Thursday, May 26, 2011

Accompanying not Accomplishing

Despite the title of today's blog, I want to start off with accomplishments...As part of my responsibilities as an "Overseas Personnel" of the United Church of Canada, I am requested to annually write 4 "Letters for Overseas".  This is a way to share with a broader audience within the Church about my experiences in El Salvador.  I am deeply honoured that my first letter is currently posted on the front page of the United Church web site (  Please take a look, read it and share the information.  People in El Salvador desperately need Canadians to know about the mining issues here and to be talking about them in Canada.  These are not only issues here.  The front page of the Toronto Star today (May 25th) has a story about the horrific impact of Barrack Gold in Tanzania.  The vast majority of the mining companies around the world are Canadian, a fact I was not aware of prepare for my work here.

The situation for staff at Radio Victoria has worsened.  Death threats continue to be received and there are lots of other actions taking place with the aim of intimidating and creating fear.  After living with this for several weeks peoples nerves are becoming raw.  There is a international campaign underway to both solidify international support and to raise money for increased security measures and to relocate one family temporarily to another country.  For more information read the English language blog - Voices from El Salvador (  Despite all of this the mostly youth and young adults who work at Radio Victoria are continuing on their same path, staying true to their beliefs and their principles.

This week I had the opportunity to attend a forum with Supreme Court Justice Dr. Florentin Melendez, who is an expert in the Constitution of El Salvador.  The Supreme Court of El Salvador has 15 Justices who work in 4 areas - criminal, civil, administrative and constitutional law.   The 4 Justices in the "sala de constitutional" are very well known in El Salvador because it is clear that their allegiance is to the Law.  They have made a number of rulings that have upset a number of powerful people.   There is a campaign in progress that says "I support the Magistrates in the Constitutional Area of the Supreme Court" as part of a process to keep them safe.  Dr.  Melendez spent his Saturday morning explaining the human rights enshrined in the Constitution to a group of about 200 people from rural villages.  His presentation, was clear, simple and understandable explaining to very poor farmers what their rights are.  I found the whole situation fascinating.  Again, I was deeply impacted by the passion, knowledge and commitment of Dr. Melendez in the face of many, many challenges.

This is part of what it means to accompany.  I am "tagging along", learning a lot and then sharing it with you.  I am not "doing" much but I sure am learning.   Many people will not have the opportunity to live in El Salvador and so part of my job of accompanying is helping you to know the people, places and issues here.  My colleagues at ADES are thrilled about my "Letter from Overseas" being posted on the UCC.  It is important to them to know that people around the world are learning about the mining challenges here.  This sharing about El Salvador with people from Canada is part of accompanying.  However, part of accompanying is also part sharing with people in El Salvador about the culture of Canada.  A very small example, I received peanut butter in a care package from home.  I have been enjoying peanut butter toast for breakfast for the past two weeks.  Every day I ask my house mates if they want to try some.   One day Alex, said yes.  He ate  his toast and said, so would you eat anything else after this?  In El Salvador, breakfast is the "full-meal deal" - eggs, beans, cheese, tortilla or bread, cream and coffee.  Toast hardly seems like a  meal.  This too is accompanying.

This past week was a week of many "firsts":
*I rode in the back of a pick-up truck...not very far, not very fast and I sat down, I refused to sit on the side as many people do here.  It was very pleasant.  It was dark, the stars were lovely and there was a beautiful breeze. Apparently people here like the back for all these reasons and at the same time they know that it is not my culture to ride in the back, so I always get offered cabin seating.  I just wanted to have this experience.

*I rode on a motorcycle...It was a small motorcycle and once again, not far and not fast.  Yes I was scared and no there is not a picture!

*I stayed in the house in Guacotecti alone for one night.  I was glad that two of my colleagues were in the house next door.  I felt safe, but I am always glad to know that there is someone else around in case of a big insect or animal or house issues!

