From my side of the dam

your relation to the dam is relative, let's meet on the bridge

Heroe

The first time I met my hero she was indistinguishable really.  One of a dozen dusty, carefree children congregated like a school of fish on the edge of town as they dreamed up their next adventure.  Buenos Aires seemed to be one of the best places on earth to be a kid, a small, quiet riverside town where they were free to be queens and kings of their own destiny and a whole jungle out back to explore.

The only reason she became singled out from the crowd, highlighted as unique among the mob of Indiana Jones’, came to me as a warning: “that one over there, the angelic, sweet, little girl with the springy curls and big smile?  She’s a handful.  Give her a foot and she’ll take a mile”.

Jimena sure is a handful; a handful of spunk, spirit, and joy.  She’s nine years old and she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.  She wants to help people who have heart problems.  Her toothy grin and the way she snuggles up under my arm and into my heart leaves me no doubt that she’ll save many lives.  She’s already saved mine.

When I met her for the second time she was living in Las Pavas with her two older sisters and her parents.  If Buenos Aires is the best place to grow up, Las Pavas might be one of the worst.  As the daughter of a subsistence farmer in the Colombian context, Jimena carries a bull’s-eye on her back while she tries to avoid the daily darts of hunger, harassment, gun shots, illness, and rape.  The 123 families of Las Pavas are part of a national struggle for land rights, up against a government more interested in foreign investment and capitalism than human rights and food security.  The Colombian authorities on a regional, state, and even national level have turned their backs on the people of Las Pavas, allowing a large-scale palm oil company to appropriate the land for palm plantations, a lucrative cash crop for export.

Amidst the atmosphere thick with tension, frustration, and desperation, Jimena is a source of light.  The curls on her head reflect the buoyancy of her soul and the wind in her sails; the energy that moves her is contagious.  Her curiosity is insatiable and in her rush to get all of her questions out she’ll often mix up her R’s with her L’s.  We enjoy swinging upside down in hammocks and cheating at dominos.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  Jimena isn’t immune to the violence she has to face daily.  She calls the palm company security guards names, and she tells me she wants to throw rocks at them.  Her smile disappears and her body tenses with fear when she recounts the threats of rape she receives when she walks an hour to Buenos Aires for school.

It’s no easy lifestyle.  But her family has chosen to live in the midst of conflict, giving up amenities like running water and electricity, in order to defend their right to the land and Jimena will not give up.  So why should I?

jimena

Elections Part II: The World Cup

So after my last post, I forgot to mention that Colombia has another interesting function in their electoral system: the second round.  If none of the candidates in the presidential election receive more than 50% of Colombia’s vote, the process moves to Round Two, where the top two candidates face off again with the option of a blank vote.

On May 25th, ultra-rightwing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga won the first round with current president Juan Manuel Santos following him into the second round of voting on June 15th.  Seeing as Colombia was already quite disillusioned with the elections (see Elections Part One below) and considering there was a voters abstination of over 60%, no one was that excited to be going back to the polls.  It was clearly a vote for the lesser of two evils since Zuluaga’s party affiliation invoked not-so-distant memories of paramilitary death squads across the country, while Santos refused to recognize the people’s right to strike when miners, farmers, and indigenous took to the streets last October.

What seemed to be higher on the list of priorities was Colombia’s first World Cup game scheduled for June 14th, the day before round two of elections.  After a 16 year drought, Colombia was overjoyed to make their appearance on the international fútbol stage again.  So much so, that over 200 000 ballots the next day were cast with Pekerman written on them, the head coach for the national soccer team.

I’m also convinced that the game changed the direction of election day.  The second round run off between Santos and Zuluaga could not have been more polarized regarding their stances on war and peace: Santos’ propaganda involved a sappy montage of Colombians writing PAZ on their hands in sharpies while Zuluaga was not even hiding the fact that he’s a puppet to former president  and death squad leader Alvaro Uribe as they appeared side by side in his campaign ads.

