Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Doctor is in

Un dia grande para mi. I'm feeling overwhelmed - in the best of ways - to have this fine honour bestowed upon me by the University of Victoria. And isn't Facebook just the perfect medium at a time like this, when I get to revel in all the kind comments of my FB pals back home even at this great distance.
Home for a week June 9 to receive my honourary degree and catch up with my family. Until then, nose to the grindstone here in Copan Ruinas, where the rainy season has set in and the new task of the day is to batten down the hatches sometime around 4 or 5 p.m. before the hard rain starts falling. And oh, the thunder - sounds like the sky's ripping open. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

If nothing else, a better night's sleep

Moments ago, I sent the following email to Louis Bachicha, executive vice-president of sales for Sealy Inc. in North America.
I don't know if I found the right email for him and I have no idea if he's the right man to ask for help, let alone if he'll even read this. But I came back from my usual weekend craft day at that sad, fetid foster home that I have had the great misfortune to stumble upon and I just felt like I had to do something. 
Sealy is the biggest manufacturer of mattresses in the world and has plants in El Salvador and Guatemala, both of which border Honduras. Like I told Mr. Bachicha, better beds for these kids will not turn their lives around or save them from what I fear will be much sorrow and deprivation to the end of their days. But it's something, isn't it? 
If you read this and know of a better way to make this happen, a better person at Sealy Inc. to contact, a better mattress or grade of plastic that I should be looking for, I welcome all practical advice. 

Hello, Mr. Bachicha. I'm a Canadian currently living and working in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, as a Cuso International volunteer. I have recently begun helping at what is essentially a permanent foster home for 30 children here in Copan, and I am writing to ask for your advice and guidance. 
Given that Honduras is second only to Haiti in the Americas in terms of poverty, I'm sure you can imagine what state these children live in. I go up there every weekend to do crafts and such with the children, who are desperate for activities, and many days I feel completely helpless to do anything more meaningful for these kids than to sing songs (they love the Hokey Pokey) and make paper garlands with them. This is not a place of hope, and I am quite sure there will be no happy endings for most of these children. 
However, there is one thing that I think I can do that will improve these children's lives a little every single day, and that is to secure 15 of the most durable mattresses out there wrapped in industrial-level plastic, and at least give them a little comfort every night when they go to bed. Right now, the children all sleep in a single room on 15 bunk beds. But in fact so many of the foam mattresses are either shredded, filthy and wet, covered in excrement or otherwise in a state of complete ruin at any given point in time that on Sunday when I was there, I saw that only three beds actually have mattresses on them. 
Three beds for 30 children, which has to mean that most of those children are sleeping on the filthy concrete floor. Even the wood struts for the bunk beds have been broken by heavy, heavy use and no money for repairs, making many of them unusable right now no matter what.
I can figure out how to get those wood struts repaired. I can also raise money for 15 mattresses, and I hope I can also deduce what kind of plastic you'd need to wrap them in to protect the mattresses and make the beds easy to  clean regardless of whether they were assaulted every night with the nervous fingers, restless sleeps, poor bathroom habits and the various illnesses of children ranging in age from infancy to 14 and growing up in intense poverty and deprivation. 
But what I can't figure out is how I'll ever source 15 mattresses close enough to Honduras that I can get them here, or how to get the best price so that I stand a chance of raising that money among my friends in Canada. I need help to know what type of mattress I'm even looking for - I think probably a variety they use in prisons would be most suitable! This foster home/orphanage has virtually no operating funds and is essentially a private facility run by one woman. If I hope to do this, I need to make a very careful purchase that can last for many, many years, because there simply isn't any money in that place for anything beyond the (very) simple diet that these kids eat, and certainly not for replacing mattresses.
And so I'm writing to you. I don't know what you can do, and I'm sure Sealy hears pitches like mine all the time. But I see from your Forbes profile that you're roughly the same age as me, and that we have the shared experience of working in Canada. Perhaps you're a parent, as I am, and regardless I'm sure you're a person whose heart would break just like mine does at the sight of these 30 children growing up in atrocious conditions. You know your business, and perhaps you also know how I might go about finding 15 mattresses that can withstand everything that those children will subject them to.
I hope you can help me get them better beds. It won't change the course of their lives, but I would certainly sleep better knowing that I did something to ensure that at least 8 hours of every day of these kids' lives is a little more comfortable, a little less submerged in filth and disease. Thank you for your consideration. 

