Sunday, March 22, 2009

#16 A Word to Those Who Might Think They Are Wise

Honduras seems rife with international aid. There seems to be no lack of government programs, mission groups, and volunteers. I hear English spoken and meet new gringos almost every day. But for all the gringos and groups of gringos passing through, so many of them seem to leave no wiser than they arrived. Only here for a week, at most two or three, they never get the chance to see the full picture that is Honduras. After four months, I feel like I have only begun to scratch the layers lying just below the surface. I want to offer some humble advice for those who want to help by coming to visit or sending aid.

IF THERE IS SO MUCH AID, WHY IS THERE STILL SO MUCH POVERTY AND STRIFE? To put it bluntly, our meager efforts to help usually feel like spitting in the wind. Government aid dwindles as it passes through filters of corruption, not just in the Honduran government but throughout the hierarchy of contractors and personnel. You might send a container of computers, but unless there is someone here to fight tooth and nail with Aduana (Customs) you may not see your complete shipment come off the dock. Perhaps you are paying a seemingly well meaning Honduran couple to run your orphanage, but without close supervision you may find yourself losing supplies. It happens all the time. Many people have given up and just put up with this enormous, malignant problem. And, in a way, I can understand it. When you are poor or economically insecure (and very, very few people in Honduras are rich or economically secure) you see the riches as more than any one program needs and you feel you deserve more for you hard work and somehow it doesn’t seem wrong to take a little. Who would even notice? And it gets easier and easier to take over time, especially as you watch many around you do the same.
It is also easy to steal when you see so many people doing things much worse to earn an easy buck. Honduras is fairly well-known now for narco-trafficking. I have been told by multiple sources that as Columbia has buckled down on its drug traffickers, they have moved operations here. Many people are very suspicious of the small airports springing up on the Bay Islands. With the drug rings come the guns, the violence, the ridiculous wealth that springs up overnight, and people are trapped in a dangerous world they can never leave if they want their families to survive. The big cities and even the small ones have gangs, even more dangerous than the ones we know in the States. Without enough un-corrupted police, it is impossible to battle the crime adequately.
Many of the reasons poverty is so rampant here are the same reasons poverty exists in the US. People who do have money want to hold on to it, especially given the lack of social security here. They have earned their money and want to enjoy it. They believe the poor are meant to be poor due to stupidness, laziness, or both. I have certainly gotten to see that the poor are sometimes less cognitively developed and far more likely to be mired in hopelessness. I might easily be in the same shoes if my mother had lacked adequate nutrition while pregnant and nursing with me or if I had to face their same life obstacles, I too would feel hopeless. But I haven’t met any more people who are poor and stupid or poor and lazy than I meet who are rich and both.
The average age of first birth here is 15. That’s right, many Honduran women are around the age of 15 when they give birth to their first child. One mother in the school is 29, like me, and has 6 children, one in highschool. With a baby and the only available childcare your own poor family and no more than a 6th grade education, out the window go your job and educational prospects, unless you can develop some kind of a home based income like sewing, making charcoal, baking bread to sell in a roadside stand, growing fruit in your garden, etc. Child and domestic abuse are common. You might fear your husband, but you fear hunger and being alone supporting your several children more. Kids work most days, after school and on Saturdays especially, and even the young ones have duties around the house. This, too, impedes educational development. You cannot ask them to do essays or much homework to make up for the short school day. They simply won’t do it if it comes down to homework or money earned to stock the family’s paltry pantry.
It really feels like spitting in the wind if you only see the big picture. This isn’t to discourage people helping, but to give them an idea of what they are up against. Don’t think your coming here or your aid will change the world. It may change a life, even maybe just for a day or an hour, and therefore it is worthwhile. It is the little steps that end up making the difference. One group donated the money for us to build the last of our steps up to the school. It will make a huge difference in rainy season to have the foundation protected from being washed away and to have a smooth and sizeable outdoor surface where the kids can gather. They also donated a week of their time to get the first third of the project done. It may not seem like much, and some people would say it is better to send your airfare money instead, but I disagree. It changed those university students’ lives to spend a week with the kids, doing many science projects that succeeded (as well as a few that didn’t…but that’s life and learning!)