*I went to the Immigration Office and received my first Visa extension.  As of Friday, I will have been in El Salvador for 90 days and that was the expiration of my first Visa!  I have to say, I was treated much better by the Salvadorenos  than the Canadian Embassy treated the woman who wanted to a visa to participate in a United Church Conference in Canada.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What I know, what I think I know and what I don't know

Several weeks ago I asked you about what are the 10 "staples" that you always had in your kitchen cupboard.  Thank you to all of you who took the time to respond.  What I learned is that there is a vast variety of foods that people like to eat in Canada and in general most of us have more than 10 staple foods.  The top foods that were several on people's lists are:
*tomatoes (canned or fresh)
*fruit (apples were popular)
*vegetables (carrots, onions and celery were popular)
*peanut butter

Only one person admitted to having "beef" in the fridge, while someone else listed "vodka and beer" and in response to things found frequently in your kitchen, one person listed their husband!

Some of my week day house mates discussed my Salvadoreno list at length and decided that  I left off avocados, mangos, and limes.  They also thought that tamales (ground corn meal surrounding a filling such as chicken or potatoes, steamed in a palm leaf...yummy) and pupusas (fried patties of ground rice or corn patties stuffed with a variety of fillings --my new favourite is grated zucchini and cheese, but beans and cheese are the most popular -- topped with something like an oil/vinegar coleslaw and tomato sauce) needed to be mentioned in any discussion of Salvadoreno cuisine.

Okay, so this is a bit embarrassing to talk about, but I'm going to talk about it anyway because from this I have learned some important things.  I have been having huge hair issues since I got to El Salvador.  Particularly in rural El Salvador where I spend the week, there is really only one hair style for women, pulled back in a pony tail or a bun of some type.  I have been trying to grow my hair so that it would be long enough.  I thought that having "longer hair"would help me to fit in here.  Finally last week it was long enough for a teeny, tiny pony tail.     In all seriousness it looked stupid.  As well as trying to "fit in" my other reason for not wanting to get my hair cut was fear that it would look even worse   Since women in general don't have short hair, in my vanity and arrogance, I was concerned that a hair stylist here wouldn't know what to do with my hair and with my limited Spanish I'd end up with a really awful hair cut.

On Saturday I was at the big mall in El Salvador and it was really hot and my hair was sticking out everywhere and I just decided I needed to do something about it.  I got brave and walked into a hair place.  My stylist opened up a magazine to a really great hair cut for me and we were off.  On Monday I arrived at the office and everyone noticed my new short hair and were very positive about it.  By the end of the day my  female house mates told me that everyone thought I looked very "guapa" (pretty) and much younger.  Turns out having "Salvadorena" hair is not one of the ways I need to show respect for the culture here.

I have to laugh it all because I was trying so hard to "adapt" to the Salvadorian way of doing things and in this case it didn't matter at all.  It led me to thinking about how many times in my life I do things because I think it is what other people want.  I remember being very surprised when I quietly brought up the subject with my Mom once of not coming home for a "minor" vacation day (it might have been Victoria Day).  Turns out she was glad not to feel obligated to cook a big meal.  We were both locked in our expectations of what we thought the other person wanted.  Interesting...

One of the things that I clearly know nothing about is water.  Until this year it is fair to say that I have given it very little thought.  However, that is all changing.  I think about whether when we turn on the tap in Guaco there will be water to fill the pila.  Since that one Monday night a few weeks ago where there was limited water, there has been enough water at that house.  We are having some problems with the water pump at the house in San Salvador. This meant that on Saturday we had no running water (another reason my hair was awful!).  Hopefully this will soon be fixed.   Even when there is water, there is no "hot" water.  There is only one tap on sinks and the water is tepid to cold (the only place I have found in the country with hot water is the Hilton hotel).

This week I have been spending time with the "water" team.  They are working on a project with "Engineers without Boarders" to bring potable water to rural areas here.  The project is in the planning stages and members of the water team are working with communities to understand their needs, determine the options and eventually to create a strategy.  Water issues are complicated here because there is very little uncontaminated surface or ground water.  In addition to pumping water places it all has to be filtered as well.  The technical aspects of all of this are so beyond my realm at the moment, but the process of engaging communities is fascinating.  Once again, I am in awe of the skill level of the staff here.  I am learning a lot about community development and engagement.   I am looking forward to being able to share some of this with my colleagues when I return to Canada.

