Saturday was hot, but not oppressively. There was not a cloud or a breeze, the broad-leafed trees were in full bloom and provided shade. I sat sipping the cold-steep tea that is a cultural icon and waited for Ceveriano and María to return home. The 20 minute trip had taken 1½ hours to get there, the Christmas holiday reduced the number of buses. It was another hour before they returned.
María is the director of a community center that serves the workers and residents that live in the city garbage dump. She and her husband Ceveriano are each just a little more than 5 feet tall. Her round face and round eyes evoke the moon rather than the sun, the emotions emitted touch only those that pay attention until there is a spike. Ceveriano's brilliance dominates as does the tropical sun, his passion level shifts predictably only as does the weather. I am something the river brought into town and it was time to take stock. I will soon jump back in, to leave with the eternal flow.
Too urgent to ignore are the string of broken promises to build homes for the people that live in the garbage dump. And the prospect of a premature end to funds to create sustainable jobs looms, the administrative entity has a history of funding initial start-up and putting the rest in their pockets. Everyone in positions of power are functionaries and officials in the political party that has ruled for 70 years.
After a resident burned to death in his plastic and cardboard tent, we organized a series of meetings with public officials. Each meeting was videotaped and the edit included the ongoing documentation of life in the garbage dump. The turnaround was one or two days, each time the product was shared with the residents and the next agency staff. The final outcome was a firm commitment by an international authority to fund the housing, pending approval by City Hall. The official word is that it is on the agenda, but a date for consideration has not been made public.
There is a legend and iconic figure, “The Virgin of Caacupe”. A resident told me she has kept her statue in every home she has ever had, so I asked María and Ceveriano if this might be a symbol that could bring pressure on City Hall. My reference was César Chavez and the constant presence of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the early organizing of the United Farmworkers Union. María responded that not everyone adores the Virgin of Caacupe and that the Spaniards that fund the project (and exercise ultimate authority) are set against religious references. Ceveriano observed that the average Paraguayan that has the icon hopes their prayer for a specific thing is granted; and any pressure on City Hall will be answered with a punitive counter-punch. Why did we organize intense pressure previously? Ceveriano replied:
“The goal has never simply been housing. When I began organizing in the dump more than two years ago, the people rejected me when I suggested that they could leave the dump. 'We have homes and work here.' When the homes are built, many will be sold for fast cash. The misery in the dump has damaged them so much that the pestilence and filth doesn't bother them. There are two objectives: rejection of inhuman conditions by the residents themselves and a team of workers with genuine solidarity. The video is indespensible because the people do not remember yesterday and cannot imagine tomorrow. Beyond death and permanent damage by diseases, that is the crime of poverty.”
Health and human services in the U.S., including the agency that brought me to Paraguay, counts things to justify budgets. The procedures commonly employed ignore all statistical principles for reliability and validity, nonetheless the myth of rational management is ubiquitous. How do you count a change of consciousness among people that the society discards as garbage? When it isn't counted, what is its value?
Winter in southern Paraguay brings weather that swings. Cold and rain is followed by balmy days. Plants are seeding, flowering and sprouting. On the way to the children's school/lunch program and adult training center (built for the residents of the city's garbage dump), the walk brings sights and sounds of farms and wildlife. A bird devotee would enjoy seeing the tropical hawks, cranes, and seed eaters. Their songs punctuate the humming of insects and wind moving through the leaves of small trees.
The terrain around the training center has a gentle slope leading to the large river, Rio Paraña. The grasses, shrubs and small trees had been cut close to the ground to create a clear perimeter around the new building. A minimal fence of post and wire keeps grazing horses and cattle from entering. There are a couple of parallel rises in the ground separated by mild dips, giving the land a slight ripple as if it were the aftermath of a wave that had swept in. A Paraguayan explained this is an old path formed by ox-carts, probably from the 19th century.
Conversation in the Guarani language flowed as locals reviewed a patch of land that had been plowed, the preparation for expanding an organic garden to help feed the 70 or so children. A production bin was full of fat worms and their eggs. Composting vegetative waste and steer manure was in there places. From the initial plot, the first lettuce, onion and radishes had been harvested. Carrot and beet greens were hand-high above the ground. The garden's director has a quarter-century experience in teaching the methods, he comes from a farm family that lives nearby, two-hours by bus.