Game day was stressful and intense, and when Colombia won against Greece 3-0, the country breathed a sigh of relief and started to believe that maybe peace is possible.  So a couple million more than in the first round went out to vote the next day, and indeed “peace” won.  Santos, in his victory speech, thanked the tricolor, among others, for their great display of teamwork and dedication who helped him win with a 5% lead over Zuluaga.

The election buzz was short-lived and the world cup continued to dominate the hearts and minds of the Colombian citizens creating a unique and beautiful unity across the country, up until a controversial loss against Brazil in the quarterfinals.  Unfortunately, the politicians took that opportunity to make some drastic policy changes while Colombians were engaged elsewhere.  On June 18th, while Chile destroyed Spain, the Senate laid to rest a law proposing to revive overtime compensation; on June 30th when France and Germany eliminated Nigeria and Algeria, the ministry of mining announced the largest increase to gas prices in three years ($153/gallon); and finally several world leaders (including ex-presidents from Chile, Spain, England, the U.S., and Brazil) came to Colombia to resurrect more neoliberal policies that have failed terribly in Europe (see article here).

I absolutely loved every minute of the World Cup (although the questionable refereeing which seems to be the cause of Colombia’s loss to Brazil still has me seething), and I do believe it gave Colombians a reason to come together as a nation.  It’s unfortunate that this display of a nation’s pride and humility can be used against them as a smokescreen.  I hope that these young men, coming from all corners of the country, can continue to spread their spirit and use their newfound clout and name to indeed carry out Santos’ campaign for peace.

 

Elections

Tomorrow is election day; Colombia votes for a president.  With five candidates on the voting card, President Santos is looking for reelection while ex-president and death squad leader Uribe tries to regain control through his candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga; Marta Lucía Ramirez attempts to uphold the Catholic family values through her Conservative party; Peñalosa shakes off his previous Uribe affiliations to run for the Green Party; and Clara López who allied with Aída Avella from the UP as vice president seems to have the best platform but the worst ratings in the polls.

In the polls I’ve taken over the past couple of weeks, it seems that Colombians are disillusioned with all candidates and have chosen not to vote at all.  Many a taxi driver, CPT partner, and neighbour are choosing not to execute their democratic right considering it a lost cause – a feeling I’ve taken on as well after the past two weeks of campaign smearing and a slew of scandals involving Santos and Zuluaga in dirty wars.  The presidential debate was on Thursday night, setting precedent as the first presidential debate where all candidates showed up, only to have Santos and Zuluaga throw punches regarding the scandal the whole time and the other three with nothing special to say.

What’s more interesting is that Colombia has the option of a “blank vote” where, if more than 50% of the population votes blank, the current candidates are scrapped and a new election takes place with new candidates.  Brilliant right?  Unfortunately, this method of ensuring a democracy that isn’t voting for “the best of the worst” doesn’t even give Colombians hope.  Of those who are voting, I haven’t heard of one who will vote blank.

So, what could be an exciting day for change and hope for Colombians doesn’t feel that special anymore.  Since I can’t vote, I get to sit back and watch, which will sure be interesting enough seeing as election day here is rumoured to be quite different from the countries where I cast my vote.  Stay tuned for my experiences and observations from tomorrow’s results, but for now I leave you with a publication by CPT Colombia:

                                     10 questions for the next president

1. Will you continue peace negotiations with the FARC-EP and ELN?

2. Are you willing to re-negotiate Free Trade Agreements in favor of Colombian small farmers?

3. What guarantees of no repetition can you give in regards to paramilitary commanders being released from prison?

4. How will you combat impunity enjoyed by the Police and Military for crimes committed against grassroots processes?

5. What guarantees can you provide conscientious objectors of obligatory military service?

6. What steps will you take to address the environmental crisis in the country?

7. Will you approve the law that condemns femicide after the increased acid attacks against women?

8. How will you ensure that the laws protecting the rights of the LGBT community are upheld?

9. Will you be the president to finally comply with the signed agreements with the farmers and miners?

10. Will you respect the right of the land to be used in sustainable manner that benefits the Colombian people rather than multinational corporations?

