Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reconciling with children one paint stain at a time

"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring: all of which have the potential to turn a life around." 
- Leo F. Buscaglia

There have always been those people who are wonderful with children. Naturally so. Effortlessly so. They see them and know how to coo, sing and dance for them to elicit a smile. More than that, they know how to teach them, discipline them, help them grow. And then there is me. The son of the Resident Dean in college loved his morning conversations about hammerhead sharks with my then boyfriend so much more than he enjoyed talking to me that he one day came to breakfast with a big, cardboard hammerhead shark that he had made as a gift for said boyfriend -- and which he handed over only after he sashayed over to me, hunched over my bowl of oatmeal, to point out that the shark would eat me. The following year, the Resident Dean had a brand new baby daughter whom she brought to our breakfast meeting. As the mother of two attempted to get some food, she handed me her daughter to watch for no more than two minutes. The little girl took one look at me, scrunched up her face and started wailing, before I had had the chance to say or do anything.

Ready to paint, in the company of wonderful new friends

Fast forward three years and I am sitting in a hot van of Hands for Humanity staff and volunteers, all squealing at the prospect of the day's activities at the orphanage in rural Ecuador. Few of these people knew each other before the project, but in my mind they are united by an undying dedication, drive, fearlessness and desire to serve. About half of them are on the medical staff of the Mayo Clinic, one of the leading, most innovative, service-oriented centers of treatment and care in the United States. Every year, as part of Hands for Humanity, surgeons and nurses from Mayo descend on Portoviejo to evaluate hundreds of patients in need of medical attention and assess how many operations they can carry out in their time in Ecuador. Then the doctors and nurses team up, performing three surgeries a day under conditions that remind me of Gulu Independent Hospital in war-torn Northern Uganda, where we could not find a single bar of soap. While there are operating facilities and patient rooms here, the nurses were constantly taken aback by the lack of perfectly sterilized instruments or by the fact that mothers had to sleep under their children's beds every night and that other family members had to wait in a... locked cage to receive news. In this environment, the vision and hard work of the medical teams make their contribution even more impactful.
 Soap bubbles make for a happy day.

Beyond the medical personnel, I was blown away by the stories of the rest of the people I met on this brief service trip. I met a mother of three children, aged 9, 10 and 11, who has decided to home-school them as she and her husband travel the globe for medicine-related work. In addition to standard educational tasks, the children learn experientially, picking up languages along the way and joining their mother on every service project. It may not seem like a comfortable lifestyle -- and indeed, these are children who know to be patient when they cannot shower, when they are covered in mosquitoes, or when they do not recognize the names or appearance of the food -- but the family was together at every step and appeared to be happy, fulfilled and constantly learning.  I also met a professional in the beauty industry who has become increasingly curious about corporate social responsibility and environmentally-friendly platforms and found herself fully immersed in South American traveling, living and volunteering alongside her boyfriend, a musician so popular with Fernando at the orphanage that I do not have a single photo of him without the little boy clinging to him. These are all people with a consciousness of the world around them, a desire to understand a little more of it, to engage with parts previously unknown and being among them, in all their friendliness and appetite for work, was a real privilege that reminded me that there is no true loneliness on this journey.

The hat was a big hit and footballs always are, even in a shirt and tie.

As for me, I was miles away from my ex-combatants and victims of conflict, our talk of 'conflict management and difficult conversations' or the definition of their 'life wish lists.' I may not have observed a club foot surgery, but I encountered my own series of 'firsts'. Armed with a paint brush and a flu mask to fend off the oil paint fumes (it did not), I helped repaint the orphanage kitchen yellow, occasionally spattering paint all over myself (to the horror of my hairstylist of a roommate in Bogota, there is still a patch of yellow in my hair). I must have taken over one hundred photos of children, who were so eager to see their reflections in the camera that my lens is covered with tiny fingerprints. I helped one of the children resolve a dispute about a game of Uno: "Is the objective to obtain as many cards as possible, Miss?" I giggled as girls pointed at me and said I was the "gringa who spoke Spanish!" And as the day's programming drew to a close, just as I was drenched in sweat and paint, little girls started emerging out of their rooms in fluffy dresses with sashes to meet boys in matching shirts and ties.