WHAT SHOULD I DO WHILE I AM THERE? For starters, learn some Spanish. Do not expect people to speak English. But don’t expect that everyone speaks Spanish. There were many peoples and languages here before the Spaniards ever stepped foot here. There is Garifuna, Chorti, Moskito, and the Island version of English to name the ones I’ve personally run into.
Second, resist the urge to talk. Listen instead. Find out what people already know. Ask questions of the people. Find out what people need before assuming they want your help. Learn what their values are. Ask questions of yourself. Do you really know the “truth?” Are you sure that your life is better than theirs in all respects? Did you know that those pretty light streaks in that child’s hair are really a sign of protein deficiency? Did you know that the toddler’s teeth are rotting out because he gnaws on sugary roadside plants because there is not food at home most days? Remember that everyone is an individual. The people here will not all like the same music or the same foods as all the other people. Even vocabulary and basic slang can change just moving from one side of the city to the other.
Concrete help is always good and can often be completed in a concise period of time. Projects that don’t require upkeep are especially a good idea. If you want to plant a garden, fine, but will there be anyone who is going to be able to keep it going? Did you choose plants that will grow here throughout the year and into the next? You can send a huge number of vitamins, but even if the label is in Spanish, will the people be able to read them and understand what they are for, how often to take them, etc.? Sustainability is a problem here. People do not always know how to fix something that has broken or has developed a problem. Look for the simplest solution you can provide. Nine times out of time that is what you need to do. If you do not have a specialty, consider funding the trip for a specialist that is needed here. Sanitation, health, education…these are all the bases from which the poor can improve their lives. A surgeon, a civil engineer, a special education evaluator…these people can make huge differences in many lives in a concise period of time if given the right kind of support.

WHAT SHOULD I BRING OR SEND? Barring natural disasters, we really probably don’t need your old clothes. We sometimes feel we are swimming in used American clothing. We always need shoes, but only shoes that are going to last. We always need new underwear. We always need quality sheets, towels, and light blankets.
Durability is a big issue. What you send needs to survive the rainy season, being worn in the jungle or under the hot highland sun, being worn every day. Kids use everything, especially shoes, harder than adults will. There are no washing machines and rarely soap, so clothes are washed by being beaten against the rocks in the river. It always makes me smile to see a small, shoeless girl in a worn-out velvet dress on a hot day…such an oxymoron…but it makes me wonder what the donator was thinking…where would a poor Honduran child wear a winter party frock? How hot that poor babe must be!
Don’t fall into the trap of “They’re poor. They’ll like whatever we give them.” If toys are cheap or not age appropriate, if clothing is of poor quality, it will not be kept for long. People may smile and say “Gracias” but if it were you, wouldn’t you be thinking “Do they think I’m stupid? That I have no pride?” If you wouldn’t wear it on the street, why would you subject someone else to wearing it? (Look into recycling it there in the States, Europe, or Australia…the companies do exist.)
Consider where the item will go when it wears out. Consider the packaging. This is especially a problem with plastic toys, or as one friend here calls it “Junk for Jesus.” When it breaks in the States, we send it to the trash bin on the curb where the city picks it up regularly and takes it to the dump where it is sequestered and made at least somewhat sanitary. Here there is no one to pick up the garbage in many places outside the cities or people may be too poor to pay for the service. Here people live on the trash dumps because they can’t find anywhere else to live. Here people burn their trash in their stoves to cook their food. For the same amount you spent on the toys, you could likely have found school or art supplies, nutritional snacks like dried fruit in paper boxes, or educational games that can be shared and used for years. Why send things in easily broken plastic bags when you could splurge just a bit more on cheap plastic boxes with lids that can be used for years? Can something be wrapped in another useful item? One church group gave out stockings to the kids at Christmas, just a regular sock filled with candy, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, rulers, etc. It was great except that they didn’t think to stuff the other sock in too. What is a child going to do with one sock? People send cardboard puzzles in cardboard boxes…what do you think happens to those in the humidity? Also, most kids are not patient or cognitively advanced enough to do even a 100 piece puzzle. Think simple and multi-use as often as you can.
If you are coming to visit a project, avoid bringing candy or sodas. The kids can usually afford a little candy each week. It’s cheap even here where it is almost always an import. Bring chocolate milk or juice or drink mixes rather than soda (consider the lack of refrigeration and air conditioning.) Bring fruit or vegetables, especially fruits that the kids have never seen or been able to try. My second and third graders are crazy for broccoli now, which I brought to school in order to show them that it really is possible to eat flowers (we were studying parts of the plant.) And unlike the candy wrappers, the peels and trash from fruit and vegetables will be nutritious for the environment, not toxic. If you are bringing a drink of some kind, bring some quality plastic cups (these never seem to last at the Jungle School but slowly filter away to be used as shovels or other toys on the playground.) If you are visiting a family in poverty, bring dry goods or a frozen chicken (which can keep for at least 24 hours without refrigeration…most people don’t have electricity.) These gifts seem ridiculously cheap to us but they are well out of the family’s price range. Simple toys, like balls or Frisbees, are great if you have a chance to play with older children. I took one family two chickens and a sock filled with rice to make a ball. We had hours of fun.
Carry a cheap notebook, nothing you’ll be sad to lose. You can record what you learn, your self-reflections (if you trip is any kind of success, you’ll have lots of them), and you can tear out pages to give away. I don’t know how many pages of the basics of English vocabulary and grammar I have given out in my short time here. (Although this is something I only do if requested; I never force English on anyone.) And I am going home with more notes and drawings from children than I will ever know what to do with.

