Even as I begin to adjust to life here in Honduras, every once in awhile I catch myself and realize that my surroundings, my activities, and experiences everyday here are unlike anything I would be able to do anywhere else. Whether it be the beautiful mountain drive to the hot springs, being able to navigate my way to the best local Pupuseria (a great local food we´ve discovered) from anywhere in the city, or learning a Honduran perspective on both US and Honduran politics. I think slowly the comfort zones of everyone in our group have expanded and will continue to do so as we continue our travels and eventually find work and friends in Yorito. Despite minor setbacks like attempting to navigate a bathroom in complete darkness (due to occasional power losses) and a general lack of clean clothes, we´re still foraging ahead and loving every minute of it!
The fourth Nourish-FIPAH partnership project wrapped up at the end of July quite busily and quite well. The last days in each location (Yorito, Yoro and Jesús de Otoro, Intibucá) were spent finishing the final classes and workshops, preparing resources to leave behind for future English classes (see below!), making diplomas for students who participated, and saying teary goodbyes to friends in the community, FIPAH staff, and the youth we worked with all summer.
A lot of the busy final moments were spent making sure that after we left, the infamously difficult English classes could continue at least a little more smoothly than before. The two main problems with English classes in the education centers (at least as we saw them) are that the teachers speak at most only a little more English than the students (making pronunciation a real bear), and that the books provided come with very little explanation or translation and generally make no sense. So, the Otoro team set to work recording a pronunciation CD to leave behind with the facilitators (education center teachers), including the songs that were a real hit in all their classes. Meanwhile Ms. Asia Morris, our Postcards for Progress ally in Yorito, logged many an hour with a laptop on the table and Hi, Honduras (the aforementioned textbook) on her lap, translating the entire 7th and 8th grade editions (six books in all!) We hope that these resources can be useful to students facilitators, and that in the future we can build upon them more to make the English classes more sustainably successful.
Two days before the group’s departure from Honduras, the nine of us said goodbye to our respective lovely host towns and met up on a bus to La Ceiba, the city where we started our trip and where FIPAH’s national administrative offices are. Although Ceiba has a lot to offer in beautiful beaches, snorkeling, hiking, and zip-lining, the team, being the Diligent Dilcias they are, spent all of Thursday in the FIPAH office with the general administrator, Fredy Sierra, for a series of very fruitful conversations about the project, where it was successful, what we learned, and how we can improve it next year.
The definite consensus was that what was most important and fun for us as team members were the relationships we developed over the course of two months – with the students, with our host families, with the FIPAH staff, with the kids we played soccer with. Fredy made the point that one of the greatest impacts of the project is having a group that comes back each summer to support the youth programs and participate in the exchange of ideas and worldviews. Solidarity between the Nourish students and the FIPAH youth, more so than the English classes, computer workshops, and agricultural work, is what this project is about. This makes for what on the surface looks like somewhat of a contradictory position on the continuation of the project. On the one hand, one of Nourish’s core values is sustainability, so there’s something a little discomforting about a project whose success is to an extent contingent upon its repetition each summer. But on the other hand, coming back is fundamental to what has made this project so successful. It’s in the Nourish team’s return each summer that the relationships are made stronger and the solidarity that is the greatest strength of the project is demonstrated and reinforced. I guess another way of looking at it is that the fact that there are always students interested in returning, and that FIPAH always eagerly invites us back, is in itself evidence that the project is sustainable.
So, a huge thank you to all of Nourish’s coordinators, members, and supporters for making the project happen; to the 2011 Nourish team for the work and the fun; to FIPAH for being so welcoming and supportive; and most of all to the FIPAH youth for sharing with us their communities, their work, and these two months of their time.
Business continues to go swimmingly. We completed the construction of the animal feed cooperative and have since moved onto the second major portion of the project – the family gardens. As students, we’ve excelled at this since a lot of it largely involves us simply tagging along with Pattanarak and learning from the daily operations of a successfully established local grassroots NGO. Each day, we venture out to a different community along with a few members of the Pattanarak staff and a pickup truck bed loaded with seedlings, compost and hoes. In the mornings, we typically go to a primary school or daycare center and split our time teaching and playing with the kids, and planting with them. After lunch, we truck along to a pre-designated village community, and spend some time getting to know various villagers and exchanging questions and nuggets of culture between us. Then, we split up and each accompany a family to work with them in developing their own backyard garden, finding ways to optimize the space they have and helping them to plant a diverse crop. Some of the popular varieties spanning both annuals and perennials are Thai chili peppers, Thai basil, lemongrass, papaya, green eggplant, string beans, sweet potatoes, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. Our experiences vary from day to day, but it’s been wonderful to work alongside and converse with some of the community members. It’s difficult and oftentimes frustrating to communicate across the language barrier, but we try our best to come up with meaningful questions to ask and to share elements from our own lives with them, and we always find that they are nice beyond all reason in return. One woman at the last village we visited said to Alisa (who was translating for us at the time), “You have kind hearts and you are all very cute.” So kind. Our hearts, I mean.
