Friday, November 26, 2010

What Am I Building?



When you hear that 300 illiterate adults learned to read and write in 45 days, how do you feel?  Touched by the persistence of the students? Motivated by the dedication of the teachers?  Perhaps inspired by the realization that it is never too late to pursue your dreams?  

You might not find the idea of achieving functional literacy in six weeks very impressive.  After all, any adult with a degree of motivation and a committed teacher (assuming there is no learning disability) can pull this off. There are read-along books on tape, podcasts, cereal boxes, billboards, instruction manuals, newspapers – opportunities to practice reading are endless. And learning to read doesn’t have to cost a dime. Public libraries offer free internet access and tons of books and materials. And various organizations train and mobilize literacy volunteers (www.proliteracy.org). Yes, functional literacy in six weeks is possible.

But what if those 300 illiterate adults were farm workers in 1962 Brazil? Might the results seem more impressive? No internet, no podcasts, no public library, no literacy volunteers. The absence of modern learning tools slows down the process greatly. But the psychosocial dynamics of the time and place complicate learning in ways that are not easy to understand, let alone overcome. 

Colonialism, in its various forms, has left a debilitating impression upon Central and South America. The paternalistic relationships between the Latin American colonies and their external “parent” did not condition people to create, invent, or lead, but to be still and await instructions.  In most cases, colonialism included seasons of human trafficking and slavery that taught people not to dream or explore, but to labor and obey.  That is, until a home-grown leader surfaced.  For a season, he was seen as a savior. Then he began to imitate colonial leadership styles and soon morphed into a controlling, tyrannical dictator.  Colonized, enslaved minds easily drifted back into the roles of oppressed, obedient workers who don’t dare think, hope, or dream.  

Just as one who was reared in a dysfunctional family struggles to establish healthy relationships in adulthood, young nations struggle for generations to break unhealthy cycles and learn how to be strong, independent, autonomous democracies.

International development workers, though very well-intentioned, have also at times perpetuated paternalistic colonialism by literally stepping into developing countries, identifying problems, and imposing solutions. Latin Americans are appreciative of the help but their collective self-esteem is further damaged as they cling to the belief that they are not capable of solving their own problems.

Paulo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and father of the modern adult education movement, observed that Latin America suffers largely from “narration sickness”.  

Panama is filled with wonderful, loving, compassionate, dedicated teachers. But most have been trained to teach in a way that mirrors Latin American leadership patterns. Students sit and await instruction. Students are often told what to think instead of being taught how to think for themselves. They memorize and regurgitate instead of experimenting and inventing.

Because of thinkers like Freire, we are learning that traditional teaching styles, where the teacher is the authority figure who narrates to students, actually makes it harder for the adult student to learn.  And because adults tend to have other priorities in life, working and caring for children trumps sitting in a classroom and being talked down to.  So change never comes.  And because learning is about so much more than the activities of reading and writing, ideas are never considered, problems are never analyzed, processes are never improved, opportunities are never presented, and horizons are never expanded.  This is the plight of rural Latin America. These are the conditions in which Freire tested his early theories of adult education and succeeded in guiding 300 Brazilian farm workers to literacy in just 45 days.

Today, Latin America has many modern, bustling cities filled with trendy restaurants and posh galleries where well-dressed, highly educated corporate-types juggle their laptops, Blackberries, and IPods. But for every one of the upper class city dwellers, you will find 100 people who live without electricity and running water.  Those same 100 people were raised by parents, who were raised by parents (and so on…) who taught them how to be good colonists: to labor and obey, to memorize and regurgitate, to wait for someone from the outside to come in and solve their problems. Today, in the year 2010, with the world spinning faster than ever, “narration sickness” still plagues Latin America and still stunts the growth of its people.  

In my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have the honor of being assigned to facilitate capacity building with Cosecha Sostenible Panama, an organization that works with vulnerable, impoverished, rural families to help them to do reforestation and organic farming while improving their economic condition. The staff is intelligent, creative and passionate about their work. So much so that when I first met them, I wondered what I could possibly do to build their capacity.  But because this unique organization has embraced a culture of learning and continuous improvement, they were thrilled when I suggested that we begin with the Transformational Leadership Seminar.

Over the course of several months, they learned about goal setting, establishing priorities, and managing resources, among other things. They also did a lot of personal reflection and experimented with some different ways of being with their families and their coworkers. When they graduated from the program and were certified as facilitators, they immediately began planning to take their show on the road by holding seminars in all of the communities where they work. “Now that we know how to teach adults using methodologies that uplift them and empower them,” stated Rodrigo Rodriguez, country director of Cosecha Sostenible Panama, “I believe that we can have a greater impact as we help families to help themselves.” 