see article here

When the enemy is all too human

Somewhere along my journey of understanding violence, oppression, conflict, and hate, I heard that the basis behind humankind’s destruction of one another lies in the dehumanization of the other.  Don’t get too close; don’t look them in the eye.  In fact, stay as far away as you can, be afraid, the enemy does not feel, the enemy cannot relate to you.  Better yet, give them animal traits and savage characteristics that help you reason your superiority in relation to them.  Create a right and wrong polarity complex and put them on the wrong side, creating a moral responsibility to which you must respond by eliminating them.  Us vs. Them.  Game on.

And it works.  Which is why the tactic has been used in many conflicts throughout history and continues to be used in more terrifying ways today including nuclear bombs, missiles, and drones.  You know, that push of a button phenomenon, the ultimate disconnect to humanity.  Research tells us that it’s generally difficult to convince a human being to commit an act of violence against his or her own species.  So more and more of our warfare technology prevents the enemy from representing itself before you as a human being.  Out of sight, out of mind.  A magical trick we play on our psyche to excuse the fact that we are literally self-combusting.

But the situation I have observed here in Colombia has taken me by surprise.  The enemy here is very human.  The enemy here is a friend and schoolmate from the neighbourhood.  She is a former co-worker.  He is an uncle and a step-father.  The enemy here hurls insults across the fence at you, watching you struggle to survive every morning while they steal your food, throw fireballs at your houses, beat up your young men, and threaten to rape your children.

I understand the disconnect of the CEO to the labourer, the drone operator to the civilian casualty, the policy writer to the subsistence farmer.  I get it.  And so the tactic then is to enlighten the CEO with a visit to his company’s factory, invite the drone operator to live with the casualty’s family, have the policy writer work on a small farm that attempts to make a living while in competition with the global market.  But how does one move forward when the enemy is in your backyard?  The enemy already knows your family, your working conditions, and the value of your day’s work, but continues to make your life impossible?

I have no solutions, I boast no ‘one size fits all’ bandaid to an ever-evolving dynamic of conflict and it’s intricacies.  But I will continue to ask questions, walk alongside those seeking justice and peace, and refuse to let a lack of answers deter my commitment to action.

the beauty of sport

Quite often sporting events at the international level receive heavy criticism that frankly outweighs whatever global community “feel good” atmosphere used as justification for the games.

I mean, I would love to go to the Olympics.  Even better, the World Cup.  And in all reality, I have the ability and the resources to make it happen.  But then there’s that whole injustice thing.  Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics – had I wanted to I could have gone.  But when I visited over Christmas 2009 I saw the houses slated for demolition and heard stories of the families displaced in the name of “unity”.  Brazil hosts the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2 more.  Since I’m practically neighbours with them, a quick jaunt through the Amazon would have me in the Macarena stadium with a vuvuzela and a big obnoxious jester hat sporting the colours of whichever rainbow my heart so desires.  But recently I watched a youtube video of a young Brazilian woman pleading with the world to understand the magnitude of what the effects of the World Cup has on her people.  It’s the same story of the impoverished being pushed out of sight while the rich enjoy the beauty of the best athleticism there is to see.

So I don’t think I could go.  If I want to sleep at night.

Which is unfortunate, because there is that whole “feel good” global community about it all.  I think sport – and the international stage and competition that go with it – when properly executed and intelligently designed, serves as a fantastic medium to bridge culture and language, erase borders and conflicts, and work together towards a common goal.  I know, sappy.  But I felt it happen this week.

