Sunday, February 20, 2011

Returning to La Unión

I’ve been back now for one day longer than a week and had developed thoughts which had yet been transformed into written word. Here I go.

There I sat, in the Centro Social (Social Center) an MPR type structure used for gatherings, dances, performances, and anything garnering a large attendance. Wednesday’s event was a type of town hall meeting. Patrick and I had been invited the previous day when the Vice Mayor witnessed our meeting with IHCafé (the Institute of Honduran Coffee.) Though it makes no difference to the story, we were discussing future training plans with IHCafé and ways to provide incentives for producers to increase crop quality.

So anyways, here I was, at this meeting, four days since returning to Honduras after more than one month being back in the United States. Even with the short amount of time I had spent reviewing the streets of La Union, it became radiantly clear on what I personally had done in this village, the time I had invested, and subsequently, the relations I had formed. On a collective front, it was also very impressive to be reminded of where we had come as an institution.

This nostalgic period of remembrance continued into the day’s town meeting. I ran into my dentist who was planning to speak on a small vegetable cooperative he was representing. A pastor/farmer/friend from Las Peñas who is atypically Honduran flamboyantly grabbed hold of me around the waist, with literally, arms wide opened, as he laughed his high pitched giggle from excitement that his coffee classified as specialty and was being sold directly in the United States. People were here at this meeting representing various organizations, many working under the auspices of government funding, sharing the common bond of the desire of development, just like us, Unión MicroFinanza (UMF).

Now, already in my story are a few themes reemerging from my two years experience in Honduras. These themes are common to feel in the developing world, and having already spent much time here, it was easier to slip back into the comprehension of these rural third world dynamics. On one hand, it was great to be back for many reasons. The relationships I had formed held strong and people were sincerely happy to see me return. For one reason or another, many people thought I would be gone for good. It was great to return to a community that considered me part of that very community. And not only me, but after a year and change of hard fought battles, UMF was now being invited to town hall meetings, signifying we were now considered a viable player on the development stage.

It was also great to be back and see all the growth, not only of the revitalized public health clinic, but of my garden! It’s a beautiful thing watching natural landscapes thrive through change. My banana trees had grown more leaves, my mini-bonsai cacti had expanded, tomatoes had been harvested with dying stalks ready to be uprooted, some random cabbage plants that had weathered the storms of zero maintenance nurtured balls of nutrition, and my dill which was now towering high over the soil shined with yellow brilliance. Things in my garden were exciting; of course it was natural for me to think of preparing for my next harvest, and a possible scaling up of operations. And after living luxuriously throughout the States, I still enjoyed returning to my village, my house, and especially my room. I brought back a single-seat hammock, which I had stored in my closet for over eight years and now my room is awesome and am finally getting some use out of it.

To not get carried away by ecstatic feelings of return, let me bring you back to the meeting. Again, there I was, sitting in the second row of white plastic chairs for a meeting scheduled at 9am, which would not begin for another hour and a half. But I wasn’t sitting as a normally did, my fingers were hurting. It wasn’t by accident that they were hurting either; rather, finally, my fingers were blistering from last night’s guitar lesson. I’ve actually already purchased some $50 classic guitar that magically arrived from San Francisco at the Santa Barbara produce market the other day (but that’s another story.) Like I said, the meeting wouldn’t begin till much after it was planned to start. Some things are a bit harder to change in Honduras. Patrick, unfortunately or not, had already been scheduled to work on a water project in Agua Zarca with his parents and little brother. Many comments can be said about their visit, but keeping in mind my audience, I’d rather put attention on one of Honduras’ zillion problems. There is no urgency for change, no urgency for development, no urgency to improve their lives. Sure, they truly want to change and improve their standard of living, but their tardiness to today’s meeting, to UMF training sessions, to any activity fixed with a start time, goes beyond sheer laziness. Though laziness is a result of this sentiment I am about to describe, it drives us punctual, time-is-money, Americans crazy. But in this case, and no pun intended, time-is-change. And Hondurans have already waited so long for slow change that their thought is, why not wait another minute, another hour, another day, another harvest season, another election, until the change we desire comes. What UMF needs to teach them (and my goodness how many things are there to teach) is that the time is now to do what needs to get done, let’s not wait, let’s begin, let’s remember what we learn, and let’s move forward together. So frustrating, pero asi es la cosa (but that’s how it is.)

The meeting begins, the mayor is in attendance, all major NGOs with a presence in La Union are in attendance, and by this time I’m hanging out with Patrick’s girlfriend Grissel waiting for my time to speak and represent our organization. For many who don’t know, she is a kindergarten teacher out in Lepagual, and here we are, school has resumed after the slowing down of the coffee harvest, it’s a weekday, and her and other public school teachers have been mandated to attend the meeting (though I’m not discounting the importance of a NGO State of the Union) but there seem to be many conveniently planned events that pull teachers out of schools. Sort of like the weeks leading up to Vida Abundante’s Fiesta Típica (Typical Party)…yet another story I’m leaving out in this write-up.

Cutting to the chase, after many organizations relay budget numbers, families helped, stoves built, it is my turn to speak. Many people are still getting to know who and what Unión MicroFinanza does, so instead of focusing on PowerPoint presentations or rattling off figures no one would pay attention to, I drive home many messages. One, that what we’re doing is good, we’re working with the people, that before we started working we made sure to know the villages in which we planned to work. Two, that we help agricultural producers not only with loans, but with training and by opening up access to new markets. Three, that we complement our microfinance program by bringing service projects to the most needy villages. And four, a sort of concluding comment that was certainly heard by and later referred to by local and national leaders in attendance is the following: UMF, we, I, am not here to compete in some development race in order to gain more recognition, more resources, or some other selfish aim, but rather all NGOs, the government included, is here to share in the development of La Unión. Perhaps one NGO will be more successful than the next, or more capable to carry out a certain kind of project than another, and may or may not grow faster than another, but I feel within La Unión, you have these various acronym labeled institutions competing over the rural poor. But it isn’t a competition, I tried reinforcing the need for a unified fight, for sharing information and best practices, but am unsure how far an ideal this is from the reality here on the ground. After sharing my thoughts I sat back down, the meeting concluded shortly thereafter, I presented some reports with fancy numbers and data to state-level officials and made my way back to my house.

Already, within the short amount of time back within these mountains I feel I can relay stories capturing a multitude of themes. Many of you who have spent extensive time in community development, in third world rural development, know these themes, some beautiful, many worrisome. Suffice it say, the wheels of mind are turning once again, my days have become challenging once again, and I’m ready to carpe diem


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