Sincerely, Jody Paterson

Friday, May 25, 2012

Accountability for people in crisis

Update: A reader pointed out this May 18 story in the Georgia Straight - certainly adds some interesting B.C. context to my post! 

The organization I work for here in Honduras took me along to a rendición de cuentas yesterday – loosely translated, a surrendering of accounts. It’s basically an exercise in accountability intended for the people who are receiving services.
The practice is common in Honduras, where non-profits like the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita are considered to be serving an impoverished population in a near-constant state of crisis. CASM and its major funders belong to an association that requires its members to adhere to strict standards of accountability and transparency, in recognition of how important those are when delivering aid to impoverished communities during times of crisis and disaster.  Things could go badly wrong after an earthquake, for example, if aid agencies gave first priority to friends and family.
It’s not a process that sees much application in Canada, where mega-disasters are thankfully scarce. But as I sat there watching my co-worker’s PowerPoint yesterday in La Cuchilla (baby turkeys underfoot, projector running off the battery of the truck we’d driven up in because the electricity was out for the day) it struck me that perhaps it ought to be for agencies serving people living homeless, who certainly meet the test of being an impoverished population in a near-constant state of crisis.
When I was doing work with the issues of homelessness in Victoria, one complaint I heard repeatedly from those living on the street was that a “homeless industry” had sprung up around them. Rightly or wrongly, people on the streets were of the opinion that too much government money was being channelled toward well-paid jobs for those tasked with solving homelessness rather than into housing and services for those in crisis.
I had no idea how to respond to such accusations, because who could say? Non-profits in Canada have to release a yearly financial statement to the public as part of their annual general reports, but not in the kind of detail that these people were looking for.  And there’s no denying that opportunities for favouritism exist in the delivery of crisis services to Canada’s homeless population, where staff perceptions of “bad” or “undeserving” behaviour in a client can literally leave a person out in the cold.
In a rendición de cuentas like the one I attended yesterday, the people receiving services get a detailed presentation on how project money is spent, right down to the salaries of project staff and how much of the funds were spent directly on services to the people. If anyone wants to get even more specific, my co-worker had an itemized list specifying the benefits received in that community during the two years of the project. Families A, B and C got help to build new wood stoves. Families D, E, F and G got chicken coops.  Senor Valdez got a biodigester. Senora Machorro got a pen for her pigs. You get the picture.
I know, I know – no confidentiality. Canadian social-service organizations are very big on confidentiality. But it’s hard to be truly accountable to the people you serve without some specifics. When homeless organizations in Victoria start talking broadly about how they helped 1,500 people get off the street in the past year, you can hardly blame the ones still out there for wanting to know just who got housed. They’re looking around and not seeing much change, which just fuels their suspicion that something funny’s going on.
I’m not suggesting that something funny IS going on, of course. Non-profits work hard for the money, and have to be accountable to their funders and donors.  But public accountability to the people you’re serving – that’s a heck of a good idea.
Charities are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability when serving poor, distressed people in the developing nations of the world. Why shouldn’t the same be true in wealthy countries like Canada? Those living in poverty and crisis are literally at the mercy of those funded to provide aid. Let’s get those cards on the table.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dear world: Send money

