Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lessons from La Unión

The following post was written by intern Natalie Clark:

It was an amazing and thought-provoking ten weeks for me interning with Unión MicroFinanza in La Unión, Honduras. As I was preparing to head back to the States, I considered the many things I learned during my time in La Unión.

  1. Aid is a complex and delicate process. Dumping aid upon a community can be worse than providing no aid at all.
  2. Innovation, imagination, and entrepreneurial skill are everywhere. A college education is certainly not required.
  3. I live an incredibly fortunate life and have many reasons to be thankful.
  4. I can’t always have Jif peanut butter. Sometimes the off-brand will have to suffice, and sometimes there’s no peanut butter at all.
  5. One can get by, though certainly not eloquently, with a Spanish repertoire of present tense verbs, some nouns, and a lot of smiles.
  6. Running water and electricity are luxuries, not basics, for much of the world.
  7. Fair trade is not always fair. There is nothing like meeting a farmer and going to the source of a product to really know what you are buying.
  8. Microfinance, like any development tool, has its challenges, but it is an exciting strategy that provides clients with the means to help themselves.
  9. There are some serious coffee geeks out there. Coffee flavors can be described with words such as “roasted marshmallow,” “honey/citrus,” and “pumpkin pie.”
  10. Climate change is a very serious threat to the farming community of La Unión, and globally. When one’s personal harvest accounts for both food for the family and yearly income, a consistent climate is critical.
  11. Riding in the back of a pickup truck is great fun.
  12. The word “gringa” refers both to a white woman, and to an incredibly tasty meal of a flour tortilla filled with chicken, a creamy white sauce with jalapeños, and chimol (a salsa).
  13. Coffee processing is energy-intensive, but, with creative thinking and new techniques, can be sustainable and environmentally-sound.
  14. The drive to learn is precious, and education is an incredibly powerful means to open doors for a child who otherwise would not have had options.
  15. I can now drink coffee black, no sugar, no cream. Coffee from La Unión, that is.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Coming Home From La Unión

The following post was written by our intern Lennie Zhu:

While running UMF’s community partnership projects in the past several weeks, I was continuously confronted with the questions: “What does one do upon returning to the States? How can an experience like this really change your life?” To be honest, these are questions for which I never had concrete responses, neither for the group members nor for myself. But it’s been a week since I’ve returned, and I’ve been watching myself through an invisible lens, searching for answers…

There has been something so strange about being back and walking through these New York streets where no one knows my name. It often feels like a gray maze where one bumps into others without really touching them and says, "Excuse me," without addressing a soul. I couldn’t help but compare it to my cheerful walks in La Unión, during which I would often stop to chat with neighbors and receive kind smiles and greetings even from strangers. I wanted to believe that people are the same everywhere, full of goodness and vitality, but I couldn’t see it in those streets.

There’s a passage in a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being that speaks to this. It reads, “In Paris, the graves were deeper, just as the buildings were taller.” The author, Milan Kundera, is comparing the great city of Paris with Bohemia, where he imagines death to be viewed as simply one step in the circle of life, and living to take place closer to the earth, where people can be constantly reminded of the miracle of their beginnings. I read that line just yesterday, and I finally understood what seems to set the people of La Unión apart from others that I have known.

The difference lies in the fact that their everyday rituals play out in such close proximity to the core of life. They depend upon the soil for survival, cannot escape the sun and the rain when they are fierce, and are constantly confronted with the very real possibility of death. All of this has made them beautifully humble and kind; it has forced them to appreciate everything that they have and allows them to love others without pretensions. "The day laborer is popularly reckoned as standing at the foot of the social scale: yet, talk with him, he is saturated with the beautiful laws of the world," Emerson told us, and it is true. Though many of them would be considered extremely poor by any standard, they are rich with a joie de vivre that many people in the developed world have lost, and I have realized how blessed I am to have learned this.

It is with this joie de vivre in mind that I chastised myself for feeling melancholy as I passed through the jam-packed streets of New York. Though first impressions beget the feeling that, here, the graves are too deep and the buildings too high, I thought on what I learned from my friends in La Unión and decided to dig deeper. The next time someone passed me- a tired, angry looking man in a dirty button down- I gave him the brightest grin I could muster and waved a cheery hello. Suddenly, his face melted into a smile and he paused to ask me, “How are you?”

And just like that, I realized that the answer is that we never really have to leave La Unión. If we let it, it comes with us wherever we go. There is no need to look any further than ourselves when searching for good, whether we choose to take a part-time job at a non-profit during the school year, travel to another country to learn about development, or simply make a conscious decision to smile at someone and make his day a little bit brighter. Kindness will be reflected back once he realizes you see the good in him. And changes will come about organically once all of us begin to care about each other in this way.

A lot has happened in the last three months, and there’s still a lot about which I am unsure. But there is one thing of which I am certain: Unión MicroFinanza has taught me how to care, and that is the most wonderful gift in the world.   

-Lennie Zhu

Lennie and UMF employees in La Unión