For some odd reason, the organizers of the AMF Women’s Futsal World Championship decided to host this year’s games in Barrancabermeja.  We here in the city felt a little sorry for the Canadians, Chinese, Australians, and Czechs, among other teams, who arrived for the tournament because if they were expecting cultural attractions, good entertainment, a pulsing night-life, or anything relatively exciting, they weren’t going to find that here in our lovely Barranca.  But, our pity didn’t last too long because that meant for the next two weeks, we and the rest of this tiny oil town, would have our fill of culture and entertainment.  Remind me to put the AMF in my will.

First game of the tournament: Canada vs. Colombia.  Couldn’t have been a better start.  My co-workers and I secured our tickets the day before and dug up the Canadian flags from storage.  The taxi ride to the stadium buzzed with anticipation.  We strode into the stadium wrapped in the maple leaf with our chalk-coloured limbs, obviously sticking out in a sea of yellow-shirted sun-weathered Colombian costeños.  And then we lost 16-0.

But thankfully, I’m one of those sports fanatics who might not be allowed to consider myself a fanatic per se, since I often forget the score before I even get home.  What was so definitive for me, and left me with 10 more ticket stubs and no more stipend, was the energy inside that place.  To be honest, I didn’t think there would be more than 100 people in the stadium, considering it’s futsal, and women’s at that.  The place almost sold out.

At half time, Pierre and I ran the perimeter of the stadium with our flag, cheering on Canada who was down 6 goals by that point.  I almost didn’t do it.  I almost gave in to my sub-conscience trying to protect me from public embarrassment.  But that run only reaffirmed my belief in sport as a medium for change and restored my faith in humanity (I warned you it was sappy).

In a place where violence, corruption, and despair hang heavy like the monsoon clouds, this event has brought life.  Strangers ran up to hug me, friends cheered us on from the crowd.  Police and firefighters smiled shyly, probably wishing they could be up in the stands with us.  Canadian moms thanked us for supporting the team, expressing how special it was to have someone cheer you on when you’re across the world.

We met Australians, cheered alongside Russians, and even donned the stars and stripes because it’s not really their fault they’re from the States.  We watched little kids run lengths of the stadium after spotting a player, sharpie in hand, accumulating autographs, and we ate hamburgers and popsicles, while helping the folks around us pronounce ham-BOOR-gare and PAP-see-col.

Now that is what sport is about.

Tonight’s final: Colombia vs. Venezuela.
Tomorrow?  World peace.

What does it mean to go home?

The small farmers of Colombia have been on strike for the past six weeks.  This meant that thousands of families and hundreds of communities took to the streets of Colombia, blocking major arteries along national highways and demanding change.  The mobilization took place as a result of empty promises from the Santos government who have failed to provide agricultural subsidies, create the appropriate economic and social infrastructure, and facilitate a land reform process where Colombian farmers will be favoured over multinational investors.  Their demands also include and end to the Free Trade Agreements with Canada, the United States and the EU which have made it impossible for Colombian farmers to compete in their own national market.

So they shut the country down.  Farmers traveled for days and camped out for weeks trying to negotiate with a government who refuses to recognize their human rights.  After six weeks of striking, where five people were killed and many more were wounded, the government has agreed to work with various geographical areas individually to tailor resolutions for specific regions.

With a promise of negotiations and a meager remuneration for food and transportation from a tight-fisted government, the farmers and their families have headed home.

But what does it mean to go home?  Some stereotypical ideas of going home that often come to mind include a familiar bed, a friendly neighbour, a normal routine, and a mom’s cooking.  I’m sure most Colombian farming families are enjoying these comforts of home, but I know many of them are also returning to a reality of violence, poverty, and injustice as well as a month and a half of lost work on the land and a dark shadow of years of stigma, abuse, and empty promises from politicians.

But going home does not mean giving up the fight.  Going home does not mean returning to the status quo.  CPT stands with the Colombian farmers and asks the Colombian government to work with them on a fair and just solution.  Because if the agreements aren’t reasonable, they’ll just take to the streets again.  And they’d rather just be at home.

I knew this would happen…

One of my greatest fears and a large deterrent (but not large enough apparently) to starting a blog was that the world was going to be hanging on my every word and then when I ran out of words, I would let the world down.

