Intern journal - Christine Wenman

The infant in her white dress was nestled in a candlelit bed of red, purple and pink bougainvillea. Flame-lit faces crowded the small stick hut and watched me curiously; a few nodded with warm smiles of recognition. Muted voices accompanied the ritual day of mourning. Paula led me from her child’s corpse to a corner where she offered me a bowl of cold white rice with tortillas and a Coke. Feeling obliged, though not hungry, I methodically chewed the food while I replayed all that had happened just hours before….

After nightfall a horde of people approached and explained that a dying baby urgently needed to go to hospital. Among them, Paula sobbed that her in-laws did not want to evacuate their grandchild. When we arrived at her home, dozens more people were crammed inside. Despite their loud disagreements I could hear the infant gasping for air, almost blue in her desperation. "She is going to die — we must take her to the hospital now,” I said stupidly, as though the villagers didn’t know what death looked like. Paula crumbled in the chaos. Her drunken father-in-law yelled and swayed. Her mother-in-law told Paula to go if she wanted, an indirect way of indicating disapproval; she wasn’t giving her blessing. Explaining that she needed the permission of her husband, who was in Mexico City selling palm-woven baskets, Paula retreated to a corner. She was afraid to make a costly decision in defiance of the prevailing custom that gave authority first to her husband and then to her in-laws.

I convinced four people – Paula, her mother, her brother and her brother-in-law – to accompany the baby to the hospital so that responsibility and any subsequent blame for the decision could be shared. Racing down the steep hill to the truck, we began the one-hour journey. The infant died en route.

I had arrived in Mexico several months earlier for an 11-month internship as the Water and Sanitation Program Manager for a small non-governmental organization called Caminamos Juntos para Salud y Desarrollo(Walking Together for Health and Development), "CJ” for short. From September 2005 to July 2006, I worked under the direction of Dr. Susan Smith, a nurse practitioner with a PhD in community health and development and a health consultant with experience throughout the developing world. The internship position was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency’s International Youth Internship Program, and supported by the University of Calgary’s International Centre.

Fear grips Tlamacazapa
Initially, I was worried about supervising the construction of dry toilets and rainwater catchment cisterns. With an academic background in environmental sciences but no practical construction experience, I did not even know how to mix concrete. As a woman, how was I going to manage a trainee group of four older men and teenage boys? My fears were misplaced. Sure, I learned a great deal about construction techniques used in rural Mexico and I was forced to stand up for myself in the face of patronizing machismo, but I was unprepared for the most challenging and important lessons. A long history of external manipulation, isolation, and neglect has eroded the villager’s traditional Nahua culture since the Spanish conquest five hundred years ago. Power imbalances marginalize women and concentrate local power in the hands of only a few men. Unemployment, economic poverty, insufficient or non-existent education, and inadequate health services portend a bleak future for Tlama’s children and youth. Individuals tend to be consumed by fear, guilt, resentment, hopelessness, and dependency. Villagers react to their own insecurities by attacking others with violence or criticism so that most remain silent — the silence of oppression. Suspicion and mistrust prevail, preventing community cohesion. With these characteristics, poverty in Tlama is not only economic but also spiritual (do not read religious). Spiritual oppression is characterized by powerlessness that breeds fear and silences neighbours who witness domestic abuse; low self-esteem expressed with ‘I can’t’ in response to a new challenge; guilt and depression that drive men to alcoholism in the face of unemployment and unfair, overwhelming macho expectations. Fear grips Tlamacazapa; it locks women into corners of dark houses, into the asylum of large somber shawls. The core work in Tlama is working with individuals so that they become increasingly able to overcome spiritual oppression, a slow and often frustrating process.

Building self-determination
Many romanticize "community development” imagining a frenzy of giving and a harvest of gratitude. On the contrary, in Tlama I learned to say "no”. Doing the work of others or delivering on every desire will not help to empower them. Only by actively bettering their lives can people transform their reflex "I can’t” into a daring "I’ll try.” If guilt, self-hatred, or peer pressure drive a man to the bottle, others providing for his family will compound his shame. If a woman has fallen into hopelessness believing herself powerless, then constant handouts will perpetuate her dependency. Participation must be central to "community development” as "charity” alone maintains people as submissive recipients. Brazilian writer and educational thinker, Paulo Freire, argues that such charity "offers no responsibility, no opportunity to make decisions, but only gestures and attitudes which encourage passivity. ”(1990:16) In contrast, a developmental approach builds self-determination so that people can find their voices, ultimately enabling them to better their lives.