The causes of Latin America’s problems are multifaceted and I cannot fool myself into believing that I have a magic wand and can change everything overnight.  But I trained seven people. And each of them is now equipped to train seven more (and so on…). Panamanians are highly-intelligent, resourceful people, fully capable of identifying and solving their own problems. And with each passing day, more and more of them are learning new ways of thinking and being so they can reach their full potential as dreamers, hopers, thinkers, experimenters, and inventors, ultimately becoming the creators of their own destiny.

When people find out that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, they often expect me to be building something like a school, an orphanage, or a health center. What am I building? I hope that I am building hope.  

Grace and Peace,
Anita

Monday, September 6, 2010

Its a Jungle Out There

As I step out of what is familiar and comfortable, I inhale my surroundings and discover something different and wild. The air is thick with scents partly reminiscent of a life once lived, partly of a life once desired. Roots that have long since broken through the jungle floor threaten my every step as they nourish the trunk that proclaims its presence. I could ignore it, pretend not to be curious. But my eyes would only fall prey to the obnoxious presence of those that flank it, their branches intertwined, craftily resetting the trap that once ensnared me. The jungle’s lush canopy gives the illusion of safety as I duck and dodge my way through the dangerous decadence. I swat the low-lying branches away and maneuver the terrain as a symphony produced by exotic creatures attempts to lull me into an hypnotic stupor from which I would one day awaken, re-entangled and forever trapped in a life I was not meant to live.

My new life was hard-won but I finally am free. I can walk through this modern, concrete jungle and not trip over the exposed roots of materialism and consumerism. I can pop into the city for a few hours to take care of some business and enjoy the sparkle of Cartier before me, and the glitz of Tiffany and Bvlgari on either side. They have no power to pull me in. This is someone else’s dream and I do not envy the person nor do I begrudge them their heart’s desires. A different kind of richness woos me and though I have momentarily stepped into the jungle, I shall not stumble. Its people are foreign to me. They are not the Panamanians I know. In the isolated jungle known as the capital city, the complexions are fair and faces are framed by hair created by God but recreated by man. Pouty lips, smoothed out foreheads, and surprised eyes. They buy chakras and naguas without every hearing a greeting in the native Ngöbere language. They admire the intricately handmade mola though they have never allowed their eyes to rest on the proud chiseled features of the Kuna woman who made it. To them, the concrete jungle is safe. To me, it is cold and it unenticing. For now, I am blessed to call Panama my home. Not the manufactured Panama, but the one where kids wear uniforms to school even if they don’t have socks and shoes, where styrofoam is a building material, where rubbing alcohol cures everything, and where there is nothing on your plate that cannot be eaten with either a spoon or your fingers.

In just thirteen months, I will leave this place but this place will not leave me. It's exquisite threads shall remain woven into the fabric that is my being and its jewels shall sparkle through the windows of my soul. I will be beckoned, not by the concrete jungle, but by the wildness of yet another destination unknown, by the civility of a people unexposed. I will again be homesick for a place I have yet to go. And I will find comfort and connection in the eyes of a people who are very different from me though they too were made in the image and likeness of the same God who designed this journey just for me and who might have a similar path laid out for you. It is time to break the spell of the concrete jungle. Untangle yourself from its deceptive decadence and join me as we fix our eyes on a fabulous future.

Grace and peace,

Anita

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

No More Chasing

In my desire to settle into my life in Panama and my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have begun to settle for some things that I never thought I would. It has been my desire since day one to establish genuine friendships but after almost a year in the country, I am tired of trying and ready to accept that they may not come. Thankfully, my new site has not tested and tried me in the way that my old one did. During the early days in that locale, I was the subject of gossip, ridicule, and scorn. Here, though I am spared the hazing rituals, I am basically ignored. I greet people. I participate in activities. I suggest outings. But life in a regional capital is busy and people are consumed with their families, their careers, and their studies. A gringa who will be gone in a year barely makes their radar screen.


During the Peace Corps application process, they are constantly trying to assess your ability to cope with loneliness. And once in country, they do their best to equip you for what I have come to call the Peace Corps PILL - Pessimism, Isolation, Loneliness, and Listlessness. So my experience is certainly not unique to me. And I’m guessing that it’s not so unique to just about anyone who is trying to serve others, be it in the workplace, in their community or within their own family. There are times in this life when, no matter how many people surround you, you are alone.

So while I would like to have a social life that goes beyond polite greetings and brief banter, I have decided that at a certain point, trying actually becomes sadder than settling. I am not giving up on the idea of meaningful friendships in Panama. I am simply accepting their absence at this moment.