Craving more of the juicy trip details but too shy to ask? Check out the personal blogs that three members of our group have been keeping (and probably updating more regularly than this one).
Bryanna – bryannacarol.blogspot.com
Celia – tellingtimeinthailand.tumblr.com
Anyways, time for bed! It’s been raining pretty consistently for the past three days and we’re hoping it doesn’t flood. Maybe it’s my overly cautious personality but I for one am not taking any chances; I’m going to bed in my swim trunks.
Today, as we returned from a visit with a local NGO focused on public health, Ajaan Somphon summarized the most important part of the first half of our project: “See,” he said, “it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You keep adding pieces to get the whole picture.” The Pattanarak staff members, especially our supervisor Ajaan Somphon, are extremely dedicated to our learning. In addition to showing and explaining Pattanarak’s initiatives, by translating savings group meetings, giving us a tour of their model gardens, etc., Ajaan Somphon and the other staff members help us learn about the situation of the people who have been displaced from Burma.
Our formal education began with Ajaan Seri’s presentation on our first day here, which explained the challenges facing the Karen and Mon people living in this area. We focused on the issues that deal with our construction and gardening projects: the historical, legal, and cultural factors that threaten the food and financial security of the border communities.
Other learning takes the shape of cultural experiences. Each Thursday morning, for example, we wander through the fish stalls and clothing shops in the weekly market, looking for our favorite fried dough with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. We brought breakfast to the monks at the village temple on a Buddhist holy day, and we play volleyball with the Pattanarak staff and children at our village’s school.
Most of our learning, though, comes from simple conversations. On our second day here, we visited the headmen of four villages where we’ll be gardening. We’ve also visited two primary schools, the staff of Pattanarak’s drop-in center, migrant workers who attend Pattanarak’s AIDS/HIV trainings, an NGO focused on public health, and dozens of strangers whom Ajaan Somphon has marched up to and drawn into conversations. Each of these conversations and experiences gives us some insight into this community and the challenges the Karen and Mon people here face. Now, after three weeks of gathering information and perspectives, a picture of Sangkhlaburi is starting to come together.
These visits and interactions have sparked dialogue within our group. Last week, at the Pattanarak drop-in center on the Burma border, Ajaan Somphon set up a meeting with migrant workers from Burma. The Thai military turns a blind eye while these workers cross the border in the morning to work in factories in Three Pagodas town, and go back to Burma at night. We met with them when they came to the drop-in center for HIV education. Ajaan Somphon and the Pattanarak staff generously arranged a conversation between the eight of us and twelve people from Burma. Though we were interested in their perspectives, and grateful for the opportunity, many members of our group felt uncomfortable with the structure of the interaction. Our questions had to be translated twice, from English to Thai and from Thai to Burmese. We didn’t want to be intrusive or offensive, so we stuck to questions like, “how long have you worked in Thailand?” and “where do your kids go when you go to work?”. We stressed that they could ask us questions, too, but they learned our ages and not much more. We left the drop-in center feeling pretty uncomfortable, like we’d put those people on the spot…that it was an intrusion rather than an exchange. We had an honest conversation with Ajaan Somphon about that visit, expressed the conflict between our curiosity and discomfort, and reached no real conclusion…
For me, on top of these sensitivities about being outsiders, there’s the emotional dilemma of becoming more and more enamored by this community as I begin to understand the problems it faces. The magnitude and complexity of the issues we’re beginning to understand don’t sit well with the kindness and light-heartedness I’ve been so impressed with, or the incredible beauty of this place. As I hear more about public health issues, legal and political marginalization, and the lack of food security, I feel simultaneously closer to and more distant from the Karen and Mon people in Sangkhlaburi.
We’ve had some good moments, though, when these questions seem irrelevant. We’ve been working hard on the pig feed co-op, and this week we worked not only with Pattanarak staff and construction workers from the community, but also with women who are members of Pattanarak savings groups and part owners of the co-op. Getting dirty and exhausted with the staff and community members is rewarding and incredibly funny. We laugh a lot about the amount we struggle and sweat compared to the cool competence of the tiny women in their 60’s. Also, the construction workers who are about half the size of the guys on our team have at least double their strength. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard all about one of our tall, buff team members falling into the river when he tried to pick up a sack of rocks. Phi Joda, a middle-aged man who’s about five feet tall and extremely muscled, cracked up, threw the bag over his shoulder, and marched easily through the current. On Wednesday, on a break from work, the women shared their pomelo and friend bananas with us, and Alisa translated a conversation about our purpose in coming to Sangkhlaburi. The women nodded acceptingly.