When the day's work at the center was done, he drove me to the home of his brother. I now live there. The brother's home is the site of a Guarani-language radio station and community school. The extended family system runs an all-Guarani language TV channel, it and the studio donated by a local cable TV business. The family knows of no other all-Guarani TV channel in the country.
The training center staff have expressed interest in a hybrid cooker that combines traditional wood-fire and solar energy designs. There was not any progress on the project while I was away because there was not any money to buy materials; and previous efforts to raise the modest funds had not been successful. No suggestion to improve the production of the TV channel has yet to be adopted. Even so, the pleasure expressed that I've returned is evident and whatever I do while I'm here is supported. The family here is in accord that a portion of the rent that I pay can be used to buy materials to upgrade the TV studio. And if I use some of my living allowance to buy materials, the prototype hybrid cooker will be built.
Recently there was a gathering to celebrate the program's history in this country. The volunteer that was chosen to speak said that we were here to serve “the poor and the ignorant.” Later a Paraguayan told me that those words “could have been omitted.” A Spaniard visiting for one month at the training center, from the family that runs the sponsoring non-profit agency, scolded Paraguayan staff and children for their lack of (social) “discipline.” As soon as she left, the prior routine returned and the children's behavior improved.
Trading stories, a volunteer said, “I had to change my goals. I thought I was going to be a trainer, but nobody was interested. So I decided to go back to teaching kids.” “Is the teacher taking a break while you’re working with the kids?” yours truly asked. “No she stays,” was the reply. Feigning falling out of my seat brought a laugh. Then my friend said, “She’s the only one that stays.” After a moment she added, “And she’s showing some new things to other teachers.” We laughed at the obvious. Paulo Friere would be smiling.
Once upon a time there was a disc that had 16 color slides in it. When it was put in the hard-plastic, binocular viewfinder a person could see eight “3-D” renditions of anything from dinosaurs to galaxies. It was one of many ways to get a glimpse at other worlds. Later in high school, my first movie was filmed in 8mm camera and edited by splicing.
Today, I am working with Paraguayans to put together a digital, video production enterprise. The camcorder has a viewfinder, but the LCD screen provides a superior image. Our first videos were edited by connecting two camcorders. The title pages were handwritten and recorded with the “foto” button. Later, the main office in Asuncion donated a computer that had a “motherboard” sufficient for editing. Then the search began for needed additions: hard drives, video card, memory expansion, software, etc. Here items sold as new can be used or pirated. It took a trip to the U.S. to get basic things. However, it turned out that some of the software required an internet connection to complete the activation (it either didn't work or it lost functionality over time.) The community radio station that is doing all of this lacks a connection (the world wide web has some big holes in the net.) Even so, the Paraguayans have learned basic techniques of “filming” and editing. They are producing Guarani language videos - their dream is in the making. They show their videos on the community TV channel that a local entrepreneur granted them (six months ago.). Like the radio station, it is 100% Guarani. Both are one-of-a-kind.
Video of family events is one source for production. During the recent Easter holiday (here it is a full week,) the family gathered at the patriarch's farm for a traditional celebration. About 40 persons were there. The soccer game was officiated by one of the cousins - it was held in the pasture grazed by cows, horses and sheep. Lunch is the main meal every day in Paraguay, that day it was chicken noodle soup. After dusk it was time to sing Catholic prayers in front of the shrine that was set up. The artefacts included a crucifixion statuette, a candle, and a picture of the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Old Man God in the clouds with angels.
Cesar is a father of four, his smile is ever-present and wise-cracks emerge anytime, anywhere. (I can tell from the laughter of others, as Guarani is beyond my grasp.) Cesar asked me to video the family as they sang their prayers. The problem was that he hadn't brought all of the needed stuff. When this occurred before, we had talked about how to do better the next time.
The family's been concerned that they could lose the TV channel as a result of inadequate resources. We had been working on this topic from the start. I have been invited to provide education and training about the different tasks needed to form a viable business. So far, ineffective habits persist. The team members are intelligent, capable and motivated. What is going on?
