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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Live and learn, as they like to say

  I'm sure some people can share a house with people they don't know well. After four months of doing just that here in Managua, I'm now very certain that I'm not one of them.
    I thought I'd already learned most of the important lessons about life in a foreign land from our Cuso International placement in Honduras during 2012-2014. But it turns out there was one really big one still to come.
    I don't mean to suggest that the profound unpleasantness of this period of house-sharing is the fault of the two other Cuso volunteers who Paul and I share the house with. At this point, I'm quite sure they're as dismayed as I am at how it is that perfectly nice people can end up with a negative group energy that sends us all scrambling for our little hidey-holes when it all gets to be too much (which happens with increasing frequency as the Feb. 27 ends of our posts draw near).
     As the mother and stepmother of five children and the host-mom for all of their many friends during the teen years, I am well familiar with the difficult task of existing in a household full of people. Paul and I survived that period and figured that for a Cuso placement of four short months, sharing a house would be OK.
    But I guess the parent-child relationship is a different situation. You might not like that there are a lot of people in your kitchen chopping vegetables or hogging the stove, but at least they're your people. It's a whole other ball game when you don't have that family connection.
     One of the problems has been our landlady. Paul and I originally spent the first six weeks living in a room in the house where she lives, not understanding that she actually lived there and didn't just manage the place. That was a head-trippy experience of an entirely different kind, as the spacious "common area" was nothing of the kind, seeing as we couldn't sit out there or go into the kitchen without running into the landlady and being harangued about something we or another tenant was doing wrong.
     So then we moved into a house down the road that was managed by the same woman (Error! Error!), where two of our fellow Cuso volunteers were living. We liked the two of them and we all got along, and so the idea of sharing a three-bedroom house that would be totally under our group control seemed like a great plan.
     And for a couple of weeks, it was. We even made the ridiculously tiny fridge work, each of us claiming our little shelves and learning how to stack things strategically on top of each other rather than stand them in their own place. We took care to live collectively, washing our personal dishes immediately and not leaving our stuff scattered around the house.
     But hey, that landlady. She kept on coming by, usually with a poor sod in tow whose job it is to sweep the terrace, whack at cobwebs, and carry our household garbage to the curb. There is no schedule as to when they will show up, and they just walk right in without so much as a knock  - 6 a.m. while I'm doing my morning yoga, 8 p.m. when everyone's solidly into their evening routine, Sunday morning at 8 a.m. while you're sitting in your sleep clothes having a morning coffee. The other day she sat in our living room talking loudly on her cellphone for the better part of an hour while Poor Sod did his cleaning and we cowered in our rooms.
    Meanwhile, the honeymoon period of our placements came to an end and we all moved into the next stage, in which you are beset with self-doubt, angry at your workplace, feeling deeply displaced, and unsure whether you're making any difference at all. Paul and I were familiar with the feelings from our time in Honduras and knew that eventually you pass through that, but our housemates were experiencing it for the first time.
      We all react to stress in our own way. For a while, the group of us drew together as a unified force against the weirdness of the landlady and the many pressures of working in a new culture in workplaces that often seem baffled at what they should with this foreigner who has been plunked into their midst.
     But as the stresses mounted, the unity weakened and our relationships grew strained. We were having to cope with our personal stresses plus manage the way that others in the house coped with theirs, what with all of us living on top of each other. We were living too close and under too much strain to be able to maintain those polite facades that are so vital to collective harmony.
This sums up how I don't feel right now
     Then the landlady moved a young Costa Rican fellow into a shed out behind the house that we had no idea was even a room to rent. His room is so tiny that he spends almost all his time in the common space. His bathroom is mere feet away from our bedroom window, so that I have no choice but to know all the intimate details of his morning routine. No one should have to know that kind of thing.
     So now there are five of us - still sharing that same tiny fridge and small kitchen, and now feeling increasingly resentful for having to line up for stove time, bug somebody about whether they're hording drinking glasses in their room, jostle for our share of the common space. The Costa Rican isn't to blame for how things have turned out, but his addition to the household was definitely the straw that finished off the camel.