ONE LAST ITEM ON THE PACKING LIST: The last and most important thing to bring is your humility. Check your arrogance in your North American airport (for those travelling from other continents, you are still likely to go through Miami, so feel free to leave yours there.) You may think you won’t have it, but it will creep up on you without your realizing (it happens to me frequently.) Whatever you do for these children, it was only a drop into their very deep well of need.
I’m not saying this to discourage you but rather to encourage you to do your work with a sense of reality. I met one young man who had been here a week and was overly proud of the bookcases he had helped build at an orphanage. Don’t get me wrong, the kids needed them and I appreciate that someone came out to put together 25 bookcases. At the end of a morning of teaching in the Jungle, I’m wiped and not about to be putting together bookcases in the afternoon heat. And we won’t be able to find Hondurans willing to do it for free. But don’t get too crazy with the pride. After all, they were just bookcases. They were not an end to poverty or child abuse or malnutrition. I would have preferred to hear, “Well, we made bookcases, and when we come back we will do something even better.”
I don’t think that I have done so much I should be arrogant, either. Please don’t think that. I go to bed each night thinking of all the things I could have done better. I keep thinking of projects that I should have done while I was here. I keep thinking of ways I could have phrased things better to improve the children’s understanding of a topic or their sense of self-esteem. I’ve been spitting into the wind, too. I’ve just been here long enough to start learning how to aim a little better, maybe, I hope. I will learn more each time I come back. It is all about perspective. I don’t fault the folks demanding more of me or lying about having received their gift and wanting me to give them more. To them I am enormously wealthy (even as I have watched my net-worth dwindle to less than half its size amidst our economic woes.) I politely explain that no, I am sure I already gave them a soup packet so no, they cannot have another one as this means someone else would have to go without. I also explain that in my culture (and amongst many middle class Hondurans as well) it is customary to preface and/or close any request with the word “please,” and that they should keep this in mind for their future requests as it will help them get what they need, but no, my answer isn’t changing. [Okay, that is a bit of wishful thinking really…by the end of a day I am so tired that I am just as likely to give them another soup packet if no one is looking.]

I remind myself every day that justice is not a natural phenomenon. The life of the gazelle or blue jay or wild mongolian horse is not fair. It could be eaten by something stronger, bigger, and faster. It could succumb to a nasty disease. It could be washed away in a flash flood while drinking from a river. It lives very much in the present. Poor children are much the same and I have learned a great deal from them about how to keep my wider perspective. But in the same way we see animals in the shapes of clouds or constellations of stars, we have developed this concept of Justice, a deeper concept that we feel should be there even when it isn’t.
It is we, all humanity, together, who must carry it out, we who must create Justice with our own hands and sweat and cradle it like a precious child, keeping watch as it learns to walk that it not falter and injure itself permanently. It will grow very slowly. We may never see it take more than a few baby steps within the generations walking the earth right now. But why should that mean it is impossible?

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