Thank you for your prayers and thoughts about the staff at Radio Victoria who received threats.  Although there is still fear and security precautions are place, everyone continues to be safe.   This is part to a strong response from the international community, including the United Church of Canada.  Many groups, organizations and individuals contacted authorities in the Salvadoreno government.  A strong international response helps to keep people safe here.  Thank you for being  apart of that response.

 There is a process going on called a Strategic Environmental Assessment which is being conducted by the Ministry of the Economy.  This process will look at the environmental impact of mining and make a recommendation at to whether mining should be allowed here.  Not surprisingly there are huge issues with who is and who isn't allowed to provide information to the consultants, what the scope is and in fact if there is any legitimacy at all to the process.  It appears to me (even with limited Spanish and limited knowledge of process here) that Ministry of the Economy would really like this document to support mining.   This issue will continue to unfold is far from over.

Martha and I enjoy peanut butter toast ( peanut butter was part of the care packages that I have received from home).  Martha is also working on English and so appreciated the easy reading books in English that were sent by friends and family.

Hilda (in purple) and Francisca (in brown) are two of the staff  leading the planning workshop on water .  In this case, the workshop was held on the road and everyone had to pick up their chairs when people riding horses needed to pass through or for the occasional car.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Santa Marta, Santa Ana and Radio Victoria

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers in my life!  Interesting...while there was no "kitch" for Easter, thre is all saved for Mother's Day!  There are more red hearts and little "I love you balloons" than I have ever seen for Valentine's Day anywhere.  This is a serious event here and in fact, it is a National Holiday - celebrated annually on May 10th.

This week I had the opportunity to job shadow/observe  and support the work of the Formal Education Team.  This group of former teachers and a former principal of the school in Santa Marta work with the staff, students, parents and the community in order to address gaps the education system.  They are working on revising the Ministry of Education curriculum to include a number of additional topics, increasing the capacity of teachers, developing the early childhood education system for children pre-natal – 3 years old and working to develop the capacity of parents and the community.    Part of this work includes adult literacy learning circles.    The Ministry of Education provides only part of the funding for the core needs of the school and so money for additional teachers, programs, materials and for the “ADES Formal Education Team”  all come from the International Community. 

            The Santa Marta school is large for a rural school.  It has about 600 students who attend for ½ a day of classes, either from 7:30-12:00 or from 1:00-5:30.  The school has classes for children from Grades 1-Grade 11 (the end of High School).  Each classroom is home to a morning and afternoon class.  Some teachers teach full days and others teach part time (one section).   In addition to the classrooms, there is a small library with few age appropriate books, a computer lab with internet that was funded by the International Community, a science lab with very limited equipment and a multipurpose room for assemblies.   For physical education, the students use the “gancha” a dirt field used for soccer that is adjacent to the school.

            This week I spent three days at the school observing and helping with Grade 1,2, and 3 classes , attending a professional development workshop for teachers,  and helping to plan and deliver a special activity on values for the primary students.    What an experience…both really positive and very challenging.  On the positive side, I saw very passionate and engaged teachers who are working very hard with very limited resources.   The kids were great.  I was a big hit and mostly they weren’t shy about trying to talk to me in either Spanish or English.  They had a lot of fun running up to me and saying “hello” and running away saying “goodbye”.   I even received a few drawings from the kids!