     Now, there are lots of times when we don't even pretend to like each other. I actually dread having to be at the house, and am counting down the days until it's all over with a sullen intensity that I don't like seeing in myself. I would like to be able to withdraw to some private space where I could play my accordion and work out my moods through music. But there is no private space.
     I wish I could say that I have been able to rise above it all and be the straight-shooting, collaborative problem-solver I like to think I am. But in fact I've been drawn into the petty dramas and us-versus-them intrigues as much as anyone. I have heard snide, provocative comments coming out of my mouth, brought on by an overwhelming urge I haven't felt since I was a bitchy 14-year-old to punish someone for getting on my nerves. Somebody could do a social experiment on what's happening to us.
     Am I whining? Yeah, I'm whining. But I'm also noting this life lesson in big red capital letters in my book of Lessons Learned: Never Share A House With Anyone But Family. 
    But hey, we're going to laugh about this someday. Maybe. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Canada and Nicaragua: Different worlds, but not for sex workers

     I’m still shaking my head after two and a half enlightening hours yesterday talking with the local sex workers’ organization here in Managua, RedTraSex (Red de Trabajadores Sexuales). I’m not sure whether to be delighted or shattered by how completely identical the issues are for sex workers in Nicaragua as they are back home in Canada.
     Had it not been for us talking in Spanish, I could have easily been back in Victoria talking to my pals at Peers Victoria. I fear my new friends at RedTraSex were a little discouraged to hear that everything they identified as problems were also problems for sex workers in Canada – stigma, judgment and misunderstanding at the top of that list.
The swag from my RedTraSex visit, including a
key chain designed to fit a condom. Can't wait to 
wear my "I always use a condom" t-shirt.
     Up until we met, the group believed that a country as developed as Canada would have surmounted some of the basic prejudices, misconceptions and petty harassments that make the life of a Nicaraguan sex worker more difficult. But no.
     Case in point: The RedTraSex pamphlets, one of which is about their campaign to reduce stigma facing sex workers when they seek health care, and another whose title translates to “Sex work and trafficking are not the same thing.” The book documenting the work of RedTraSex - a network of sex workers in 14 Latin American countries - is titled “Ni Puta ni Prostituta: Somos Trabajadores Sexuales.” (“Neither Whore Nor Prostitute: We Are Sex Workers.”)
     You could produce those same three publications in an English-language version and they would be totally relevant to Canadian sex workers.
     Discrimination against sex workers at hospitals and clinics is a huge problem in Canada, to the point that many sex workers refuse to disclose what they do for a living and thus don’t get the attention they need for their specific line of work. Here in Nicaragua, almost half of the sex workers that RedTraSex surveyed about health-care access reported that they don’t disclose their line of work to medical professionals for fear of being judged. More than a third of those who did disclose reported feeling an instant and negative change in the doctor’s attitude toward them, and repeated attempts to convince them to quit work.
     The presumption that all sex workers are working against their will and thus trafficked became a big political issue in 2014 in Nicaragua, and led to the passing of a new anti-trafficking law. Having heard nothing about the new law until the first media reports came out, RedTraSex had to launch a major advocacy campaign to push back against the government’s attempts to treat consensual sex work and trafficking as the same thing.
     How completely unsettling that that very same year, it also became a big issue in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as the anti-trafficking movement launched an aggressive campaign to convince the world that sex work and trafficking are one and the same.
     As for the stigmatized and offensive language we use when we talk about sex workers, well, that’s one of the most obvious signs that sex workers continue to occupy a sub-human position in the minds of the general public, because while we no longer tolerate any number of derogatory terms for all kinds of other populations, describing someone as a corporate whore or prostituting their principles remains an acceptable way of condemning someone as the lowest of the low.
     One of the major struggles for Nicaraguan sex workers is government apprehension of their children, the presumption being that if you’re a sex worker, you must be a bad mother. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed that same problem playing out for women seeking Peers support. 
     Lordy, how is it that the plight of sex workers is the same all over the world?