This is "home" for one ill, impoverished woman in my community

Every day brings new revelations when you live in a foreign culture. And when it's a developing country, the learning curve is just that much steeper. 
Even calling Honduras a developing country  is something of a misnomer, seeing as the country has actually lost ground in recent years. Perhaps a more apt name is an “unravelling country.” But at any rate, I had a certain expectation of what it was going to feel like to live in such a place, and I was wrong.
Back in my Canada days, I would have presumed all impoverished countries needed stuff. Indeed, stuff is what countries with money most like to send to impoverished countries: Notebooks and pens for youngsters; clothing; medicines; school desks; blankets.
And in times of natural disaster - when access is severely limited or there’s a need for huge quantities of certain things all at once - I’m sure such donations are very useful. But having wandered through some of the giant superstores and high-end malls of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, I now understand that in the day-to-day lives of impoverished Hondurans, it isn’t really stuff from developed nations that they're lacking – it’s money to buy the stuff that’s already here.
I imagined that poor countries were places without the capacity to make their own stuff. Wrong. Honduras has lots of capacity, because it’s got a significant population of wealthy, very comfortable citizens who have created a market for all the same things that Canadians are accustomed to having access to. You can go to a department store in one of the major centres of Honduras and find pretty much everything you’d find in any Canadian department store. There's an Ikea-size prescription drug warehouse in San Pedro with every type of medicine you'd need to fix all the sick, suffering people of Honduras. 
So the stuff is here. The problem is that most of the population can't afford it. 
This is a country where some people live like kings and the majority live in abject poverty. I sense there has to be a better way to help that segment of the population that doesn't involve incurring massive shipping costs to send things that are already available right here.
An example: my boss at the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita asked me to look around for help for a school that’s having a heck of a time providing desks and basic materials for its 160 students. So I put out an exploratory email to one of the B.C. groups that specialize in shipping such things to poor countries, only to discover that to get a container’s worth of school furniture to Honduras I'd first have to raise $6,000 to cover the shipping costs. 
That is a phenomenal amount of money in Honduras. The woman in B.C. said the shipping costs pale in comparison to the value of the goods, but I suspect that’s true only if you calculate the costs of such things in Canada. Here in Honduras, $6,000 would go a very long way if used to buy locally made desks, and would create jobs right here in the country for a significant number of carpenters as well.
I get why people like to ship stuff rather than send money. It feels more real. It feels more certain. There was a story in the Honduran papers a while back about a maternity ward that was wrapping newborn babies in paper for wont of sheets, and a few weeks later down came a big load of little baby blankets from the U.S. No worries about someone misusing your donation if you send desks and baby blankets instead of money.
But that’s really about the needs of the donor. If you’re looking at it from the perspective of the receiver, money makes a lot more sense. It wasn’t a chronic shortage of baby blankets in Honduras that led to those newborns being wrapped in paper, it was a lack of money for public hospitals.
Outside my workplace, six giant barrels of notebooks and pens shipped from the United States sit waiting to be distributed to young Hondurans. It must have cost a lot to send them here. I can’t help but wonder how much further those dollars would have stretched if those good-hearted donors had sent a cheque instead and the supplies had come from the well-stocked stationery store down the road from my house.
What this country needs – what every country needs – is a better way of assuring donors that their donations are being used wisely. We need more strategic responses that get beyond a feel-good moment of charitable giving and down to the brass tacks of economic development. I'd also like to see democratic countries that trade with developing countries turning up the heat a little to encourage more civic-mindedness in countries like this one, which appear to take so little responsibility for their citizens' well-being.
Until we figure that out, we’re just nice folks with too much stuff feeling good about sending our surplus somewhere. It’s a kind but inefficient gesture that skirts the bigger problems.  Struggling countries like this one need so much more than that.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Kids of Angelitos Felices

In my next life I hope I get to make movie soundtracks, because there are few things I like better than finding the perfect song to fit with images. I have a little hobby of putting some of my photos to music - here's my latest work, which combines photos from the orphanage/foster home I'm helping out at with a fine tune from U.S. singer-songwriter extraordinaire Mary Gauthier. 
Hope it breaks your heart just a little, like that sad place breaks mine every time I go there. No happy endings in Angelitos Felices, I fear, but there are more smiles and love radiating from those little faces than you'd ever think possible in a life that difficult. They hope, and I hope with them. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Access to morning-after pill hardly biggest issue for Honduran women

I want to stress right off the hop here that I am not, in any way, in support of a law that would prohibit the morning-after pill in Honduras. But if almost 700,000 people around the world are ready to help Honduran women, they could do a lot better than just to sign a petition protesting something that's not even close to the most pressing problem facing women here.
I wouldn't want to speak on behalf of the women of Honduras, but I suspect a sizeable majority of them would be delighted if the biggest thing they had to worry about was the legality of the morning-after pill. I think they've got bigger things on their mind.
Poverty, for one thing. Almost two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty, but the level of poverty for women and their children when a husband abandons his family or gets killed  (which happens a striking amount in Honduras) is profound.
Here in Copan Ruinas, I know a number of women who've had to hand off one or more of their children into a kind of indentured servitude with another family just to be able to survive the financial devastation. They scratch by on almost nothing, living in shacks without doors and selling bags of homemade horchata by the roadside. Three of the four staff working at the local orphanage would be on the streets if it weren't for being able to live at the orphanage with their children in exchange for looking after the 30 children in care there.
Then there's the issue of violence. A woman is murdered in Honduras every 48 hours. More than 2,400 women have been murdered in the country in the last eight years, with women ages 20 to 24 at the greatest risk.
And that's just the ones who get killed. Domestic violence is still a routine occurrence in Honduras, and in the poorest communities women are so controlled and isolated by their husbands that they don't even feel able to seek medical care for basic health needs.
How about maternal care? Barely a third of impoverished Honduran women who give birth have somebody with any kind of skill alongside them to help, compared to 99 per cent of the richest Honduran women. One in 240 women die during childbirth, 10  times the rate of countries like Canada. Lack of access to standard, inexpensive preventive care like Pap tests - or HPV vaccinations - has resulted in cervical cancer becoming the most common fatal cancer in the country for women.
Education: Just 36 per cent of young women of secondary-school age are attending school. Why? Probably because a lot of them are working to help support their families, something that many Honduran children have to start doing when they're as young as five.
So yes, it's outrageous for a democratic country in this day and age to be prohibiting access to the morning-after pill. Let's hope the petition is a success and the government backs down, not that there would likely be much enforcement of such a law anyway based on the vast number of unsolved and unpunished murders, assaults and robberies in Honduras.
And seeing as so many of us seem ready to be up in arms, how about we do something about the real problems here? It'll take more effort than signing a petition, but anything worthwhile does.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I'm talking - but is anyone listening?

Communications was a tough sell in Canada, but at least the organizations I worked with had a general sense of it being a good thing for them to be doing more of.
Not so in Honduras. There must be some kind of communications industry somewhere in this country, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the work isn’t even on the radar of any of the non-profits that are on the ground doing virtually all of the social-service work in Honduras.
As I’m sure I mentioned before, my title for the purposes of this Cuso International posting is “communications and knowledge management facilitator.” The idea is that I will help the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita here in Copan Ruinas develop fabulous communication skills over the next two years, which will then be put to use in the other five offices of CASM around the country.
But as I learned the hard way in my own country, there’s no way to develop fabulous communication skills if you’ve yet to acknowledge that talking about your work and sharing your successes, your challenges and your frustrations are desirable things. I’m not at all convinced that CASM was clamoring for a Canadian volunteer with communication skills, although I do think that whether the organization knows it or not, they really need one.
 One of the Cuso reps here in Honduras told me when I arrived that people here followed an “oral culture” and my challenge would be to help them understand the value of putting things in writing. But the truth is that Honduran NGOs – non-profits for those of you still getting the hang of “non-governmental organizations” -  are really just accustomed to getting their work done and not talking about it at all, orally or otherwise. My challenge isn’t just to teach them about the tools of communication, it’s to convince them that it’s something worth thinking about in the first place.
In a different age, just doing good work was enough. But these little Honduran NGOs are heavily reliant on funding from the big faith-based development organizations of Europe – Christian Aid, Diakonia,  Holland’s ICCO.  The goal of those organizations is to plant seeds, to fund good works that model a new way of doing things: Better agricultural processes; more preparedness for floods, hurricanes and all the other weird weather that happens down here; greater awareness of human rights; more diversity for subsistence farmers so they don’t starve to death in a year when the corn crop fails. They don’t want to be on the hook for solving every problem in Honduras, they just want to pony up in a few key areas and let the country take it from there.
But you can’t model anything if communications isn’t part of the plan. It’s the thing that cranks up the volume on whatever an organization is doing.  Just like NGOs in Canada, Honduran organizations need to figure out ways to share stories about the impact they’re having or risk starving to death themselves when the big funders go looking for louder voices.
It’s hard to separate the personal from the professional when you’ve been living and breathing communications for as long as I have, so I’m acutely aware that everything I post on my own Facebook site or my blog is another facet of my role with Cuso International.  I’m trying not to become acutely self-conscious of every post – sometimes a picture of a corn field is just a picture of a corn field – but I do feel something of a responsibility to show a different side of Honduras. The country has the worst PR in the world outside of North Korea, and I figure that as long as I’m here I might as well try to highlight through my own experiences that there’s more to Honduras than just murder and mayhem.
As for the impact I’ll have with CASM, I guess we’ll see. I just finished a PowerPoint – “Por Qué Comunicar?” – that I’ll be presenting to the management staff of the organization at the end of the month. Between my mediocre grasp of Spanish and their indifference toward this thing called communications, I’ll count myself lucky if they adopt even a couple of the ideas I’m throwing out there.
But hey, that’s communications for you. You just have to keep talking and hope that somebody listens.

Monday, May 14, 2012

One night in Copan

A little story from last night, which nicely sums up the Honduran experience.
A couple weeks ago, I was playing accordion in the central park here in Copan Ruinas as part of a little "feria gastronomica" that was showcasing the foods that some of the women sell in the streets around here. A young teacher happened by and asked if I would play accordion at the Mother's Day festivities at his school on May 13. Sure, I told him, giving him my phone number so he could call with the details.
I didn't hear anything more until the night of May 12, when the teacher showed up at my door at 7 p.m. and asked if I could catch a moto-taxi - a three-wheeled golf-cart-like thing that they use for cabs here in Copan - to his school the following night. I have no idea how he knew where I lived.
Anyway, he scribbled down the name of the school and the community it was in. The name didn't ring any bells, but that wasn't surprising - there are dozens of teeny-tiny communities in the hills around Copan, each with their own teeny-tiny one-room schools, and at this point I might know the names of maybe six of them. I gave him my phone number again, even though no one I have given my number to in Honduras has ever called me back, and agreed to come just before 7 p.m.
It all seemed like a good idea in the moment, of course. But then reality hit at about 6:30 p.m. last night, as I stood in the rain and the pitch-black with my accordion on my back and a music stand and folding stool clutched in my hands, trying to hail a moto-taxi to a town I'd never heard of.
When I finally got one of the cabs to stop, the driver looked blank initially when I told him the name of the place, and then told me he thought he knew where it was but that the trip would cost 100 lempiras each way. That's $10 all in, a significant sum that indicated just how far out of town this place was.
I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to risk, but I admit to feeling dread as I reluctantly got into the moto-taxi. Hadn't all we Cuso International volunteers been cautioned against this very thing - getting into taxis hailed on the street headed for places we weren't familiar with? In the pitch black, after having confirmed to the stranger behind the wheel that I had at least 200 lempiras in my bag and quite a nice accordion on my back?
Still, what were the options at that point? I'd told the teacher I'd be there, and figured I couldn't just "pull a gringo" and not show up. So off we went, driving up and up and up into the hills above Copan.
The town lights disappeared from sight, and we drove 20 long minutes along a completely dark, isolated road so terrible that in Canada we would probably call it a wilderness trail and caution users to bring water and an emergency blanket before embarking on it. I didn't see a single vehicle or pedestrian as we bumped along. I did my best to keep up a small conversation (I like to think that somebody's less likely to kill you if you engage them in friendly conversation, although I've never had to put that theory to the test) as I desperately clung to my accordion to keep it from bouncing out of the side of the moto-taxi.
And all of a sudden, we arrived - pueblo Carrizalito Uno, home of Escuela Jose Ernesto Castejon. The moto-taxi pulled up to a one-room school so lit up that you had to know there was a party going on inside, and within seconds a little girl dressed in the typical navy skirt and white blouse that all the students wear here came bursting out to welcome me. People were everywhere, spilling out of the school house and jostling for a spot outside near an open window now that the place was too full to pack in even one more person.
The girl ushered me into a room decked out in hearts, balloons and declarations of love for Mother, with pine needles strewn across the floor to give the place kind of a country-dance feel. I was led to a wooden stage at the front of the room that looked out on rows of chairs packed with  smiling parents. A clutch of young students beamed at me from one side of the stage, completely excited to have me there. On the other side stood the young teacher, looking relieved to see me.
I hadn't known the plan, but it turned out to involve me playing songs on the accordion in between various groupings of students performing recitations, songs and dances. It was like every school recital I've ever been to - sweetly heartwarming with occasional moments of chaos and misunderstanding that just added to the fun. I don't know if the big gringa in the corner with the accordion added much to the event, but the kids sure did seem to like having me there.
And then my new buddy Pablo returned in his moto-taxi to take me back to town, and we slammed down that terrible road one more time, me trying to balance a plate of food that the teacher gave me to take home.
This time Pablo brought his girlfriend along for the ride, who perched up front with him on a seat built for one. This time I relaxed and just tried to enjoy the trip, or as much as was possible while still fearing for my life with each glimpse of a new pothole or boulder looming out of the dark. Pablo took me right to my door.
There's Honduras for you. Confusing, unnerving, a place that feels like anything could happen, and yet for the most part what actually happens is that people are kind, kids are happy to see you, and all is well. I guess it's a country for optimists. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A lament from the land of limited choices

Something I like - the thin slices of deep-fried green bananas  known as tajaditas
Honduras has its charms, but food isn't one of them. I've never been more appreciative of the variety of flavours that immigrants have brought to Canada than during these four months of living in what's essentially a culinary monoculture.
A true foodie would go mad here, I think. I'm a completely ordinary eater who tends to view food as fuel, but the sameness of the diet even makes me a little crazy.I'm sure you could track down a decent deli and a little more exotic fare in one of the big cities here, as long as you didn't mind giving up personal security in exchange. But in a country with so few immigrants to liven up the national palate, even the major centres are missing those marvelous food choices that are staples in the smallest of towns in Canada.
Good Chinese food, for instance. Gyros and falafels. Korean barbecue. A cheesy, spicy lasagne. Sushi. A bento box for lunch. An olive bar in your local supermarket. A thousand varieties of cheeses,  a hundred different types of breads and buns. Cookies, cakes, tarts, pies, neopolitans, baklava, cream puffs.  My mouth is watering just writing this.
Here in Copan, there's a Chinese restaurant but it serves only "chap suey," which in fact looks more like some type of very dark chow mein with way more vegetables than is the norm. I suspect that the Honduran owners have a limited knowledge of actual Chinese food.
There's a pizza place and a deep-fried chicken takeout that I completely rely on to pull me out of a food funk, and a nice little cafe down the road that makes crispy tacos and baleadas (but only crispy tacos and baleadas). Virtually all the other restaurants serve variations on the Honduran tipico meal: Beans, tortillas, a little rice, a splotch of cream and maybe some kind of meat cooked on a grill.
There are street vendors cooking every Friday and Saturday night, but they too stick close to the tipico. The breads and baked goods are generally tasteless, dry and lardy, with the exception of a few cakes you can buy by the slice at a couple of the tourist-style coffee shops.
Of course, nothing's stopping us from cooking more exotically at home. Nothing except the lack of ingredients, that is, and the heat that lasts long into the night. Life in a tropical country is teaching me that a lot of the foods I craved in Canada must have been because I was cold all the time. And let me tell you, anything that involves turning on the oven just isn't going to happen.
I consider myself  an enthusiastic carnivore, but you just don't feel like tucking into a steak when it's 34 degrees outside. It's not like there's a decent meat shop in town anyway, let alone one of those block-long refrigerated displays I'd grown so accustomed to in Victoria, with every possible cut and variety beckoning to you from their cheerful styrofoam trays. I've never been much of a salad eater, but now it's almost all we eat.
On that front, Honduras shines. The fruits and vegetables here are incredible. If you've ever passed through the Okanagan during a time when the fruit was ripe and ready for eating, or stuffed yourself on Saanich Peninsula strawberries during those exquisite three or four weeks when they're in season, you'll be familiar with the experience of eating fruit and vegetables in season that have been grown right in the 'hood. There's nothing like it.
The mangos are on right now here. Steps from my house, a giant truck loaded with mangos is parked in the street selling them three for $1. Before that it was watermelon and canteloupe, sweeter than any melons I'd ever tasted. The bananas come in five or six different varieties. Sometime in October the oranges, mandarins and grapefruit are going to come on.
The Roma tomatoes are exquisite. The cucumbers are crisp and sweet. The avocados are so creamy and delicious that they almost make up for the lack of fat in the rest of this new diet of ours. We're coming back to Victoria for a week in June and I already have a list of foods that I plan on consuming while there, but I know I won't find any comparable fruits and vegetables in a land that relies so heavily on imports.
I hope I don't come across as a whiner. I've been reading the blogs of some of my Cuso International counterparts in Mozambique and Cameroon, and their diets of fufu and little else make me feel like I'm living in Jamie Oliver's kitchen. I've had fufu - a kind of a dough made from starchy vegetables like cassava and plantains. It was interesting, but once was enough.
I guess what I'm really saying is that while there are many reasons for appreciating immigrants, I currently have a heightened sense of gratitude for the food they bring with them to their new countries. People in Honduras ask me what the tipico food is in Canada, and I feel a surge of nationalistic pride in being able to tell them that we don't have such a thing.
The next time you're eating any of a thousand dishes that make up the "typical" Canadian diet, spare a kind thought for the immigrant who first introduced it and helped make our country such a culinary pleasure. And have a shawarma for me, would you?

