Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Almost in Guatemala - visiting the hinterlands

I saw Guatemala yesterday – not far from the community of San José de la Frontera in the municipality of Florida in Copán, Honduras. I could even make out the Rio Montagua in Guatemala. (It was, however, too hazy to get a decent picture.)

San José de La Frontera is one of the sites of Caritas’ program for mothers and children under two. The program, financed by the World Bank and Catholic Relief Services and coordinated with the Honduran Health Ministry, monitors the health of infants in rural villages with the help of trained local volunteers. I went with the coordinator of the zone, saw the work of the Caritas employee working in the area, and listened to the women in the community.

It was a long day. I left Santa Rosa de Copán at 6 am. We picked up Ruth,  the regional coordinator, in La Entrada and then went to the Florida municipal health center to pick up vaccines to take to a rural clinic. We left the vaccines at the clinic in San Lorenzo Techín and then backtracked to the turn off to San José.

The trip was, to put it mildly, interesting.

The terrain was largely mountainous, with vast areas which had been deforested and which were now used for grazing cattle. Other areas were forested or planted with coffee.  The views were at times breath-taking, both in terms of the beauty and the devastation.


About a kilometer before the village of El Espíritu we rounded a curve and found four pickups stopped there, with a good number of highly armed men. We passed through without a problem.

Within minutes we passed on the outskirts of El Espíritu, once a quiet village, now with some very large houses/compounds. It is reportedly the center of one of the drug-trafficking cartels in Honduras.

A few kilometers up the road we entered the village of Berlín. One of the first site was 11 or twelve Honduran soldiers, with weapons, walking on the road. In the village we noted a few gringos. We stopped and I talked briefly with the leader. He has been in Honduras for years working with the evangelical bilingual school in La Entrada. He had a group with him from all over the US.

Just outside Berlin, I saw a Caterpillar road grader on the top of a hill, clearing the site.  “What for?” I wondered. Maybe, I suggested for a helicopter pad.

rocks, mud, and even more

We passed through several other villages, over some of the worst roads I’ve seen in Honduras. Lots of rocks in some places, deep ruts in others.

These women and children had a better idea than a car - horses!

We passed by a public health center in La Elencia. An hour later we arrived in San José de la Frontera. Later I found out that people who want to get to the clinic from San José have to leave at 4 am in the morning, walk up to a nearby village and then get a ride to the clinic, perhaps arriving about 7 am!

San José has about 30 households, with lots of kids. The Caritas worker was with the two village monitors weighing the thirteen infants under two. I watched, talked with people, and even took a turn grinding coffee.

All the mothers had brought their kids, as opposed to some areas where many don’t come to the meetings. Also, only three of the thirteen infants were underweight. A few appeared even chubby! In some other villages in the area about half the infants are underweight. However, this is one of the villages where there has been an infant death.

Weighing the infants
After the weighing was finished, there was a meeting with the women. Ruth had hoped that some other village leaders would have come but communication is so difficult there (at times no cell phone signal) that she had been unable to communicate with them.

Nestor explaining the statistics of the last three months

The community identified a number of problems: the distance from the local health center, the problems of transportation to the health center – including the cost (25 lempiras [about $1.30] each way), the lack of a kindergarten teacher, and more.

It was sad to hear there was no working kindergarten. The former teacher had married and decided not to continue teaching. Another person had declined. Yet there was a young woman with a small baby who was willing to do some teaching. Unfortunately she only has a third grade education. However, the president of the parents’ school organization was there and she will try to get the grade school teacher to push the authorities so that this woman can begin to work with the kinds.

Above all, I saw that the community and the women need to work on organizing themselves better. Earlier a committee had been formed but  it had not met. In addition, there was a lot of internal criticism. At times, I think, the poor fail to realize the good that they can do and, abetted by the discrimination against them, turn to criticizing each other.

I noted that most of the houses were of wooden planks. Someone explained to me that the rocky soil cannot be used for making adobe.

I noted water and some latrines, but I don’t know the quality of the water. My guess is that poor water contributes to the health problems, especially children with diarrhea.

I was there to see what the work was as well as to look at the situation of the community. However, I felt at least a few times uncomfortable. The coordinator had spoken of how Caritas could help them work on some proposals for projects. That is not totally true. And so I tried to say that they are the ones who need to develop projects; they need to seek support, especially with municipal authorities; they need to plan and carry out projects in the their communities.

So many times here in Honduras people come with projects for people – well meaning projects but the initiative doesn’t come form the people. Sometimes this leads to projects that have no follow up. The coordinator noted a latrine project that was not well-thought through; within a few months the latrines were being used to house chickens!

I was especially uncomfortable being someone from outside, from the Untied States. I felt that at least one woman was pushing for me to find funds to do something for the community. I kept repeating that I cannot make plans for their community’s development. They have to do it themselves.

I hope the message got through. I hope they begin to work on ways they can help improve their community. As a way to motivate them I referred to the first reading from last Sunday’s lectionary, Acts 4: 32-35:
The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul…there was no one poor among them.
I urged them to try to live this in their community.

Before we left the coordinator said that I would return. I said that I wouldn’t try to return unless the committee had gotten together and done some planning.

I was very uneasy, especially when she wanted me to set a date. By conditioning a possible visit to the community’s work, I hope that I reinforced the idea that the community will not improve unless they work together to do this.

I was glad to get to the community, to see the efforts being made. I was, as you can tell, saddened by the poverty as well as the attitude of looking for someone outside to “solve” the problems.

I hope that by calling them to work together, to demand the attention of government authorities, and to live the Gospel I helped them to see themselves as people who can do something.

Help, yes; solving others’ problems, no.

Working together, encouraging and accompanying their processes, definitely.

No comments: