Yesterday, I woke up at 5:30 to cut rice. I am tired of living in a farming community and getting blisters because my hands are “computer soft,” as a friend from Jubilee Partners told me one time, when I visited after going back to college. I’m going to work.
We got to the field at 6:30ish, and cut stalk after stalk until 1:30, pausing to wipe sweat from our faces and drink from a shaded spring nearby. My friends sang vallenato and Mexican rancheros as they worked, and they railed me with questions about Madonna (recently gave a concert in Colombia) and what giraffes were really like (after they found out I’d seen one alive) and if you could cross breed giraffes and donkeys (like true farmers). We laughed at how red my face got and they complemented by rice-cutting speed.
I jumped in the river afterward to cool down and visited with my neighbor friend, who was sitting in the water, washing cooking pots, and then headed up town to sit with some friends for the cool-afternoon-chat-time. On the way there, I passed twenty or so young men walk-running down the road, some carrying a hammock on their shoulders, others waiting for their turn. A pale older woman lay in the hammock, her son running beside her, stroking her hand. They were carrying her out until they reached a car that could take her to the hospital. Later, I ran into a friend who commented that his trip to the city had reached no conclusions, as his child’s health insurance was still not sorted out. His son was born with heart and intestinal problems and has had two operations and needs another, but bureaucracy has kept his insurance tied up. They are waiting.
As the sun set, I sat with some dear friends, talking about rice cutting techniques and natural remedies for stomach sickness (the señora prides herself in having had cured about everyone in the community at one time or another). They recommended that I blend some green bananas, peel and all, when I have an upset stomach. At one point, the señora turned to me and said, “How great is God. Look at our lime tree. Everyone picks from it, and there are still dozens of limes ripe and ready, all year round. And right next to the kitchen. God takes good care of us.” As I left, they showed me the sacks of rice that they’ll store to eat this year. The sunset was beautiful.
How blessed I am to get the chance to live here and experience how life smells, feels, hurts, and thrives in this village. I’m reading the book about Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, right now. I had resisted picking it up for several years, not knowing what I would think about his outlook on the answer to the problem of unequal distribution of wealth, resources, and especially medicine between the rich and poor. His answer is Robin Hood- take what you can, when you can, and always prefer the poor. He is bold and angry.
I don’t know how I would stand up in a conversation with Farmer. I feel boldly angry, but in my work I often find myself following MCC’s cautious approach, pushing for accompaniment and sustainability. I’m not creating a pilot project out of nothing, run on my persistence and will, but trying to help create a healthy community that responds to its own needs. Sometimes it feels almost futile.
Farmer hates the “they are poor but they are happy” thought, seeing it as an excuse for writing off the deep and intentional inequalities in the world and excusing inaction. After yesterday, I find myself agreeing. My heart hurts to see my sharp, honest, joyful friends manually picking rice for extremely low prices, with few other options for work. I was brought to tears as my friend called out to me as he ran past, waiting for his turn to carry the hammock, with joy to be helping someone, but such bitterness that the road is so bad that shoulders are the only way to get sick people out. I lament with my friends as they reminisce about the houses full of rice they used to have, before the displacement and before people left and didn’t come back.
My community finds joy in their days. But it is joy in spite of, not because. It is joy in spite of years of trampling and being pushed down. It is the love that emerges for each other, for the land, and for good work, in spite of the grinding reality of poverty. There is no “poor but happy” excuse to not fight for better roads, a doctor in the health clinic, better wages. I want so badly for some relief in the struggle that people live here. There will always be difficulties, but I want there to be fewer. I want them to enjoy their lime trees and be proud of their rice, not in spite of, but because. Because farming is good work, because they love each other, because they are skilled and intelligent and proud and deserving. I want the world to see them with dignity, not as poor people who are stuck in the mountains, but as the fabric that holds us all together.