            I met a young girl named “Lupe” in one of the classes.  Lupe very easily becomes upset and then she becomes the classic “mean girl”.  She has the most ferocious “angry look” I have ever seen and then she becomes very aggressive with whomever or whatever has upset her.    However, when you look at “Lupe” you notice that both she and her clothes are dirty and her hair, while long, is not tied back in a ponytail.  Here it is a sign that things are very wrong at home, as cleanliness is so highly valued here.  At one point, “Lupe” came and showed me a healing over small cut on her very dirty hand.  I took out my bottle of hand sanitizer and cleaned her hand a bit and then asked if she wanted some “special cream” (hand lotion).  I rubbed that on.   She then showed me another healing over small cut on her finger.  We did the same process.   She looked up and smiled at me and from that day on, whenever she saw me she smiled.   The poverty in the students is apparent.  I have never seen children with the level of severe oral hygiene problems as I saw in the Santa Marta school children.  I was deeply saddened by the state of one child’s shoes (so tattered they could barely be called shoes), until I noticed one child with bare feet. 

            In order to address some of this, one of classes I attended starts the day with songs about brushing your teeth three times a day and follow up with the importance of washing your hands to keep your stomach healthy.   Students who are healthy enough to be at school are celebrated and good wishes are sent to the students who are sick. 

            During my 3 days in Santa Marta, I spend the nights at home of Nora, one of the members of the education team who lives in Santa Marta.  She is single and lives with her mom, brother Carlos (14),  her sister and her niece Estefany (5).   Everyone was very kind and I had a great time.  Carlos liked to practice English with me.  Estefany is a bright and precocious girl who talked non-stop to me in simple, clear Spanish the whole time I was there.    

            I spent the weekend with my Guaco house mate Soto and his family in Santa Ana, an area about 2.5 hours from the ADES office.  Once again, I had a great time meeting his family and spending time with his extended family.  Soto’s mother helped me with my Spanish pronunciation by reading with me in Spanish.  She explained that she never went to school until she moved  for a few years to Los Angeles in 2000.  She then learned how to read and write in English and then with the encouragement of her teacher, learned how to read in Spanish.  Highly impressive for a woman who would have been in her 60’s at that point!  She was very proud to introduce me to her other 6 children and to her many grandchildren who attended a family luncheon on Sunday.    Many of her grandchildren are now attending University in various programs. 

            Clearly this was a very interesting and engaging week for me.  At the same time it was very difficult for people at ADES.  This week 3 staff – who work as journalists at the local community radio station (a program of ADES)  received multiple death threats because of their work in promoting anti-mining and environmental work.  In response, the anti-mining and environmental sector organized a press conference at the front of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office in order to demand both protection for those who were threatened and a thorough investigation into the “intellectual authors” of the threats, assaults and murders of people doing this work in this area of El Salvador. 

            I continue to be deeply impressed and impacted by the dedication that people have to their work despite overwhelming challenges and risks.   These threats don’t stop the work and in fact in some ways fuel it as people become even more determined.  At the same time people have been murdered over these issues and so these threats are treated very seriously.   A number of steps have been taken to protect those threatened and to date everyone remains safe.

            One of the things that I am learning is that in response to fear, people can become isolated and rush to “protect their own” or they turn to their community and work together to form a clear, thoughtful and cohesive response.  This week I wanted to let you, my community, know about what is happening here.    Please pray for the continued safety of the staff at Radio Victoria and of those working in the anti-mining and environmental sector.   The impact of Canadian mining companies abroad is serious and significant and for me it is now very, very personal.

            Please be assured that I am very safe and I am being well looked after by my SalvadoreƱo/a hosts.  The United Church of Canada is also aware of this week’s events and have been in touch to ensure my safety.   If you have any questions or concerns about these issues or my safety please comment on my blog or send me an e-mail.

Part of Santa Marta School

A teacher addressing the students at the beginning of the "Activity  to Promote Values"

Students playing a co-operative game.

Soto and his wife  Mirdala (middle), son Rodrigo and me (left), Reina (Mirdala's sister), and Cesar and Martin (Soto and Mirdala's sons).

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wow, a Harper Majority and Other Things

I'm in a bit of shock...I knew it could happen, but really hoped it wouldn't.  This morning I came into the office, turned on my computer and learned about the election results in Canada.  I feel a lot like I did when Mike Harris won his second term as a hard line majority Conservative Government in Ontario.  I just know that this is not a good result for the people that I work with in Canada.  There is not going to be more support or care for people who are vulnerable, poor or marginalized in our country.  It is probably fair to say that there is not going to be any increases in foreign aid money -- at least the kind of foreign aid that I would be interested in supporting.  I don't really know what else to say about this...

