and help pull each other up.