Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Indigenous wisdom

Each time I go to the countryside I learn something new – or I am reminded of something I knew but which hadn’t stuck in my consciousness.

Tuesday I went with Johnny, one of the coordinators of the maternal and infant health program that Caritas Santa Rosa is coordinating, to a remote area of the municipality of El Paraiso, Copán.

What really impressed me was Johnny’s integrity and his commitment to those in need. During the trip – two hours by car – and during our visit to a rural village we talked about corruption, about his previous work, and about the project.

Johnny has been at work with the poor for many years. He mentioned how he worked with some volunteers in a program of informal education a number of years ago. He encouraged them to think about studying to become teachers. Four of them followed his advice and are now teachers, earning a salary.

He also mentioned an experience during an internship when he, as a high school student, refused to go along with a supervisor who was skimming off the materials which had been left over from a project. He was vindicated but it took a lot of courage for him to stand up for honesty.

In the village where we visited, El Chacron – the big mud hole, we delivered materials for the three volunteers in the village who will keep track of infants under 2 years and pregnant women. We first visited with the volunteer in charge. As we left, he showed us his garden. Though there is a fence around it he is using pineapple plants as a barrier against invasion of chickens and other creatures. Not only is this effective and ecologically sound, he will be able to harvest 200 pineapples during the year.

He also spoke about the medicinal values of some of the plants in the garden. I asked him where he learned this. “From my ancestors,” he replied. The native wisdom of the people here is something which I hope will not be lost.

As we drove back from El Chacron to the town of El Paraiso, Johnny and Ondina, a local nurse, talked about some of the communities nearby, including several within a national park – Cerro Azul. One community is mostly indigenous and eats tortillas and “monte” – wild greens; they are relatively healthier than another community which is not indigenous and doesn’t include enough greens in their diets.

This reminded me of a book I started to read a few years ago but never finished. A friend, Alfonso Carranza, who is a professor of agriculture at the local campus of the National University of Honduras, investigated the practices of indigenous communities in the department of Lempira. He found that they have preserved ancient practices to deal with food shortages.

This wisdom of the native population is invaluable but often neglected when we try to find ways to assist them. Many assume that because they are poor and without formal education they are dumb. But, the wisdom of the poor is often invaluable and more in contact with the reality of this world than the so-called wisdom of professionals.

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