So, with more than a three month hiatus from My Side of the Dam, I’ve let ya’ll down.  I apologize.  Here’s my feeble attempt to catch you up on the past three months:

1. Leaving Barranca for my first break off-team was difficult.  The country was about to go into a 6 week national agrarian strike which has now moved into the negotiation phase.  The communities we work with were in crisis as well, and I was going to leave my team short-staffed.  Thankfully while I was gone the team was supported by several reservists.

2.  A week in the forests of the Canadian Shield working at Camp Micah with other CPTers, beautifully passionate people, and best friends was refreshing for my body and soul.  Not to mention the most amazing and inspiring young adults I was blessed to meet and learn from as we continue to dream a new world together.

3. I was also blessed to have two weeks at home connecting with family, friends, and my church community, with time to decompress my first four months with CPT and how to manage a lifestyle full of uncertainty, stress, and righteous anger.

4. Fortunately it worked out for me to take a quick detour down to Pennsylvania while my brother and sister-in-law were there, whom I hadn’t seen in over two years.  After spending time with my mom’s family in PA, we took a few days to see Washington D.C. where we enjoyed a beautiful bike ride along the river and delicious food trucks.

5. The Amazon continues to call my name, so I took my last 2 weeks of leave to explore the jungles at the convergence of Colombia, Brazil, and Perú.  I had not learned to fully appreciate the joys of food until I arrived in Peru two years ago, and I took advantage of my location to indulge in the gastronomical magic that is Peruvian cuisine.  New tasty adventures included Amazonian fish (dorado, doncella, paiche, and corvina), game (peccary and alligator), and fruit (camu camu, copo-azú, cocona, aguaje, and this grape-like fruit that’s not a grape at all but I can’t remember what it’s called and thus cannot leave you with a picture. A shame, because it’s mouth-watering delicious!)  I also smuggled some ají amarillo home with me, treated my friends to the most fantastic papa a la huancaína, and plan on planting the seeds, because life is better with ají amarillo.  Oh Perú, why is your food so wonderful??

6. I’ve safely arrived back in Barranca, refreshed and ready to get back into the routine of life on team.  I’m headed out for soccer practice tonight and am looking forward to catching up with friends this weekend.  It feels good to be home.

So there you have it.  Maybe if I hadn’t felt so pressured to reappear in the blogosphere I would have written something with more depth and meaning to it.  Oh well.  Maybe next time.

 

Together and Alone

What do you say when there’s no words to say it?

What do you write when there’s nothing to say?

You hold hands, you hug tightly, you gaze into the distance in silence, together and alone.

And it is enough.

But what do you do when you are a half day’s journey away with only thoughts and memories to bind your souls?

How can one who comes and goes sympathize with one who stays; with one who has no place to go?

With violence staring at her across the fence.

It will never be enough.

Sleep when the baby sleeps

We are a small team at the moment.  Pierre, Stewart, and I are holding down the fort while Caldwell is at home but once Caldwell arrives back in Barranca Stewart leaves for six months.  If all goes as planned we’ll have another full time member on board come July but she’ll be going for language training in August, just as I leave for my first stint in the North.  So yeah, we’re a little short on warm bodies here.

And to top it off, we have had an international delegation here the past two weeks who fly out on Wednesday, and both Las Pavas and El Garzal are in crisis and are asking for more permanent accompaniment.  Hence why I haven’t been able to write very often.

Two weeks ago the Las Pavas community was shot at again while bringing the tractor onto their land, and a couple of days later Tito, a community member and good friend of mine, was beat up badly, sustaining blows to the head and body and cuts from machetes.  He was taken to a hospital a couple of hours by canoe and received 9 stitches on his knee.  When the delegation met with him in Las Pavas this week he was on his way to get a CAT scan because he’d been having several dizzy spells.  The community’s lawyer is graciously paying for his health care out of her pocket.