At our most recent meeting, everyone was there except the brother that lives 150 miles away in Asuncion. The family sat in a semi-circle and I was on the outside in the middle of the arc. Initially, the silence was broken only by social chit-chat. Silvina's expression was as stern as her husband Cesar's was impish. Arnulfo (Silvina's brother) does the lion's share of editing, he listened more than he spoke. Cesar's brother Ceveriano is a leader in the extended family system. (For example, the family asked his approval when a cow needed to be sold to pay for medical care for his father-in-law.) He spoke at length when the talk shifted from Spanish to Guarani. His wife, Maria, runs an education program for the children that live in the City's garbage dump. She bantered occasionally with Silvina.
When it was my turn I commented, “My role is to be your helper.” Cesar immediately replied, “No, you are the manager.” Smiling I asked, “O.K., what do you want the manager to do?” “We haven't defined ourselves,” Cesar said. The family switched from Spanish to Guarani for about 20 minutes, then Ceveriano summarized for me in Spanish: “When you're not around, we aren't in agreement that your advice is this or that.” We concluded the meeting with an agreed upon list. I assigned to myself the task of buying a notebook for the business ledger. Everyone assigned to Arnulfo the task of putting together the equipment bag. Cesar will write the program schedule and Silvina will start the expense/income ledger. (All of these tasks had been assigned before.)
Ceveriano and Maria gathered their two kids who had been playing with their cousins under the watchful eye of Silvina's sister Roseann. During the drive to take me home, Ceveriano said that one reason that ledger has yet to be done is that Cesar and Silvina are in an economic crisis, money is a touchy subject. Maria said that I had been used as a convenient excuse to avoid the issue of who controls the business; there is an intra-familial power struggle going on. Accountability would drastically change the rules of the game. The stakes are high when a family of six cannot make ends meet. The development challenge remains to promote the minimum behavioural changes that are needed to attract investment capital.
Things are clearer. The improved viewfinder is encountered through trusting relationships.
The pace of life is slowed by the heat and humidity. A common relief is a quick, cold-steep tea called tereré. Drinking it is an ancient communal custom. Each time Paraguayans gather, the server is different and the passing of the guampa y bombilla is calm. A person knows that the turn to sip will come. Conversation is usually the same, each person talks as long as desired and the gathered listen. Side-talk is quiet and accepted.
In El Vertedero, the municipal garbage dump, at a shaded area by the side of the road, women and children gathered to talk with a Paraguayan organizer. Tereré went around. The dress of la indigena was multi-colored, the infant in her arms was wrapped in cotton to protect her from wind-blown dust. Her toddler was wide-eyed, bare-foot, grime-covered. La presidenta de la comisión de mujeres wore a bright green, new smock over her clothes that were thoroughly soiled by a day's work mining the garbage. The teenager with her infant looked no more than fourteen years old. In all, there were eight women and a dozen children. Their conversation was not orderly as is common. The wise-cracking and laughter flowed in all directions, punctuated by occasions of eriousness when decisions needed to be made.
The meeting adjourned and about half of the women walked to a group of homes in a grove of small trees. Stench from the mud, garbage and hog manure assaulted the senses and flies attacked the skin. (The homes constructed from recycled things withstand the recurring torrential rains. Men and women came in from work under the hot sun to convene a meeting with Spaniards from a charitable development project (Crecer Con Futuro.) The meeting proceeded as a broad range of topics were discussed (mainly in Guarani - when necessary, the language shifted for the foreigners.) El presidente de la comisión del vertedero requested that the project coordinator (from Spain) schedule another meeting with the mayor because it has been over one-and-a-half years since the census was submitted. Citizen identification cards have not been issued to the people living and working in the city's garbage.
The residents in the garbage dump use scavenged wood for cooking fuel. In town, bottled gas is most commonly used along with wood. Some families have small electric appliances. The expense of cooking fuel is a major portion of every family's cost-of-living. In 2006, the national government declined an offer from Bolivia, it was willing to sell to Paraguay bottle gas at a discount. The hydroelectric dam at Iguazu and the dam under construction at Yacyreta are burdened by debt. (Iguazu did not result sustained development of infrastructure or other improvements. “CNN” broadcasted an estimate that South American debt to the World Bank has been paid three times over the principal loaned, payments continue.) Families get by as best as they can.