     On the upside, I had one of the most engaging conversations with some of the most passionate, powerful women I've met since starting to work in Central America three years ago. Unpaid and largely unsupported other than through a little money from Worldfund that covers the rent for their office space and some promotional material, they are kicking serious butt with their ferocious advocacy on behalf of sex workers.
     Other similarities: The women complained of constantly being put under the microscope of researchers, visitors, do-gooders and others who ask deeply personal questions about how much they make, what their spouses and children think of them being sex workers, whether they were abused as children. They complained that any organization that comes with offers of financial support or scholarships also attaches a non-negotiable rider: That if the woman hopes to receive this support, she must “exit” sex work. They complained of the double morality that allows so many of their customers – preachers, police, politicians – to campaign against the rights of sex workers while buying sexual services in their off-hours.
     And they complained about the presumption that all of them have tragic life stories that explain why they work in the industry. The reality is that just like the Canadian sex workers I've met, they came to the work for many reasons, including the fact that a single mother who is a sex worker is able to work fewer hours for higher earnings than many other Nicaraguans.
     “If you ask any of us for the stories of why we came to be sex workers, it’s different for every one of us,” says Maria Elena Davila, the national co-ordinator for RedTraSex. “But we chose this work.”
     RedTraSex has sex worker volunteers in seven regions of Nicaragua, doing what they can with limited resources to reach out to the 15,000 adult women working in the industry (RedTraSex currently doesn’t work with male or trans sex workers). The volunteers work in an informal style reminiscent of the 12-step movement to step up with personal support for other sex workers at any time of the day or night that someone calls with a problem. Condom distribution is a priority. Maria Elena says what the women most appreciate is that the support comes from other sex workers, who can be counted on not to judge them.  
     As is the case in Canada, sex work in Nicaragua exists somewhere between legal and illegal, a shadowy space that leaves workers without basic human rights and vulnerable to police harassment. Maria Elena noted that when some Managua workers recently reported an underage girl on the stroll – who turned out to have been put out there by her parents – police responded by coming to the area and arresting everybody working there.
     “Whenever that happens, you end up at the police station for five or six hours, not making any money,” she says.
     She recounted the extremely difficult moment when she was preparing for a press conference on behalf of RedTraSex and realized that seeing as she was poised to go public as a sex worker, she’d first have to disclose that fact to her mom and her children. Here or in Canada, telling your family the truth is one of the most painful memories in any sex worker’s life, a stark reminder of just how stigmatized and judged this line of work is.
     I’m both honoured and aghast to have heard in the stories of the strong women of RedTraSex virtually a word-for-word retelling of the stories I've heard in Canada. I’m struggling to process the new knowledge that two countries that are worlds apart in so many other ways both treat their sex workers with the same contempt and disrespect, denying them the most basic of rights as workers and as citizens. If ever I needed one more argument to confirm my opinion that this issue is one of the most important human-rights battles of this era, yesterday's conversation was it.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Assisted suicide ruling brings it all back for Sue Rodriguez chronicler


My friend and fellow writer Anne Mullens has a very personal connection to this week's Supreme Court of Canada unanimous ruling allowing doctor-assisted suicide.
    She wrote a series of articles over five years on Victoria woman Sue Rodriguez's long and brave court fight in the 1990s - ultimately lost - for the right to have a doctor assist her to die when the day came that she'd had enough of the slow and cruel deterioration brought on by amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Anne then went on to write a very difficult book about other Canadians' battles for a more dignified end to their own lives.
     So when the court handed down its decision this week, Anne had a lot of herself invested in the issue. Here's her powerful blog post on what it felt like to hear the news, and her memories of some of the most traumatizing years of her life collecting the stories of ill people seeking the right to determine at what point they would draw the line in their own lives, and who they would like to help them in those final moments.
    Read it and weep - for all the people who died of chronic and cruel health conditions without the legal right to exercise any control of when or how death would come, and for all those who at least see light at the end of the tunnel on the issue of a dignified death. All eyes are on the federal government now, which has a year to either come up with new end-of-life legislation that doesn't violate people's rights, or get out of the way.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

World peace, an end to poverty, and less garbage

Day after Christmas at Las Penitas beach
     Were it up to me to pick a project for Central America, it might be garbage.
