Monday, July 27, 2009

Interesting Conversations

A great deal of my time lately has been passed in conversations with an array of people. And as I have come to expect, the more I learn and witness and discuss, the more questions I have rather than answers.

There are such enormous cultural and socioeconomic barriers. It can seem like an enormous brick wall without a door to pass through. I have faith that somewhere there is a passageway that I just haven’t learned to see yet. So I continue in search of the passageway and the secret password that will encourage those on the other side to open the door and let me pass through.

A good example for this inner conversation of mine is the solar oven program that Toshi, a volunteer friend of mine, helped the families with before he left in April. He purchased the materials, helped the families construct them, showed them in great detail how to use them for many dishes…but I have so far only found one family using their solar oven. So the families continue to struggle to find enough fuel wood, and mothers and babies continue to suffer the effects of smoke exposure. Some families say they don’t understand how to use them. Others say that it is easier to do what they have always done. Where was the secret password we missed? Should the families have purchased the materials at a very low rate? Should each family have gotten a home visit to help them use it in their exact location? How does one rectify what was missed and see the problem ahead in future efforts?

My other inner conversation is the one I have daily with my child development textbook, which I brought with me to Honduras. Reading ahead for class is helping me understand better how to address my children’s learning needs. Even the most talented and clever child needs heavy remedial help to understand how to follow directions, how to go about choosing the best answer, and overcoming the incredible difficulties of hunger and low self-esteem while trying to learn. I’m making posters that show which letters “touch the roof” and which ones “show off their tails” to help them write more clearly. I am making sure they understand how to do the math rather than just memorizing the most common answers. Encouraging creativity, the use of imaginative metaphors, using positive words and phrases…I believe these will serve these children just as well as memorizing their times tables.

Then there are the conversations I actually have with other people. As no one who knows me would be surprised, one of these conversations involved sexual education of the students in the school 10 years and older. We spent half a morning in split-gender sessions, reviewing anatomy and the anatomical processes of both men and women, exactly what the sex act is (sometimes left out of sex-ed here I’ve been told,) how pregnancy happens, the myriad of STDs (because the only one people talk about here is AIDS,) and how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. Then we took a break, let the kids write questions and put them in a box, and after the break we presented a little skit about how boys and girls can talk openly and honestly about sex, and then sat down and answered the questions the kids had put in the box and talked about making decisions about dating and that it is okay and maybe even preferable not to date while you are still in school.

I’ve been happy to see that both in this session and in a small assembly we had with the kids about the political crisis, Angel, the Director of the school, has been careful to tell the kids to listen to their own hearts and minds, not to blindly follow the words other people. It is so good to see someone telling these kids that they are smart and reminding them to think and use them noggin’s! I must remember to praise Angel for this.

On Thursday the kids were accidentally granted an extra long recess, because Angel, I, and another volunteer Nick became engrossed in a conversation about religion and god. A couple of the older boys from sixth grade, who are usually among the most atrociously behaved, were very enrapt and followed the conversation closely and respectfully.

It all started with a classic Angel question (he’s a very evangelical Christian,) “Kati, do you have Jesus in your heart?”

I said no and that he didn’t seem to be in pocket or behind my ear either. (humor did not deflect his intentions.)
“But who is your god?”

I don’t have one. I’m agnostic. I don’t know if there is one and I’m not going to spend my time worrying about it because I can’t prove it one way or the other.

“That breaks my heart. It breaks Hondurans’ hearts when people don’t have Jesus in their lives.”

Why? It is my choice.

“But you will go to hell if you don’t accept Christ.”

At this point Nick pointed out that in many parts of the world Jesus is not god or even a prophet and that other religions say Angel will burn in hell for believing what he believes. (This was news to Angel…not that the whole world isn’t Christian, but that they don’t accept his truth as their truth.)

I presented the idea that there is a seed of truth from which all religions grow like trees, and it depends on the soil it grows in, the needs of the people it serves, as to how it will develop.

“But I know Jesus is the only God. The Bible says he is the only God. And the Bible is the word of God.”

I suggested that maybe rather than historical fact that sometimes the Bible is a fable instead, a story to deliver truth through fiction. When I presented the possibility that evolution might have been God’s way of creation, that seven days for God might be millions of years, I’m pretty sure Angel’s eyes crossed trying to think it over.

“But aren’t you scared you’ll go to hell?”

I pointed out that I wasn’t closed to the idea of god, and that any god who would turn me away for having used the heart and mind he gave me wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with. If that was the case, I’d have plenty of friends to have a “fiesta” with in “el infierno.”

The lack of sophisticated information Angel possesses is astounding to me, given that he is in charge of so many children’s educations. For example, at one point one of the boy’s asked if Toshi has god. Angel said, “Oh yes. Toshi is Buddhist.” I had to explain that actually Buddhists don’t necessarily have a god, that it is a philosophy and life way rather than religion, that Buddha is a prophet to be emulated not a god to be worshiped. (Sorry, Toshi, you’ve been outted!)

What made it a successful conversation for me was to have those two boys witnessing use discuss such a possibly heated discussion without attacking each other’s beliefs, without insulting Christianity or Agnosticism, without threatening our ability to work together and do good in children’s lives. I complimented Angel and explained why I was willing to have this conversation with an Evangelical Christian: that he did not, not once, try to change my mind. He did not forget that I live a good life, full of giving and love despite my lack of religion.

And it is goodness that brings us together ultimately and most productively. While helping collect and document data for an informal nutrition study with Dr. David Black of Project Esperanza here in La Ceiba, I have had to opportunity to meet other development workers and to brainstorm and discuss with them what they are working on. I have found other folks who hold a similar interest in the possibility of networking amongst projects, to share mental and physical resources, to support each other through the hard times and to keep frustrations in perspective, and to maybe even (maybe I’m dreaming, here) helping the people the groups serve to access others people in other parts of the country.

I can’t overstate how important talking is to my work here. The willingness to listen is most imperative. I have to take notes sometimes to remind myself of phrase that I want to mull over later when the afternoon heat keeps me within a five foot radius of the nearest fan. There is always time to think here and to keep the conversations going and always questions to fuel the thinking.


  1. You're one of the best listeners I know, and I am so happy that gift is serving you well. I miss our pre-show chats. I miss you, but am THRILLED to see you doing so well.

  2. Hi Kate,
    I'll speculate on why they are not using the solar ovens. Too many people got them - - there wasn't a sense of 'scarcity' to create value or of 'earning' the use. Had you guys had more time, you could have doled them out to one family at a time once folks demonstrated that they understood how to cook with them and how to set it up for use.

    Are you using them at school? Perhaps teach the KIDS to cook some easy items . . . ? Maybe that will translate to more use at home?

    The work you are doing with the kids sounds excellent!