I am constantly alert to the fact that such a way of life is the perfect breeding ground for inappropriate behavior and bad habits. My counselor training tells me that distractions can be dangerous because they can turn into compulsions and addictions and all of these things interfere with our ability to have healthy relationships. The right thing to do is to get in touch with my longings, to sit in that empty space, know it, name it, and invite God to join me in it. But I now question the intensity at which I have done this in the past. I have at times been “spiritual” to the point of self-injury. I would ignore my flesh and chase God until it hurt.

So when the side effects of the Peace Corps PILL recently started to resurface, I caught myself emailing, web surfing, reading, writing, and watching a lot of TV, all in English. I also started burning up cyberspace, skyping my friends and family to talk about nothing. These activities are not bad but they pull me out of Panama. They are a distraction. And they decrease the likelihood that I will find that fulfilling Panamanian friendship or achieve the elusive perfect Spanish – neither of which are guaranteed anyway.

So do I go back to my old tactic of discarding the distractions in favor of pushing into the loneliness? Sure, it brought me closer to God but it also made me that much more lonely here on earth. Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible for one to chase God too hard. Especially if that chase takes me out of the world that I inhabit, and especially if chasing God makes me inhabit it without truly living in it.

So while I am waiting for Panama to invite me in, maybe a little connection to my U.S. life is not so bad. Panama may never offer me anymore than it does right now. And if that’s the case, I have to accept it – even settle for it. I guess that is what serving is really all about. Giving with no expectation of anything in return, even friendship.

So what am I going to do? I am going to allow myself to be a little distracted. I am going to keep surfing, skyping, emailing, and watching reruns of Law & Order and House. And as for my relationship with God, it is time for me to trade my begging for accepting and wallowing for worshipping. After all, He is not running so I don’t have to chase Him.

Grace and Peace,

Anita

Friday, July 16, 2010

Its Over

The nationwide strike is over. The people of Panama have the ears of their leaders and both sides are working towards some reasonable solutions. See post below for more info. I am still in Panama and feeling contenta y tranquila.
Grace and Peace,
Anita

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Panama, My Adventure

It all started when Marina came to visit me. Sharing the country, the culture, and the Peace Corps experience with her gave me such a sense of pride in what is now My Panama. It has taken almost a year but I am finally “in like” with this country. Many of the things that irritated me in the beginning are now endearing and the rest are routine. Washing my clothes by hand is no longer a chore but a welcome upper-body workout. The weather is not hot. The weather simply is. And I am not just surviving my Peace Corps experience. I am experiencing it.

I have been in my new site for almost three months and I am really beginning to feel a sense of purpose. I provide training and consulting services to an NGO (non-governmental organization, e.g., nonprofit) that does some amazing work in helping families to overcome poverty while combating deforestation. With strategic planning in full swing and a leadership training series launched, I was a dozen different shades of excited before the unrest started to make the news.  The reasons for the clashes are complicated and frankly as a Peace Corps volunteer, none of my business. I am nonetheless affected by it.

The first alert was called for one particular region of the country, then another. Now, every volunteer in the Panama is on alert. For the most part, our orders are to be aware, to be still, and to be prepared. Hopefully, things will settled down sometime soon but if they do not, the place that I am finally “in like” with could quickly become the place where I used to live. The daily walks to the market to buy one tomato, the year-round summer wardrobe, the pink “rug” that I painted onto my dungeon – I mean kitchen – floor… it could all be a thing of the past, long before I am ready to say goodbe and there is nothing I can do about it.

In the middle of all of this uncertainty, I am sure of two things: 1) it is all worth it, and 2) for as long as there is breath in my body, my adventure will not end. Whether it is sooner or later, I will one day say farewell to My Panama. But whether in Latin America, the U.S., or some other part of the world, my adventure shall continue.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Wake-up Knock

Every morning at 6:30, my three-year-old neighbor hops out of bed, sneaks over to my house and begins knocking on my door…


“Anita! Anita! Anita!” Pacho shouts as he desperately pounds on my front door. I try to ignore him and hope that he goes away but the pounding continues. I plead with him,“Regresa mas tarde.” (Come back later.

“Abre la puerta!” (Open the door!) he shouts with all of the importance a three year old can muster, “Quiero hablar contigo.” (I want to talk to you.)

“Vaya - estoy dormiendo.” (Go away - I’m sleeping.)


“Mentirosa!” (Liar!) Pacho responds accusingly.


There is a brief pause before the knocking resumes, “Anita! Anita! Anita!”


This daily interaction was a lot less charming than it sounds, especially since his was the last voice I heard before I drifted off to sleep every night. He exasperated me. I had long since given up on trying to reason with the adults in his house and was spending my days plotting and experimenting with new strategies to make him (and the other little ones who would show up throughout the day) go away.