After the day at the dump, I entered my living quarters. Things were hot to the touch. Thoughts returned to the solar oven project that began eight months ago. The plan is to form a Paraguayan small business that produces a product that is easy to build and use, cooks efficiently, is inexpensive, is durable and is easy to repair.
The Paraguayan response consistently has been “How long does it take?” Their faces reveal a polite, disinterested smile when the good news is given: “Dinner will be ready by sunset.” After a month of this kind of interaction, a neighbour laughed warmly when I asked if what is needed is almuerzo (the mid-day, main meal.) No one would tell me directly. Culture affects design.
The Winter Solstice Season visits with family and friends in San Diego brought home to me sensations and thoughts that seemed almost dreamlike in real time. Back in Paraguay for almost two weeks, a can opener emerged repeatedly as a reflective emblem.
A person blessed with a resilient, robust body unlike mine might not be so concerned with diet. A benefit of the body that I have is the motivation to prepare meals that are nutritious and pleasurable, if only to maintain health. Towards this end began a search for a can opener so that sardines and tuna could be part of my diet.
Ten months in a foreign culture with a maximum language competency that ranges from 1st grade through 9th has included a balance of help-seeking versus independent-learning. There has been occasional self-esteem strain, especially given my substantial English abilities. Soon upon my initial arrival in my barrio, it became a matter of pride to solve the little riddle: “Where is there a can opener for sale?”
The open market of “Zona Baja” is jam-packed with a hodgepodge of stores that sell to Argentinean tourists and locals. Everything from herbal remedies to electronics is available in a buyer beware, floating-price environment. The sidewalks extend the display area of every shop and the streets are often a semi-free-for-all mixture of buses, taxis, push-carts, horse-drawn carts, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians. My route to the street-children’s lunch program takes me through this commercial district that’s being slowly dismantled as part of a World Bank redevelopment project. The first can opener was bought from a side-walk vendor. Sometimes it could be forced to break through and tuna juice would spritz out. My pocket knife worked better. The second one was purchased at a “Zona Alta” supermarket. It worked only a little better. Canned goods are on the shelf. I had yet to see a Paraguayan use one. I yearned for a can opener from home as I thought: “What don’t I know?”
Rather than culture shock, back home was a culture-breather. It was fun to get in Mom’s car and zip around. The freeways and paved roads, the well-stocked stores regulated by consumer rights laws, and the ability to communicate with ease culminated in thoughts such as: “No wonder this country wants to maintain its position in the world.” Back in the Third World as a volunteer that doesn’t drive and knows only superficially the lay of the land, imagine the pleasure as the first-rate can opener from home opened the can like it had a zipper.
The children’s song that ends in the refrain “life is but a dream” is haiku poetry. Everything humans produce can be symbolic with deepening layers of meaning: conduct, discourse, art, etc. Life in a foreign land includes a web of unstated meaning that is unknown to the visitor. Getting inside a very different culture requires curiosity about the unknown and not obvious. It is a challenge to go “gently down the stream” within a two-year timeframe provided by the volunteer program. And yet, forcefulness makes a mess.
Recently, there was a gathering of volunteers. I was on the team of facilitators. Stories were shared with the common theme of a roadblock to getting things done. Each story placed Paraguayan conduct as a barrier, such as lack of attendance at a scheduled meeting or socializing during planned work-time. Unlike the can opener riddle, the topic seemed perfect for consultation with Paraguayans upon my return to the barrio. Some of their responses:
- Physician: “If we like it, we’ll use it. If not, we might do it while you’re around, but when you leave we’ll go back to what we like.”
- Nurse: “These are My People. When you leave, we remain. When the benefit isn’t obvious, we aren’t going to do it.”
- Art Teacher: “The traditions are very old. New things are not necessarily better.”
- Guarani Teacher: “You live to work, we work to live.”
- Development Coordinator: “Our history hasn’t prepared us for Yankee methods, and the structure of our lives doesn’t permit us to use them – even when it’s necessary.”
The volunteers’ stories implied that Paraguayans need to change so that volunteers can help do good things. The professionals’ responses reminded me of an ongoing self-reflection: “How can I change my behavior?”