Performing a dance at the birthday celebration. We were clearly underdressed.
Every month, the orphanage puts together a birthday party for the children born on that month. This one was a special occasion, as one of the 15-year-olds was celebrating her quinceanera. The birthday girl looked beautiful, albeit a little sad, and the orphanage transformed into a festive playground. The stories of these children are heartbreaking: A 15-year-old has a baby, the result of a rape. Some of the children actually do have parents,  but they are either drug addicts or criminals who cannot support them. If children stay in the orphanage past the age of 2 or 3, it becomes very difficult to find a family to adopt them. Little reminded one of this hardship on the day of the birthdays. In my jeans and tank top, I was definitely the ugliest girl at the Cinderella-like gathering. Soon enough, the tunes of a Viennese waltz began echoing in this courtyard in rural Ecuador and the quinceanera lady was escorted into the hall by a teenage boy wearing a very proud expression. There was a waltz and a traditional Ecuadorian dance and then a massive salsa fest, resulting in all of us swaying and twirling with our lilliputian dance partners. I think I was still sweaty when I boarded my assortment of means of transport back to Colombia, but with the tunes of salsa and waltzes still echoing in my head and the stories of the staff, volunteers and children still resonating, I could not have been more inspired. Once again this year, I felt alive.
One of my dance partners is stepping on my feet...
While my other dance partner is counting her salsa steps and instructing me...

For more information about the projects, your involvement or potential donations, please visit the Hands for Humanity and Fundacion de Ninos San Lucas pages on Facebook.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Pacific Ocean, a Motorcycle and Oreos

Current Location: Portoviejo, Ecuador
Currently Listening: Diablo Rojo, Rodrigo y Gabriela
Currently Reading: Have a little faith, Mitch Alborn
Current Relation to Dengue/Malaria/Other Disease: None (I think?)
Even for those coming Bogota, with its beautiful mountainous fringes, Quito remains a fascinating city into which to descend. Dark brown hills, mountains and gorges give way to a lush green valley and a city full of nearly identical colored homes, with the plane flying so low and near them that passengers can discern people gardening or drinking a beer on the sidewalk. I could only take in Quito from the windows of another departure, as I was waiting to board a 4-seat plane to Manta, home to U.S. military bases, tuna fishing and chemical manufacturing.

The Pacific ocean greeted me in Manta. I  only dipped my feet in it once in Santa Monica, USA, and seeing a vast body of water again after living at either a mountaineer's altitude or in a landlocked country made me nostalgic. Getting out of the airport, smaller than the average grocery store, required walking on the runway itself straight to the exit. One of the other 4 passengers of the unprecedentedly intimate propeller plane offered me a ride when I mentioned I was going to Portoviejo and, given that this option was far superior to my own transportation plans and the man appeared to be neither a narcotrafficker nor a child molester, I happily accepted.

Now to me, a ride usually means a car - although after the past year, I should also be prepared for 'tow truck', 'camel/horse/donkey', 'back of pick-up truck' or 'tractor' as legitimate transportation options. We get to the parking lot and  Not-A-Narcotrafficker gestured towards his motorcycle. There was an image of a semi-nude Mary holding Jesus imprinted on its body and soon enough, I was bewilderingly and blasphemously (?) sitting atop them. Though unconventional--and strangely similar to my original plan of getting to Portoviejo--the motorcycle ride proved to be a wonderful first glimpse into Ecuadorian rural life. This part of Latin America boasts some of the most impressively shaped trees, as well as a high prevalence of malaria and dengue hemorrhagic fever -- yet another surprise to a girl whose holidays were so punctuated by malarial hallucinations that she would likely not have boarded any of the aforementioned means of transport had she known about the existence of infected little #*^$&% mosquitoes. Rural Ecuador is remarkably poor and simultaneously jovial, full of color and life, in ways that reminded me of my first drive to Northern Uganda. Houses are haphazard with tin roofs, if they have roofs at all, and yet each of them has a pot of flowers at the front. Storefronts feature painted illustrations of everything one can buy inside; the confectionery is decorated with graffiti of sweets while the pharmacy boasts boxes of pills on its exterior walls. Barefoot children and a lingering smell of garbage abound, but so do the sounds of salsa and merengue and the sights of men drinking beer in the sun.