Monday, May 07, 2012

On the model farm of Don Humberto Mejia

The view from Don Humberto's kitchen
One of the areas that my organization focuses on is “secure livelihoods.” This was something of a baffling term for me when I first started communications work with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, but three months on I now have a clear understanding of what it means - and just how important the work is in the context of Honduras.
We visited a small farm last week in Las Flores that epitomized what CASM is trying to do on this front. The farmer, Don Humberto Mejia, had a little bit of everything going on: Coffee, corn, beans, sugar cane, some livestock, a tilapia pond. He’s also an enthusiastic adopter of some of the environmental practices that CASM encourages in the 20 or so tiny communities where it works around Copan Ruinas, like tapping off the methane from manure to power your kitchen stove.
CASM recognizes good practices
Honduras is essentially a country of teeny-tiny pueblos in isolated mountain locations, where individual farmers try to eke out both a living and their daily bread on small, often impossibly steep plots of land. (I saw a corn crop the other day growing on what had to be a 60-degree slope.) Coffee is virtually the only cash crop for these families. In a good year a producer might have a little excess corn and beans to sell as well if the hurdles of irrigation, transportation and worn-out soil can be overcome, but for the most part it’s subsistence farming.
The poorest families subsist on nothing but the corn and beans they grow, with barely a lempira in their pockets to cover any of the other costs of living. No small wonder deforestation is such a problem in Honduras – if the beautiful tropical forest isn’t being cleared for another marginal corn crop, it’s being hacked down for firewood that can be sold for at least a little cash.
Livestock adds diversity
So diversification is a big theme at CASM. Global coffee prices are notoriously unstable, and a failed crop in a year when the rains don’t come on time has devastating implications. A smart producer is well-advised to have his or her eggs in many baskets, both for a healthier diet for the family and as insurance against whatever might go wrong that year in the notoriously unpredictable world of subsistence farming.
As well, small producers have to worry about contamination of their water supply from animal waste and the toxic coffee pulp that is a byproduct  of stripping coffee beans from the plant’s “cherries.” They need a safe solution for dealing with the waste of their operation.
We approach Don Humberto’s driveway after a one-hour drive on one of the many crazy, skinny and steep roads that lead into the mountains above the three main municipalities in the Copan region.  He has proudly posted the “Hogar Modelo” sign that CASM gave him in recognition of the work he has put in to make his farm more sustainable, and today we are here with one of the major funders of CASM – the British charity Christian Aid – to see what sustainability looks like on the ground.
Compost on the right, biodigester on the left
His three cows are the first thing we see. Cows provide milk and cheese for the family and for sale, and the liquid byproduct from the cheese-making process is excellent for the biodigester, Don Humberto tells me (more on that biodigester in a minute). There's a tilapia pond and a few pigs out back as well – we’ll enjoy some fine pork sausage later that morning with our breakfast – and a small flock of chickens that produce eggs, meat and a natural way of tilling garden soil and coffee harvest residue. 
Animals also produce waste, which Don Humberto uses in his compost pile but also in his biodigester, which CASM helped him build. Waste ferments inside the biodigester and produces methane gas, which the family taps off to power a gas burner in the kitchen. Wood is still the primary cooking fuel in rural Honduras, but only because propane gas is so expensive. The methane from the biodigester provides three to four hours a day of gas for the family at a cost of $225 all in; the gas savings alone cover the cost of the system in about two years.
Don Humberto in his sugar cane field
The family also has a fuel-efficient fogon – a wood cooking stove – that CASM helped them build. It’s a basic brick structure that burns 45 per cent less wood than the conventional stoves in use in much of Central America. And it’s got a chimney that vents smoke outside, a basic adaptation for us Canadians but still something of a rarity in impoverished Central American villages, where smoke inhalation and burns remain major killers of children.
Out back, Don Humberto has a pile of coffee-bean waste that he uses in his compost pile. He bought lombriz from another producer – worms that look to me like the familiar “red wigglers” of a Canadian compost pile – and they’re hard at work turning that waste into new, rich soil for a coming year’s coffee crop.
Lombriz hard at work
His sugar cane crop is thriving and will be ready for harvest in October. There's a towering tree in the back yard producing all kinds of sweet red, bell-shaped fruit right now, and bushes covered in delicious dark raspberry-like berries along the fence. His wife feeds us a breakfast of eggs, sausage, tortillas, beans, cream and coffee, all of it produced and processed right there on the farm. It’s the ultimate in food sustainability – the One Mile Diet.
As the Christian Aid rep points out, Honduras’s small producers can’t do it alone. Without CASM’s help and resources to build fuel-efficient stoves and biodigesters, to teach the lessons and methods of sustainability – without the support of organizations like Christian Aid to fund the work – poor farmers can't get past subsistence. But when you see what’s possible, it gives you real hope.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

