Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The slow awakening

Workshop participants discuss citizens' rights
I'm with a roomful of people at a conference centre atop one of the crazy, skinny mountain roads they have around Copan. They call this kind of meeting a taller here in Honduras - a workshop. But the term that comes to my mind is “consciousness-raising.”
The people in the room are all too familiar with the many problems facing Honduran families and communities. But they obviously don't get mad easily, and the facilitator is gently nudging them toward a little more indignation.
Honduras has a constitution, he reminds them. The country’s leaders have signed numerous international agreements recognizing human rights, gender equity, fair processes for its citizens.  But that's on paper, not in the way daily life unfolds for most Hondurans.
Today was my first full day on the job with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, and the first chance I’ve had to see my new boss, Merlin Fuentes, in action. It turns out he’s an excellent facilitator. And any Canadian old enough to remember the ‘60s - or the women’s rights movement - would have recognized what he was trying to do at the workshop. He was waking people up to their own power.
The problems in Honduras are much more extreme than in Canada, but not totally unfamiliar. People feel disconnected from their government and powerless to effect change. They see money flowing among those who have plenty, but almost none of it trickling down to those on the ground.  
Their children receive little or no education. Their unemployment rate is closing in on 40 per cent. Their murder rate is staggering - 54 times the Canadian rate, and No. 1 in the world right now. Their access to health care ranges from minimal to non-existent, and for the most part people rely on folk cures and luck.
Unbelievably terrible things happen every day in Honduras. In the last week alone, a devastating prison fire killed more than 350 people and an equally devastating fire in a market district near the country’s capital destroyed the workplaces and the inventory of more than 800 vendors. With not even a shred of a social net to break the fall, those affected will plunge to new lows of poverty that will virtually ensure their children and their children’s children remain in a lifelong state of deprivation.
The country’s media deliver a new outrage every day - 200 sick babies baking in an non-air-conditioned pediatric emergency ward in San Pedro Sula; a government worker shot to death while riding his motorcycle to work at 5 a.m.; yet another public school trying to get by with no desks, no school supplies and far too few teachers.
You’d think Hondurans would have no need for consciousness-raising at this point, or for anyone to awaken their sense of outrage. But when generation after generation grows up in poverty and deprivation, it can start to feel like the norm. It’s not that people have given up - it’s that they’ve lost sight of there even being an alternative.
What can be done? Aid, sure, and all those nice things that Western countries like to do. But real change always has to come from within. One taller at a time, more people will find their voice. For the sake of this lovely but bedeviled country and its people, I will hope for that.

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