I’m writing this post from the comfortable and occasionally lonely desk we’ve been given at Casa Del Alfarero. Events from the past few weeks have collectively changed my understanding and opinions of “development work”. Below gives a little explanation, and a glimpse into the thoughts constantly running through my mind.
The first couple weeks we were here we were given a small glimpse at the life and reality of this community. We were buried under stories of hardship and moved by tears rolling down the hardened faces of people living in a daily battle against their home, themselves, and their surroundings. We learned of the uncertainty of a meal, of the constant medical threats, and of the hope of breaking free from the grip of slavery to an unstable paycheck. We played with their children, and learned that some wanted to grow up to become graphic designers, chefs, etc. Overall the outlook seemed hopeful, and almost immediately attainable…if only we helped them “just” do this, this, and that.
Just. I’ve struggled with that word my whole life, and I’m realizing the struggle continues in this community. While I’ve struggled against “just” doing that calculus problem correctly, or “just” swinging the golf club the right way, or “just” mustering up enough courage to mold my naturally introverted personality into a more confident and extroverted one, these women have struggled against “just” saving a little money every week when it seems there’s never enough to make it through the present, “just” working together to build a business in a team when the tension is so high with your neighbor that when computer sharing becomes an issue, it breaks out in a fist fight, and “just” taking the risk to purchase an expensive tool or rent out a space to grow your business that may give you the opportunity to really break free of the slavery, or may put you in a worse condition than you already are, a thought almost unbearable to think about.
Since the first two weeks, our little group of middle-class girls from Florida, have increasingly been distanced from the raw circumstance we experienced so intimately in the beginning. Our time has shifted from learning about this community, how they live, and their struggles, to re-working our lesson plans to be as understandable, appropriate and relevant as possible, and creating our business handbook, the most sustainable material gift we will leave behind when we leave Casa Del Alfarero and resume our daily lives worrying about GRE exams, building resume’s, and making the “right” life decisions. Spending more time at our desks, and less time in the presence and homes of the women we’re here for has numbed me to the desperation and pure emotion we experienced before. Keeping that in the back of my mind, as the white walls, and freshly washed floors of Casa Del Alfarero surround me, has proven extremely difficult. The reality has morphed into bits of concept in my brain, and the urge to move faster, get things done quickly, and follow schedules and plans has taken over. I know that I need to fight these urges, and find a middle ground to work the most effectively, but somehow, I need that constant immersion into the problem to really try to understand it.
For example, during our class today, with the Jewelry making group, I felt an overwhelming sense of frustration and helplessness. When we see that one person out of 20 is taking notes, and the only feedback we receive is “I don’t know how much money I spend a month, and no, I won’t track my expenses, because it takes too much time.” It’s very difficult to decide whether the concepts we have been taught to be so integral for managing money and running a business, really are that important and worth pounding into the heads of these women, or, if our lives and experiences are so far removed from their reality that what we’ve learned and find important may certainly be in our own environment, but the translation from middle-class America to poverty stricken Guatemalan slums might leave these concepts worthless and irrelevant. From the beginning, the Jewelry class has given us the most trouble. At this point, I can’t decide if this is a positive thing. Do the negative attitudes of this class, and the more apparent competition between its attendees, give us real information we can use to adjust our plans? Are the other classes, especially the beautician’s class, who take notes, and follow along with the problems, and occasionally ask questions doing so to appease us? It’s such a hard thing to think about especially when we’ve been brought here to be teachers, but with such limited understanding of life here, we end up becoming the students. The jewelry class, which literally breaks us down on Thursday mornings, may be the class that teaches us the most about what is really needed in this community. This may not be anything we can provide now, but if anything it will give us the knowledge that will help us reach success if we choose to dedicate our lives to efforts like these.
Poverty has proven to be such a simple and complex problem. On the one hand…as Paul Polack, a man who has interviewed thousands of poor people across the globe and founder of International Development Enterprises, says: poverty is a simple issue, when you ask a poor person why he is poor, he will tell you it is because he doesn’t have enough money. Therefore the solution is to find ways to make more money. In the case of Polak’s work, almost completely with small rural farmers, that meant taking advantage of low-cost labor in the areas these farmers live in, and focusing on growing high value crops that also require high amounts of labor, such as off-season vegetables, and even high value cash crops. The solution is obvious…I need more money…lets increase the value of my product, find my place in an international market that will pay, and be consistent in providing that product. But, on the other hand, doesn’t education, political power, and having money in the first place really increase your opportunity to make more money? But, again, won’t making more money allow a group of people to get a better education, make even more money, and gain political influence. How can development efforts be focused to really invest in the solutions that will put development workers out of a job? That’s the point isn’t it? At this point, I feel like I’m leaning more towards Polak’s side. I think that allowing people to provide for their basic needs, by making more money in anyway they can do it now, will provide them with the experience, hope, and desire to provide the more for themselves. I believe that working with these women, as hopeless as it sometimes feels, has been an incredible lesson on perseverance, and overcoming obstacles. We know they want to be here, we know they want to learn, and we know they desperately want to improve the lives of their families, but, the translation from wanting to doing comes with a lot more struggle.
Now I have a few random things I’ve been thinking about this past week.
1.) Just for your information, I found out Ashley’s already lying about here age, her brother explained to me, she’s really 4 not 2. This made a lot more sense because I really thought she was really big and advanced for 2.
2.) Hopefully we’ll be climbing Pacaya this weekend, a volcano located near Antigua, if we do, I will be so incredibly happy. Since we’ve gotten here, it has been the one thing I’ve wanted to make sure we do.
3.) Throughout this trip I’ve been hoping for some divine sign telling me what should be the next step in my life. At this point I’m stuggling between a few options, but can’t decide what really is the “right” choice. I think I’ve realized there is no “right” choice and whatever I decide will be what it is, and will end up being something good.
4.) Being here in the city, surrounded with trash, people, and all things created and constructed by people has shown me beauty in a different way than I’ve ever experienced before. Tisa’s observations about our drive to Casa de Alfarero everyday put it beautifully. But, at the same time, it is no match for the natural beauty experienced on a river, in a forest, or immersed in any wild untouched land. Thinking about this reminds me of something Laura, our main contact at Casa del Alfarero said. She explained that she’s worked in many different poverty environments and believed the people here have a “worse” poverty. She talks about the rural villages, who have many struggles of their own, but are surrounded by beauty everyday. The people here are surrounded by garbage. How would this affect you? I could completely understand what she was saying, and that thought reinforces my desire to work with environmental issues. If my efforts can somehow conserve the beauty and resources we find naturally which are undoubtedly more extravagant and perfect than anything man can create, I will be happy. The environment affects everyone in such extreme ways, its quality effects the quality of our resources, our health, the water we drink, the food we grow, and so many other things. If it’s not healthy, how can we expect for humanity to be healthy.
Untill next time…
-Katie C. ☺
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