CJ’s programs are increasingly successful because they insist on active participation. Integrated programming in three areas – income generation, water and sanitation, and health and healing – makes concrete advancements in living standards while addressing underlying spiritual needs.

Pride and Process
Tlama has no sanitation system and the scarce well water is polluted with bacteria, nitrites/nitrates, arsenic, and lead. The pumped water is managed and sold by powerful local men who deny its contamination despite three years of monthly water samples collected by CJ and analyzed by Groundwater Analytical, an accredited lab in the United States. Through the Water and Sanitation Program a group of trainees learn to build units consisting of an ecological dry toilet and rainwater catchment tank. The two-vaulted dry toilet diverts urine into an evaporation garden while the excrement falls below. The users add ash to keep the feces dry and basic and therefore pathogen-free. A single vault will take six months to two years to fill depending on the family size, at which point the seat is moved to the second vault. By the time both sides are full, the initial vault can be emptied and its contents safely discarded or used as fertilizer. Meanwhile, the unit’s roofs divert toxin-free rainwater into the 7800L tank.

The unit offers safe sanitation, privacy, and clean water using a process of construction that ensures family participation. Expected to pay a portion of the total cost through a savings program, to haul gravel and sand, and to help in the construction, family members learn new skills, understand the use and maintenance of the dry toilet, and gain ownership of their unit. Education that incorporates germ theory and the effects of toxicity into villagers’ understanding elicits more interest in the units, as Tlama’s inhabitants generally attribute disease to body weaknesses caused by the evil eye, susto, or witchcraft. Providing the physical means of sanitation is not enough. Without time, money and labour constituting incentives to maintenance, without a thorough understanding of the unit’s value, and without the skills and confidence to make simple repairs, many villagers would see their dry toilet units fall into disuse and disrepair.

The Water and Sanitation Program is also designed to train young men in construction techniques, social skills, small business management, literacy, and numeracy. Trainees can buy tools through a savings plan and ultimately work towards running their own construction business. Each struggles to strengthen his self-esteem so that he can work independently once he masters the technical skills. Slowly, as trainees develop new skills within a supportive environment, they see themselves capable of learning and improving. Confidence and vision grow. Working in a team with constant debriefings with the supervisor and peers allows each the opportunity to develop communication and conflict resolution skills. In Tlama, building a dry toilet unit is tough, hot work but relatively straightforward. Understanding the complexities of the town’s context and the realities of the villagers’ lives is much more challenging.

Creating Beauty
Various income generation projects work to diversify employment opportunities for women who earn a meager living from weaving palm baskets. Women in the quilting workshop quadruple their income by learning to sew but they also surprise themselves in their gradual ability to learn new skills and to create beauty. The sewing group fosters a sense of friendship and community, giving the women mutual emotional support for their burdens while they learn teamwork, co-operation, and respect. As a volunteer, I frequently witness how the creativity and confidence awoken in the workshop spreads to other aspects of a woman’s life, giving her the hope to envision change and the confidence to take the next step.

A Mirror into Myself
When we reached the hospital a nurse angrily asked Paula "Why didn’t you bring your child earlier?” A fair question if asked to understand rather than to judge. An empathetic analysis of Paula’s life reveals that she was inhibited by far more than economic hardship. As I stood panicked in Paula’s house, bewildered at her reticence, I offered the physical means to help her baby but had no way to lessen her fear and voicelessness. There is no item that I can give and no structure that I can build that will emancipate Paula from her despair. This she must do herself. CJ programming can only offer her a place to discover her strengths through participating in change.

Spiritual oppression affects us all regardless of our economic status. Through my work with the people in Tlama I have a mirror into myself. Witnessing the prevalence of fear, anger, guilt, and hopelessness in Tlama allows me to see their obstructive roles in my home community and in myself. I recognize their grip on my life: fear of scorpions; of violence and conflict; of public-speaking; of speaking firmly to grown men; of being a teacher or manager; of holding others accountable to their actions. I see how I often manifest my guilt of being privileged as pity, giving into charity in the moment rather than thinking rationally and taking the hard line to work toward long-term empowerment. Spiritual oppression prevents me from reaching my potential. My growth, like that of the villagers, occurs through confronting my fears and guilt, and stretching my self-perception. In Tlama, my confidence increases with each new challenge; just as the trainees and the quilters discover their potential and broaden their skills, so do I. The journey is a long one, and I have chosen to work with the people of Tlamacazapa for another year because we have much more to share as we walk together and recognize our common humanity.

Freire, Paulo. 1990. Education for Critical Consciousness. The Continuum Publishing Company, N.Y.