I had planned to be on that trip to Las Pavas to see Tito and help out with the delegation.  I was not able to go because we had an emergency call to El Garzal because of threats occurring in the area.

I don’t even want to get into the administrative aspects of all this.

My honeymoon stage here in Colombia may be coming to an end although not quite unexpected as all of my energy these past two months have been met with the grim faces of my teammates saying, “yeah, but there’s only 3 of us”.  I just smiled and continued on in good spirits.  Well my friends, I’ve finally come to the realization along with probably quite a few other women after their honeymoon: there’s a baby on the way and it’s going to be the death of me (and a little less cute, little more political, violent, and complex and unfortunately won’t be pacified with food, sleep, or a clean diaper).

What to do?  Sleep when the baby sleeps.

Quinque Viae: There is a God

Esteban brought out a bowl full of mangos this morning and said, “eat ’em, or take ’em home with you”.  Over the last three days in Garzal and Nueva Esperanza we’ve been visiting with families, celebrating new houses and new babies, and enjoying the abundance of fresh crops.  Esteban didn’t need to say more as Pierre and I rolled up our sleeves and took on this important duty of the day – no need for the mangos to go to waste.  “You know”, I said to Pierre as I chuckled at his current state of being, bent forward, the bottom half of his face a shiny orange mess of pulp while rivulets of juice  followed gravity’s pull down his arms and off his elbows, “mangos make me believe there is a God”.

Saint Thomas of Aquinas, a Catholic theologian and philosopher from the 13th century, came up with the quinque viae, the five ways or five proofs of God’s existence.  Strangely enough his didn’t include mangos, but fortunately, he never meant for these five truths to be ultimate, but rather an introduction to how he understood and defined the existence of God.  I figured since I already have my first proof, I’ll try my hand at philosophy and attempt my own quinque viae, my own explanation of how I understand spirituality and what I mean when I speak of God.

1. Mangos. (proof found here)

2. The moon.  I lose myself in the moon.  It pulls me, it quiets me, it changes me.  It’s that thin space that one of my favourite philosopher’s talked about.  It’s that space where everything makes sense in the world; I realize that I am just one more speck of sand amongst 8 billion, but that each animate object is interconnected.  We don’t just co-exist on this earth, we’re dependent on one another.  What you do matters.

3. Wireless (and sometimes even wired) communication.  Cell phones.  Telephones. Internet.  Even recorded music.  I don’t get it.  And maybe if someone was able to explain it to me it would no longer be one of my proofs of God, but for now it’s like magic.  Amazing.

4. The metaphor.  It’s fantastically amazing that we have the capability to manipulate our concrete environment, through language, into something abstract and unreal – creative imagination which allows us to design a different reality.  One that doesn’t exist yet.  Today’s reality doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s, we have the ability to change it.

5. Fuzzy green caterpillars.  I had a run-in with a gusano peludo, a hairy worm, this week in Garzal.  While lying on Don Salvador’s floor chatting I felt something graze my neck.  When I reached up to swat it, thinking it was one of the swarm of mosquitos that had descended upon the village recently, I felt a sharp stinging on my knuckles of my index and middle finger.  I jumped up rather confused as the stinging reminded me of nettles, but I was indoors.  But it was a fuzzy green caterpillar that my fingers had grazed and within a short period of time I knew this was no ordinary caterpillar.  My fingers swelled to the point where I considered slicing open my skin to relieve the pressure, sure that if and when the swelling went down my skin would flap in excess.  The pain was absolutely awesome.  I could not believe the extent of inflammation caused by a mere brush with an immaculately coiffured creature, that through tear-filled eyes I thought it necessary to photograph the event.  More importantly though, the plague of mosquitos that were pestering the town in hordes, leaving people pock-marked and forcing church to be cancelled?  I didn’t even notice them.

6. Bonus proof: The existence of the bag in the photo below (and all other hilariously incorrect English print).  Power to the woman’s Jesus.  There is a God.

DSC_9429