I came to Portoviejo with a three-fold purpose: First, one of my dearest friends and mentors is undertaking a service project in affiliation with Hands for Humanity and Fundacion St. Lucas and I jumped at the opportunity of seeing a familiar face again. Secondly, I loved the thought of being able to expand my thoughts and applications of the programming I have been developing in Latin America and thirdly, I was craving understanding a bit more of the Latin American puzzle: How does Colombia, with its many disparate faces, fit in with its neighboring Ecuador and the Peru I remember from my early teenage years?

I was not going to get any answers on my first day. With the sun burning brightly on the equinox, I arrived at... the Portoviejo mall. Mall experiences have been universally surreal this year, ranging from the Starbucks-hosting mall in Nasr City, Egypt to the designer wedding gowns one can buy in Bogota, malls have seemed at once familiar and incongruous, further confusing an internal compass. This one, however, blew me out of the water. Ecuador uses the US dollar, complete with Abraham Lincoln's face on the bills, and consumer products at the grocery store are almost as shockingly cheap as their equivalent was in India. And these are American products - Egypt may have offered us "boreos" (its equivalent of Oreos, kind of like Abibas sneakers pretending to be Adidas), but at the Portoviejo mall one may buy the real Oreos for a whopping $0.25 per packet of 12... alongside shiny white sneakers, designer jeans, and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was instructed to cover my legs and dress conservatively, a requirement that brought back  memories of modesty in the Middle East and apparently did not apply to the women in skin-tight jeans, exposed midriffs and platform shoes. Couples kissed openly--though not quite rivaling the PDA haven that is Colombia--and one could have been in any U.S. mall after school, as opposed to in a small town in rural Ecuador whose electricity often cuts out due to an inadequate power supply.

Armed with craft supplies for the next day's programs, I headed to dinner with my friend, where I was to sample an Ecuadorian peppered steak and begin to hear the stories of the foundation I am assisting, the volunteers, and the warm, hospitable people of Ecuador.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lingerie Models and Mummy Dearest

Maybe it's the color of the sun cut flat
And coverin' the crossroads i'm standing at
Maybe it's the weather or something like that
But mama you just on my mind.
-Mama You Been On My Mind, Bob Dylan

In an attempt to adapt the Mentorship and Role Models workshop I developed in Egypt to local needs, I started asking questions about female leaders who command respect in Colombia. Googling combinations of Colombia + women + role models yielded the following search results:

Hot older Colombian women
Colombian women for hire
Latin women in lingerie

A further perusal of lists of "women to watch" and "100 women to follow"--could there be any creepier names for articles discussing role models!--revealed that there were no more than four Latin American women featured among the hundreds of profiles.  I soon arrived at my "train the trainer" workshop and asked the community leaders, who are also ex-combatants and victims of conflict, to name their own Colombian female role models only to be met with silence-a rarity in a session that involved a) a nun walking into a glass door to our collective mortification/attempt to stifle explosive laughter and b) a mother, daughter, social worker, workshop observer and aforementioned nun all taking turns tearing up, making me realize that I really ought to pack Kleenex along the flipcharts next time. One participant asked "can we expand our role models to include all of South America?" When I agreed, the participants continued to struggle to name more than 3 or 4 examples.

There are few applications of women's development work that I would ever anticipate being harder in  a place other than the Middle East. However, the Middle East of Zainab Salbi, Azar Nafisi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Queen Rania of Jordan made the discussion of the life stories of inspiring women a surprisingly easier task than Colombia. Contrary to the internet's opinions these days, it is absolutely not the case that there are no examples of female leadership, courage and innovation in Latin America. Rather, the absence of cultural conflict of high intensity, religious boundaries and highly-publicized limitations in women's conduct renders the stories of inspirational Latin American women more subtle and, thus, less well-known. It also clearly highlights the need for a discussion of role models and the raising of awareness of their stories. As the workshops continue to unfold, participants will attempt to turn what appears to be a challenge and weakness into a learning opportunity: They will identify and research influential women in Colombia and the rest of Latin America and then proceed to write mini-biographies to further facilitate the discussion of their example. 