    In countries with per-capita GDPs somewhere around $4,000, sub-standard education systems and virtually zero social services, I admit that garbage is not the most pressing problem.
    But it's the kind of project that is wide open to all ages and classes, in urban and rural areas alike. It provides instant gratification, and possibly economic stimulus as well if you pay attention to which types of garbage have value and set up side projects along the way. (I dream of bringing Vancouver's Ken Lyotier to the region to help the impoverished recyclers here improve their systems.)
      It's a perfect project for involving young people, offering the potential for a major change in habits and a much-improved environment in only one generation. Once habits are changed, they stay changed, meaning it's also a project that you can do once and as long as you're thorough in the execution, it stays done.
     Plus if this lovely part of the world ever hopes to really get things going around tourism, they're simply going to have to stop throwing their garbage all over the place. It was truly sad to wake up at our little Pacific Coast getaway at Las Penitas beach the day after Christmas and see a thousand styrofoam coffee cups, food containers and little plastic bags washing out to sea and strewn all over what had been a pristine area just 24 hours earlier.
    Garbage cleanups also lend themselves to developing a spirit of volunteerism. Kids from local schools could become stewards of a certain number of blocks around their schools, led around by socially minded locals to do routine cleanups while getting educated about the harm that garbage can cause. Meanwhile, they go home and lean on their parents about not just chucking their chip bags and empty Coke bottles into the street. At least, that's the hope.
     Of course, no one's going to get a high-cost blue box campaign going on in a country like Nicaragua, or implement posh, odor-free landfills with elaborate systems for capturing methane gas like the one in my home town of Victoria.
     But just bringing all the garbage together in one designated spot would be a big step forward. As it is, it just seems to spill out all over the place here. Somebody dumps a couple of bags somewhere at the side of the road and everybody takes it as a licence to dump more. Add in hungry dogs, opportunistic turkey vultures, and people who eke out a living selling what other people throw away, and it gets ugly fast.
    There is a very good network of recyclers hard at work already in Managua, as I'm reminded every
Beach on Utila Island, Honduras, that's a
magnet for garbage brought in by the sea
garbage day when five or six different people pulling wheeled carts pass by our house looking for aluminum cans, plastic bottles and anything else that has enough value to either resell or remake into something useful for their families. I watched one guy spend at least 10 minutes whacking a big piece of concrete construction waste with a mallet to free up the wire framework inside, which he was presumably going to sell to a metal recycler.
     Judging by how poor the recyclers seem to be, it doesn't appear to be a line of work that pays well. But there's potential there as well - to find additional markets, to outfit them with better carts so they could cover more territory, to get Managuans separating their garbage from the outset instead of leaving it to the recyclers to tear apart bags on the street and inevitably contribute to the mess.
     Municipalities need to get much more involved for this plan to work, of course. For one thing, you can go a long way without ever seeing a public garbage can in Central American towns, and that's going to have to change. Plus there has to be enough in the municipal budget to pay someone to empty those cans, or otherwise you'll end up with the problem we saw in Copan Ruinas throughout our time there, where the overstuffed, reeking garbage cans in the town park attracted flies and stray dogs. You also need a municipal commitment to pick up garbage in all the neighbourhoods, not just the richer ones. That stuff really travels.
    And styrofoam. Lordy, let's do something about styrofoam. Down here, it's the go-to material for all the little food stalls and comedores, and you can't walk anywhere without seeing styrofoam clam shells piling up against a fence where the wind blew them or clogging up some little waterway. Please, somebody, invent a cheap insulating material that deteriorates quickly and harmlessly, and save this planet a lot of misery. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

It takes all kinds to make a world

   An acquaintance made a comment recently to me about what it was like for me living in "the Third World." I've struggled for years to understand that term as something other than a euphemism for dirt poor and uncivilized, but it definitely isn't a phrase I'd use to describe Central America whatever the interpretation.
