Monday, June 24, 2013

Black, white and the many shades in between

  At the risk of starting too many posts with "One thing I've learned from this Cuso volunteer experience...," I have something new to add to the growing list.
    The latest learning is that this work tests your core values, in ways that get right past the pretty words and down to what you can actually live with. What's right? What's wrong? For possibly the first time in my life, I feel like I'm really being tested on the fundamentals of my deep-down self.
   An easy example to start: Child labour. For all my life up until 18 months ago, I was opposed to child labour. I thought it was a good thing to buy more expensive coffee if it meant it had been picked by adults and not little children. 
    Deep down, I remain philosophically opposed to putting children to work. But now I see the issue from a whole other perspective, in which a family could very likely go hungry if their kids aren't allowed to pick coffee during the two-month harvest. What the "fair trade" practice of banning child labour looks like from the point of view of an impoverished coffee-producing country is a system of punishment stacked against the poorest producers, one that forces children to be left at home alone because their parents can no longer take them along when they go out picking coffee. 
   The issue of faith has been a whole other test for me. I've had a complicated relationship for decades with faith, but in Honduras it's something that's so present in my life that I now have no choice but to reflect on what it means to me. 
   The Monday-morning devotionals at my workplace have been a real challenge, early on because I barely understood a word of what was being said and now, because I do. I try to hold my tongue out of respect, but I just couldn't keep my silence when talk turned today to obeying God and ultimately leaving difficult things in His hands to sort out. 
     So what are we to believe, then, in a country where so many unbelievably bad things happen to people all the time - that God has made a decision to really slam it to Honduras? What this country needs is anger, not soothing words about accepting God's plans. I won't pretend to know the ways of God, but I'm pretty sure a person could wait a long time for change if everything was left up to faith.
    But on the same subject, I've also had my secular belief system challenged by seeing just how much good work gets done down here by people motivated by faith. Time and again, the faith community shows up to make things happen in Honduras: Bunk beds for orphans; digging holes and assembling bricks for new water systema; testing children's eyes; providing veterinary care; building schools. As a secular person I want to believe that "doing good" is a universal concept, but what I have seen demonstrated in Honduras is that when push comes to shove, it's mostly the faith community that gets things done.
    Murder. Now there's a topic that I wouldn't have thought I had wiggle room on. But when you live in a country that effectively has no meaningful police or justice system, everything just gets a little greyer. 
    Not that killing another person against their will can ever be justified. But spend time here and you start to see how things might go in a place where there's so little chance that the "bad guy" will ever be arrested, let alone convicted. On a fundamental level I still believe that people taking justice into their own hands is a recipe for disaster. But in the real world I now live in, I get how that could happen. 
    Then there's corruption, a word that you hear virtually every day in Honduras as a way of explaining everything that's wrong with the place. But how do you define "corruption" for the purposes of rooting it out? What are the logical explanations for why it exists, and the logical strategies for dealing with it? How do you get past using it as the catch-all explanation for far more complex problems - a catch-all excuse for why nothing ever changes for the better?
      I'm not even confident you can single out corruption as a bad behaviour in a country where it exists in so many shades of grey (my new colour). Hiring your unqualified cousin for a good job you're fairly certain he can't do, renting the wrong kind of office space for your organization as a favour to your sister's husband - really, doesn't the work have to start there? Or is that just me trying to impose my cultural standards on another country?
    Anyway. All I'm saying is that if you've ever wanted to really test your beliefs and feel out your limits, living and working in a new culture just might be the ticket. I thought I had all the big stuff sorted before I came to Honduras. The longer I stay, the less I'm sure of that. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great column Jody.
I'm always intrigued by studies that show how poverty tends to create a conservative mindset in people and your experience I think shows why. As people find themselves growing more reliant on their own ingenuity or 'solutions' (in the case of taking the law into their own hands) because of the lack of government services compels them to, it gets easier to understand why the perception of government as being intrusive becomes more common.
I think your experience with faith based ministries is interesting too.