Not everything veered from expectation though. The Colombia that holds love and family in high esteem still manifests itself at every workshop. When an exercise required that the participants name two role models, one in the public sphere and one in their private lives, the latter question provoked entirely uniform answers: "my mother." One of the community leaders pointed at a 16-year-old girl who had just finished presenting the story of 41-year-old Olympic swimming silver medalist Dara Torres and said proudly, "That's my daughter!" 

It is remarkable how moments like these can simultaneously exude family warmth and highlight its remoteness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cultural Differences, Local Challenges

 Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. -Henry David Thoreau 

There are few feelings comparable to realizing why you love what you do. As my project in Colombia moved from the needs assessment and curriculum development phases to implementation, I felt like I came alive again, remembering what fuels my passion for women’s development work, community outreach and the application of post-conflict theory in communities of strife.

Background– in a nutshell
750 internally displaced women will participate in a series of 12 seminars, workshops and discussions. Every week, the participants, all of whom are either ex-combatants of victims of the conflict, will receive instruction on a theme related to women’s development that aims at building some type of skill or deepening the women’s understanding of a particular social theme. These units are rather technical and their instruction resembles a classroom experience, seeking to enable these women to do something that they could not do before. The second theme of the week is more introspective and its purpose is to jar these women’s imagination about themselves and their social role by prompting them to reflect on their lives and opportunities ahead. The finalized full list of thematic pairings can be found here.

After the needs assessment and curriculum development phases came the “training of trainers”, a process that seeks to enable local community leaders—also displaced ex-combatants and victims of the conflict—to co-facilitate these workshops and continue their implementation after my own fellowship placement in Colombia has been completed. This will both guarantee local ownership and investment in the project and contribute towards its sustainability – not to mention remove the language barrier that has had me saying things like “Estoy embarrassada” when I try to admit my sheepishness about my command over the language only to realize that I instead falsely admitted to being pregnant in front of a very large crowd of near strangers. 
Defining obstacles for women in Colombia at "train the trainer"

‘Train the trainer’ highlights
The session began with the definition of the participants’ expectations. What do they hope to be able to do or to better understand after the completion of the series of workshops?  What do they perceive to be challenges for women, especially in post-conflict environments, in Colombia?  Ten minutes into the definition of goals and identification of challenges, a participant starts to cry. When a participant brought up the challenge of few support systems for working mothers, she became emotional thinking about her 4-month-old baby whom she had left at home in order to participate in the workshop. Tears in the first hour of the implementation phase were unexpected, but at the same time exhibited the gravity of some of these issues for the participants – this is not merely an exercise in conflict management and women’s development; it is something deeply personal to individuals who grapple with these issues every day and it only heightens the pressure to do them justice.

Explaining an exercise for our "Difficult Conversations" module 
during 'Train the Trainer'
As universal as needs in post-conflict environments may be, the applications of post-conflict reintegration differ widely. In the United States, when facilitators ask participants to name types of difficult conversations, responses typically center around workplace dilemmas and challenges. There is a similar pattern with responses to questions relating participants’ hopes and goals for the immediate and mid-term future. In Colombia, on the other hand, love has reigned supreme. Examples of conflict and difficult conversation always revolved around boyfriends and husbands, while definitions of a week well spent or a happy year involved narrations of romantic gestures and recounting stories of love. Most of the examples in my own demonstration of modules fit what I perceive to be a deeply American model of presentation: not offensive, easy to generalize and apply to everyone, impersonal, politically correct. Unsurprisingly, they fell entirely flat in Colombia. My participants required personal, relatable anecdotes, preferably drawn from the sphere of interpersonal relations in the family or the romantic sphere. Rephrasing conflict resolution models to begin with “This one time, a boyfriend did the following unimaginable….” has become a necessary adjustment. When I point out the cultural differences or comment on the participants’ humorous emphasis on love, they retort “el amor siempre gana” (love always prevails).