“Pacho esta en amorado con usted,” (Pacho is in love with you) his grandmother revealed. Of course it didn’t help that she was encouraging the crush and even suggesting in his presence that I might adopt him and take him back to the United States with me. Pacho had been abandoned by his mother and was being raised by his grandparents.

Although I was never able to eliminate the daily wake-up-knocking, I did figure out how to regain some of my personal space during the day. The solution was simple. I got up, opened the door, and let him in. Each morning, I looked in his cute little face and listened while he told me what he had dreamt about the night before. And after a respectable amount of time, I could coax him to go back home to Abuela (
grandma).



The impositions were not limited to the children in the community. I was appalled and offended on a daily basis by words and actions of adults that I interpretted as rude but they saw as kind. And I would come to learn that I too had offended them in my attempts to be polite and respectful. People, whether I was acquainted with them or not, would walk into my house without even a knock. But when I kept my door closed to head off the unwelcome visits, I was thought to be rude and standoffish. My reputation was further damaged because whenever I went out to pasear (take a walk), I would greet people who were outside or standing in their doorway but I never walked in an open door or looked inside someone’s house and loudly commented on what they were doing. I was trying to respect the privacy of people who had no need for privacy.

But over time we learned to overlook each other’s offenses and see each other’s value. They stopped focusing on who I was not and began embracing who I am. I stopped expecting things like privacy and personal space and gave in to the local rhythm. So instead of getting upset when my sleep was disrupted, I got up, opened the door, and received my first hug of the day which was always followed by Pacho’s confession of undying love for me, “Yo te quiero mucho Anita!”


But as my relationships in the community began to take a turn for the better, my health began to take a turn for the worse. When my asthma symptoms escalated and I was unable to get proper care locally, the Peace Corps doctor and I decided that a site change was necessary.
video
My new assignment is very different from the last and a departure for the Peace Corps Panama norm. Instead of living as a member of a rural community, I will make my home in a very nice provincial capital, as I provide consulting services to an NGO (nonprofit) committed to helping poor, rural families to do organic farming and reforestation. The director is a very learned man with a passion for the protecting the environment and for serving underserved people. My job will be to support him in his efforts to strengthen the structure of the organization in a way that will attract funding and ensure the organization’s long-term viability.
As I look through the photos of what is now my former community, I have a better appreciation for the people and their ways – which better positions me in my new role to influence the system in a way that will influence their lives for the better. I also have a better understanding of Anita and her ways – which better positions me to roll with the punches. I am more industrious, more flexible, much more tranquila (calm).

The goodbyes were filled with tears of desperation as those I had come to know and love led me into a space that was foreign to me. A space of certain finality. They knew that traveling, even in a country as small as Panama, is difficult and costly. They knew that though I had the ability to send messages through my computer, they had no way of receiving them. They knew that it was highly unlikely that we will see each other again. And as painful as it was to say goodbye to both me and my predecessor, they knew that they had to open their hearts for more. “¿Mandan otro de Cuerpo de Paz?” (Will they send us another volunteer?)

Love is worthwhile. It is worth eating the same bland meal three times a day. It is worth beating your clothes against a rock. It is worth intermittent electricity. It is worth a 6:30am wake up knock.


“Anita, yo tengo que saber,” the tearful voice of Pacho’s seven year old cousin Sara came through my cell phone just two days after my departure, “¿Tu no me quieres?” (Don’t you love me?)

“Sara, yo te quiero mucho,” (I love you so much) I assured her, “Y te estraño.” (And I miss you.)


“¿Entonces, porque saliste? (Then why did you leave?) pouted the little girl whose mother had died some three years prior and whose father had left her with the grandmother while he started a new family.


“Porque a veces, los adultos tienen que hacer lo que no quieren hacer.” (Adults sometimes have to do things that they don’t want to do.) “Pero nunca olvides que tu eres especial – a mi y a Dios. (Never forget that you are special – to me and to God.) Has tenido una vida mas dura que otras pero tendras un futuro mas bueno. (Your life has been harder than most but your future will be better than most.)


Sara has suffered beyond her years and she understood with an understanding equally beyond her seven years. She told me that Jesus gives her a big hug every night before I go to sleep and advised me that when I feel like I want to cry because I miss her, I should just let Jesus give me a big hug.

Grace and Peace,

Anita

P.S.
If you are wondering what became of Jersey the dog, he is living the sweet life, spending his days running freely through the banana plantation with his new girlfriend, Candi, under the watchful eye of his new owner, Abelardo, the young man who had appointed himself as my loyal and hardworking personal secretary.