    Apparently the term was first used in the 1950s by people who grouped the world into countries that were leading the drive toward capitalism, those who believed in communism, and the "third world" that had not yet aligned with either side. But for most of my lifetime, it's merely been a way of summoning the image of a country with crushing poverty and little hope for a better day unless people from the other two worlds show up to save the day.
    Which is basically a load of hooey in the case of Central America.
    The countries in this little neck of land between north and south have definitely been shaped over the centuries by the demands and dreams of the First and Second worlds, mostly because Central America had something that a more powerful nation wanted (materials to mine, land for bananas, people to recruit to the cause, a willingness to consider vast canal projects that would serve the interests of wealthier countries).
     But the people here - the life here - do not much resemble the image that "Third World" brings to mind. I think it does quite a disservice to creative, resourceful and resilient countries to think of them that way.
    The modern world loves to measure countries like Nicaragua, and plot their statistics on scales like the Human Development Index to demonstrate just how far they have to go to "catch up" with countries that are deeply committed to the pursuit of wealth and thus perceived as doing everything right.
     I'm sure we have the best of intentions when we use such tools to measure this thing we call progress (although a cynic might note that the pursuit of international development is also a good way to leverage money and jobs in wealthy countries). A family in Nicaragua is just as eager as a family in Canada to prevent their mother, wife or sister from dying unnecessarily in childbirth for lack of good medical care, for instance, or to have their children end up disadvantaged, disabled or dead due to preventable diseases or poor nutrition.
     But at the same time, the way we measure "progress" for the purposes of development is very specifically about a certain understanding of that term based on the way rich countries see it. The measurements are virtually always connected to things that a dollar value can be attached to. They are often missing the analysis and context that would help the rest of us understand why a country isn't seeing more economic growth. They set the terms for how failure and success will be understood, and never mind that a particular culture might have a completely different interpretation of what counts as success.
     Nor are we very often transparent in our drive toward "development," hiding behind the needs of the poor to serve our own interests.
     When giant corporations come to countries like Nicaragua and Honduras to set up their factories, for instance, their real commitment is not to creating jobs in poor countries, it's to serving the constant demands of consumers in wealthy countries for cheaper and cheaper goods. The working conditions at many of these maquilas trouble me deeply as a Canadian, and the tax-free status that companies demand as a condition to setting up in poorer countries is loathsome.
    But don't go blaming the Capitalist Bastards. Those factories exist because consumers in wealthy nations like mine want cheap stuff without having to sacrifice their own wage levels or tax systems. Should anyone set out to improve working conditions or impose taxation on the international companies, the corporations will simply pack up their bags and find a more willing country. And they will always find one.
    On a purely superficial note, here's what I see around me every day here in Nicaragua: Modern cars driving on modern roads. Electricity, internet and good running water. Brie and baguettes in the supermarkets, and a whole lot of Nicaraguans loading up their shopping carts with such things. Comfortable houses built to make the most of a beautiful climate. Safe city streets full of people who make eye contact as you pass by and are happy to say hello or stop what they're doing if it looks like you feel like talking.
     I see people who are pretty damn healthy given that a lot of them can't afford better-quality private care and have to line up for public care. (I sometimes wonder if that's because the drive to stay alive at any cost that exists in countries like mine simply can't exist in a country like this one, and so the ones who have survived have stronger genetics.)
     In the countryside, I see farming families living on an astoundingly small amount of money in scratchy little houses, yes, but they're producing their own food. They're active citizens who are working hard to hold their governments accountable, and they've been doing that since long before the development agencies started coming down to show them how it's done.
     And the resilience - well, I am endlessly amazed by the resilience. One of the greatest conceits I've encountered since working in Central America was a European development organization's call for proposals to help people here develop resilience. Oh, please. These people wrote the book on resilience.
   One of my biggest learnings so far in this new life has been that just because a country doesn't look like ours doesn't mean it's a failure. I fear we disempower perfectly good cultures with our need to compare them to us and find fault, as if there's only one version of a world. I celebrate diversity.
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world.