It's not easy being green

(James Rielly watercolour - 2009)
As any kid who has ever bumped through a bunch of different schools knows, there's an art to knowing how to fit in with a new group. My school years were in fact singularly stable, but the ever-changing work situations I experienced in later years definitely put my blending skills to the test.
Settling into my volunteer placement in Honduras has probably been the biggest test I've had, what with being up against both language and culture barriers. My co-workers are really only now starting to relax with me, three months in. And who can blame them? I was the much-older mute gringa tucked away in the corner.
But there have been other challenging transitions. I definitely felt like the outsider when I first started training for Tour de Rock, the bike ride for cancer that I did in 2001 with  Victoria area police officers. An uneasy relationship exists between police and media at the best of times, and it was pretty clear in the early days of the training that many of them were not particularly comfortable with the concept of a journalist in their midst.
One of the guys got a good laugh later when I told him I approached the problem by thinking of my teammates as cats. You don't try to make a cat come to you; you just wait until it chooses to come around. Being pleasant and friendly is all well and good, but sometimes it just takes time. (It also took a lot of hard training on the bike outside of the  regular training regimen, to make sure nobody would end up thinking of me as the rider at the back of the pack that they all had to wait for.)
PEERS was another challenge, and probably the most comparable to Honduras because of the difference in culture I was up against. It's a grassroots organization run by and for sex workers, and I was a non-sex-worker who was now the new boss.
I wasn't a complete unknown, because at least a few of the participants knew of me through my media work. But that's a bit of a double-edged sword in itself, given that there's always someone in any crowd who sees you as The Enemy when you're a journalist due to a story that offended them or a friend or family member you unintentionally maligned.
In my first weeks at PEERS, I felt that the most important thing for me to do was to stay downstairs in the main area mixing and mingling as much as possible, taking my turn with whatever menial task was going on and working as hard as I could to memorize people's names very quickly. For a population so tragically accustomed to being at the bottom of the social hierarchy, having the executive director greet you  by name when you walk in the door turned out to really, really matter.
I like to think I'm not the kind of person who judges others, but I still had to work conscientiously not to allow even a shadow of anything that might be perceived as disapproval or distaste flash across my features, no matter what scene was playing out in front of me. The last thing sex workers need is to feel any kind of judgment coming from anyone working or volunteering at the only real refuge they've got.
Here at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, my tactic has been to make myself useful.
 It's a strange thing to be trying to do communications work in a country, culture and language you barely understand, but I can type fast in any language and that skill won me some Brownie points early on. Everybody can use a good typist now and then. I can also lug big heavy things around (helping poor communities in Honduras involves a striking amount of lugging big heavy things around, whether it's tins of food or bricks for a new cooking stove). And I can take photos. Lots and lots of photos. My little camera has been an amazing ice-breaker both at work and in the streets, as people just don't get much opportunity to have their photo taken here.
I've put major effort into improving my Spanish, too. When we did our Cuso International training back in Ottawa last December, the Cuso reps rightly told us that just because you speak the language doesn't mean you understand a country's culture. True enough, but you can't possibly access the culture without the language. Without a shared language, you're always going to be standing outside the group wondering what the heck they're all talking about, and the last one anyone wants to try to strike up a conversation with.
But the real breakthrough came last week, when I complained to one of my young co-workers that my name didn't have the same musical flow that all of their names had, and that I needed a Spanish name. She decided I would be Yolanda Macarena Rosa de Fuentes from that point on.
Within what seemed like minutes, everyone in the office was joking around with me about my new name. Someone just has to call out "Yolanda!" and the whole group starts laughing - with me, not at me, I'm happy to say.
We went on a group outing to nearby hot springs last night and the same co-worker decided my spouse needed a Spanish name, too. So he's Mr. Pancho now.
We laughed and laughed. I think it means we've arrived.