I thought for today's blog, I'd forgo a theme and just share little bits and pieces about life here.  This month I am going to working with the team that works with the formal education system and the team that works on water issues.  After my first meeting with the education team yesterday, there are many important issues that will be topics of serious blogs ahead so I thought I'd keep this one a little bit lighter!
Cross decorated with fruit, vegetables, flowers and paper decorations for the Day of the Cross.

Today, May 3rd is the Dia de la Cruz.  This is a day that marks the end of the harvest season, just before the start of the rainy season.  This is a specially constructed cross at our office.  As I walked around Guacotecti on  my lunch break, I saw a lot of other similarly decorated crosses.  I am told that we will also be celebrating by eating beans for dinner tonight.  I don't yet know why that is the traditional food for today.

As you know, I am working hard to learn Spanish, to adapt to a new culture and to learn about life in a much more rural setting than I have ever experienced and sometimes there are bumps in the road.  About a month ago I attended a meeting of the "economia local" team as they were brainstorming some ideas for their next work plan.  One of the ideas is the creation of a "demonstration project" where they were grow many different types of produce.  It became clear to me that this team had a huge fascination with apples as beside every product (carrots, pineapples, onion etc.) was a notation about apples.  While they are eaten here, apples are not grown here.  I thought that the team was going to start an apple farm but needed to grow other things while the apple trees took time to mature into fruit bearing trees.  I learned this week that "manzana" the word for apple, is also an term of land measurement slightly smaller than an acre.  Turns out the team has no plans for apples but rather was estimating the amount of land they needed!  Oops sometimes when you think you understand, you don't!

In much of El Salvador, animals (mostly cows and chickens) just roam.  My question was this, how does a person keep track of their livestock?  Apparently,  it is instinctive for the animals to return to their home every night.  Like us they look  for their own bed...who knew??? The livestock herds are small enough that the individual homeowner knows all of his or her stock.  Also,  on the livestock theme, people here are concerned about the steroids and other chemicals in their meat, so if you come to El Salvador, you want to eat "Pollo India" a type of chicken that is raised without drugs.

At first I really wondered about the use of the "pila" (the cement holding basin for water).  If you can just turn on the tap and re-fill the "pila" why fill it all?  The answer is this, there is not always water.  Often at our house in Guacotecti, there is only running water one or two days per week.  With the pila filled we can easily wash ourselves, the dishes and do other cleaning.   You can pour water down the toilet and it flushes without there actually being water and pressure...once again something new for me.  We have bottled water for drinking.  Last Monday the pila got filled up.  There was not water the rest of the week and with 6 of us in the house, we used about 3/4 of the water in the pila last week.  Yesterday I turned the tap on and there was only a very small flow of water coming out.

Probably left up to me, I'd have spent night looking at the pila and the tap trying to will more water to come out at a faster rate.  Instead, my house mates made a fabulous dinner  of cream of carrot and other vegetable soup with a bit of curry, scrambled eggs with chopped up green beans and fried plantains with cinnamon.  Of all the great food I have had here, I think Alex's fried plantains last night was the most delicious food I have ever eaten!  Then we played cards.   

As you may recall, I am the only person in my household who showers in the evening, everyone else showers in the morning.  Last night I started asking questions about whether the process for bathing changes when there is not a lot  of water as I didn't want to overuse a scarce resource.  It became clear that while everyone in the house was aware of the situation, I was the only one who was actually concerned about it.  The answer came back that, was that there is some water coming out of the tap so it will probably all be okay.  I bathed quickly last night and we went to bed with the tap on.   After more than 12 hours of filling, the pila is now about 1/2 full.  I am sure that there is a valuable life and theological lesson in this about what we chose to worry about and what we trust will all work out.   Here, so far, mostly things do work out and when it doesn't people deal with it.

A cow and her calves wandering the streets near my house in Guacotecti.

A chicken on the road near the ADES office.