Even though ex-combatants and victims of conflict alike can gush about matters of the heart, one type of exercises proves equally challenging for both groups. Those are exercises involving any type of imagination about one’s future. This is hardly surprising given the long-lasting effects of war on their psyche, but it puts my own difficulty at filling out a Life Wish List in glaring perspective. Not only do all exercises regarding setting goals and naming hopes for the future seem like extraordinarily difficult tasks, but also the participants struggle to name examples of lawfulness and peaceful manifestations of one’s rights.

This was best demonstrated in the Needs – Rights exercise. When conducting the Needs Assessment, community leaders in Ciudad Bolivar expressed a desire for ‘rights education’, whereby women would receive interactive instruction on their rights as guaranteed by the Colombian Constitution and international conventions. The exercise began by asking women to define what they conceive of as “basic, universal human needs”, with responses ranging from food and nutrition to a need for a home and a family. Then we went through each article of various documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asking four questions:

1)     To which need(s) does this article respond? (It can be more than one need and needs may recur in various articles);
2)     What is an example of this right being properly upheld in our society? (For example: the existence of newspapers and magazines is an expression of our right to free speech);
3)     What is an example of restrictions or violations in this right? (Example related to the previous question: censorship).

There were multiple answers to questions 1 and 3, but question 2 left me with a blank column on the white board. Every example I offered was shot down with “No, that’s not true in Colombia” or “Haha, sure, that would work if we had a police force that protected us!” or a guffaw of sorts. Rights education is the first step to increasing awareness and defense of one’s rights, but with few protection mechanisms and a largely cynical attitude on the part of the participants towards the national commitment to upholding rights, every day of work requires a new height of optimism, faith, perseverance and persuasion.

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Have them feel that the impossible is possible."

"I hope I'm the first of many, and of course, I'd love to just think of myself as a filmmaker. And I long for the day when that modifier can be a moot point. But I'm very grateful if I can inspire some young, intrepid, tenacious male or female filmmaker and have them feel that the impossible is possible, and never give up on your dream." - Kathryn Bigelow after winning 'Best Director' at the Academy Awards

Only the 4th female filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award and indeed one of the few female directors in this field, Kathryn Bigelow is contributing to a change in women's professional narrative in the film industry. When a friend asked if I am happy that she won an Academy Award because she is a good filmmaker or because she is a woman, I realized that what I admire about Kathryn Bigelow is her ability to inspire by her example, her own unattachment to gender titles of excellence and her commitment to motivating others by devoting herself fully to what she loves to do. 

A dear friend involved in the film production process--an empowered, talented, fearless woman in her own right--has frequently lamented the stereotypes associated with women in this industry and the narrow role currently carved out for them within it. As such, Bigelow's achievement has the effect of every pioneer's feat: Her success creates a way for women to imagine themselves and their opportunities differently.

As my recent workshops with ex-combatants and victims of conflict revealed, jarring individuals' imaginations about themselves is challenging in a post-conflict environment. When addressing an audience that has experienced trauma and war's dissolution of all hope, it is difficult to ask the participants to boundlessly imagine the professional opportunities they might seek in the future, personal life milestones that may lie ahead and activities in which they would like to engage. A combination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, wartime loss and inadequate reintegration programs in their new communities has rendered these individuals' imaginations about themselves very limited; how can one hope when hope in the past has led to traumatic loss and disappointment? 

Facilitating a group discussion on Life Wish Lists
That is where prototypes and stimuli of imagination come in. Participants in the workshop responded favorably when they heard others' life stories, when we shared examples of activities we looked forward to every week and month and goals we have set for ourselves over the years. And, most poignantly, participants emulate examples of individuals who have broken the mold and added one more path to the possibilities for one's life. On this International Women's Day, and in the wake of Bigelow blazing another such trail, let us hope for more examples, prototypes and narratives that jar all our imaginations.