Check out Pattanarak’s new Facebook site for pictures from the last three weeks: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pattanarak-Foundation/162469630486806
Our experience in Jesús de Otoro has been a bit different than that of our companions in Yorito. We spent the first week going with the FIPAH staff to various surrounding communities to do work – planting lettuce and corn, harvesting broccoli and cauliflower, and meeting with government officials to negotiate for a FIPAH bean contract. We had quite the time racing up and down mountains in the bed of the truck, hiking up even further on foot, and then trying not to fall down an almost vertical plot of land while chopping broccoli with a machete.
After our first week of adventure we settled down into our teaching schedule. Well, “schedule” as defined by our FIPAH coordinator Omar, who will occasionally, give a 20-minute warning before swinging by our hotel for the day’s mystery activities. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, we do have a pretty unpredictable schedule. We plan our teaching schedule a few weeks at a time, and it is highly subject to change. We generally take day trips to nearby communities and overnight trips to the two “Campanarios” higher up in the mountains. There is no electricity or running water in the Campanarios, but almost every house has a car battery and a converter so they can charge their cell phones and power the fridge. Pretty cool, although it’s a long trip into town to get the battery recharged. What’s really cool is the house with a solar panel on the roof to recharge their battery system.
When we’re not teaching English in the surrounding communities or teaching computer classes in the FIPAH office, we might be out climbing the 1600 meter peak of San Juanillo, answering some questions on FIPAH’s Otoro Radio program, or attending a Honduran wedding. Of the above activities, we were surprisingly most helpful at the wedding. We woke up to a text from Omar saying that he was coming by a half hour early so we could help dress the groom, Lupe (the FIPAH employee who took us to harvest his broccoli and cauliflower). We raced up the mountain in the truck and jumped out at Lupe’s house. Omar supplied the tie, Zan tied it, and Andrea, Kristin and Avani surrounded Lupe and pinned his flower, straightened his coat and tie, and had him looking professional within minutes. We piled in the back of the truck with Lupe’s extended family (the bride and groom got to ride inside) and headed uphill to the church. When we arrived, Zan was notified that his iPhone qualified him as the official wedding photographer, and he was posted at the front next to the ring bearer and the priest. The wedding lasted a couple hours, and afterward everyone went back to Lupe’s place for delicious pork, rice, and tamales.
We’ve had a great time so far, and we’ve felt quite privileged to be included in the local events. The classes are going great, and we recently met with the president of the FIPAH youth committees about a project to do with our funds. Their needs were pretty simple – a table for their computers, a whiteboard to plan on, and a small, bio-diverse plot in each community for new crop strand experimentation. They seem just as excited about it as we are, and we’ll let you know how it goes.
It’s tough to have language classes once a week for seven weeks, coming out of nowhere and ending as abruptly as they begin. This year our English classes are supposed to culminate in some sort of final evaluation or exam of our own design that will be worth 25% of each student’s grade. But how to meaningfully teach a language when total class time will never exceed fifteen hours? The students get English class year round, but the facilitators who teach it don’t themselves speak English, and the books they’re given are such a joke as to be hardly worth the trees chopped down to make them (in my opinion). Our classes are entirely apart, based on what the students express interest in learning and what we think is important to know about our native language, but the follow-up to the classes we give is negligible. It’s easy, I know because I’ve done it, to fall into a what’s-the-point-then attitude about it all. Surely some English class is better than nothing, but considering how much English will in the end be taught and retained and be of use to the students, is it worth all the effort put in by the students to trek all the way to class, by FIPAH to host us and arrange our transportation, by us to come and organize and teach these classes?
This is damn frustrating to think about, but also not the whole story. It can’t be, or else no one would make the effort; the students wouldn’t make the trek, FIPAH wouldn’t host us, we wouldn’t come here to organize and teach. There’s a lot of value in the classes, but I think the bulk of it lies elsewhere. Somewhere beyond conjugating regular verbs in the present, or maybe somewhere between everyone’s showing up each week and playing soccer together after class. What that value is exactly I don’t know; it’s got to be different for everyone involved but even for my own part I have a hard time talking coherently about what this experience means to me. If this project is going to continue in years to come, which I hope and expect it will, vale la pena, it’s worth the trouble, to have these discussions, to articulate those things which are the most valuable and important, and rework/remodel/reframe the project’s goals and structure with that in mind.
No conclusion here, there’s still a lot of questions to be asked and thinking to be done. I just want to wrap up this post by saying how very lucky I feel to be doing this all again. Even the downest, most frustrating moments here have been a pleasure, because of the people around me and because of the boatloads I’m learning. Here’s to three more short exciting weeks.
P.S. Mary and Zan tied the baleada competition with an even 20—we’ve got two new Yorito legends on our hands!