Monday, March 30, 2009

Small World: Colombia, South America


I am currently near the border with Panama and Colombia which requires flying from Medellin into Apartado – a true “banana republic” that is a flat hot area completely covered in banana plantations. From the air it is a very strange site – completely covered in the tall banana plants with the fruit covered in blue bags to protect it from insects. After a day of meetings with the team here, we headed out to Rio Sucio – a project with the Afro Colombian population. This required a 45-minute drive up the highway passing ranchers on horseback and military checkpoints to a town called Turbo. Turbo has a thriving fishing industry and we drove up to the riverside that was strangely reminiscent of Ghana – African men selling and haggling over fish with small boats made out of hollowed logs and big old tramp steamers cruising in while women cook fried fish and serve fruit juices to everyone. The organization's boat is high powered and seats about 12 in bench seats and we all wear our logo branded life jackets and climbed in under the flag and headed out. We crossed the Gulf of Uraba past a Colombian navy ship looming large and gray out of the middle of the brackish water and turned into the river. It was a three-hour boat ride down the long river past small communities to Rio Sucio where we run a medical clinic. At one point we passed two Afro-Colombian men carrying three horses in their canoe as they headed across the river to the big city.

Rio Sucio is a city that is at crucial geographic area in Colombia – near the proposed Pan-American Highway and on the main rivers that narco traffickers use to move “product” up to the Americas. The Government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas also fight for control of this area and people are repeatedly forced off their lands. Small “Peace Communities” of collectively-owned land have been established here but there are few government services and the presence of narco traffickers, Para militaries who regularly threaten society’s “unwanted”, the guerrilla and the army means that people are often forced to flee their land and few government workers are willing to move to these areas. Rio Sucio is a small town right on the river that is regularly flooded every winter. It reminded me of both Haiti and West Africa. The population is mostly Afro Colombian and the loud reggaeton music blaring out of the discos in the “Zona Rosa” made it feel like the Caribbean. I was there to advice the clinic on how to improve their services that they offer to women who have been raped and beaten (a pretty common phenomenon if the nuns who came to our clinics are to be believed.)

The living conditions in the house were not too bad. The ground floor is the clinic with two modern toilets and showers for the eight or so staff that live there. The upper floor has a porch that overlooks the river (and the little toilet houses that other houses have built right out on the river) five bedrooms and a big communal kitchen with a small gallery porch overlooking the town’s main street. One of the boat drivers cooked us coconut rice and red beans with pork that were divine! Just down the street was a small market that sold beer and coca cola and there was a small TV down in the clinic. It was hot but there was electricity and fans – a big improvement over many of the places I’ve stayed in Africa.

Next door to the clinic was a small NGO that supported community health promoters. I was very interested in them because when I worked for Witness for Peace in graduate school, I learned about a book called “Where there are no doctors” which promoted the grassroots type theory that communities should not wait for the state or international organizations to come to provide healthcare for them but instead should take care of it themselves by training community members to provide basic healthcare. The organization that I work for had just signed a contract with this group to extend their services. I had always been very impressed and inspired by the “Where there is no doctor” model (I’ve got all the books in the series and have used parts of “where there is no doctor for women” for myself). In 1997 after my mother died, I spent about three months working for a group called the National Coordinating Office for Refugees and Displaced People of Guatemala (NCOORD) keeping their office running until their new executive director came to town. The previous director, a man named Curt W., was a super nice guy who discussed with me the ideology of the Christian Left, taught me about the concept of “solidarity” and “accompaniment” that characterized the Christian Left ‘s resistance to the Ronald Reagan sponsored Contra Wars in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

He was a kind and funny man and we talked for hours about where to go in life. At the time, right before my mother died, I was planning on joining Witness for Peace in Guatemala to work with maquiladoras (female sweatshop workers). He had decided that this sort of human rights work was good but he wanted to contribute more so he went back to school to become a physician’s assistant so he could actually deliver healthcare to the population. He was off to Quintana Roo in Mexico to start implementing the “Where there is no Doctor” approach. I was very inspired by him and a bit frustrated with the economic advocacy that Witness for Peace was doing. I ended up taking a job with Family Health International on the Women’s Studies Project where I worked on clandestine contraceptive use in Mali, the impact of being infertile in Egypt, and domestic violence in Bolivia. While I didn’t like the USAID funded approach of Family Health International, I never forgot Curt and the work he was doing and eventually when my contract ended I went to Guatemala to study Spanish. I hooked up with a small NGO providing healthcare there and met a woman who was also studying Spanish. We spent long hours arguing about approaches. (She eventually ended up in Liberia working for CRS and I saw her five years later there!) Although I ended up working in a USAID funded health organization for four more years after Guatemala, I was always inspired by the work of NCOORD, Witness for Peace, and other Latin American Ngos that practiced real proximity with the people – living amongst them in a humble manner and helping them meet their own needs.

I eventually joined MSF looking for a type of experience as promised by MSF’s credo of temoignage and commitment to speaking out about injustice suffered by their patients.

Fast Forward back to Colombia. After two days of meetings with the team and walking around the town, I met the famous Dr. Alan who ran the NGO. He looked familiar to me – a smiling red haired man with a beard. We said hello in the street and I said to the German doctor I was walking with, “he looks familiar. I bet I’ve met him before.“ The next morning early at 6am, we got up and loaded up the boat to return to Apartado. Dr. Alan was coming along for the ride. I introduced myself to him. We started talking and he told me that he knew Witness for Peace and had been on their board of directors. We started talking about people that we knew in common and eventually it came up that he had worked at NCOORD. I asked him if he was in the DC office and he said no, he was normally in Chicago. I said I had worked there in the DC office for a few months and knew a man named Curt there. He looked at me funny. “Curt W.?” I said – yes I think that was his name. He started laughing, “I’m Curt W.! I go by Alan here in Colombia because it’s easier for everyone to pronounce!” It turns out he’s been living in Rio Sucio for six years working as a coordinator for the health promoters program. He left about four months ago to return to the US to write the new “Where there is No Doctor” with his wife and child. He had just returned for his first trip back to Rio Sucio. We talked for three hours catching up on our lives and talking. I never thought I would run into him again but I got the chance to tell him how much he had inspired me and put my life on a different course.

What a small world.

Monday, March 02, 2009

My eulogy to my father

We gave my father full military honors yesterday for his 23 years in the US Air Force with Taps, a flag, and a 21 gun salute. Here is the eulogy that I wrote and read at my father's funeral yesterday followed by the poem posted before, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland, his favorite singer and then remembrances from friends. We closed it with the theme song to Zorba the Greek which summed up to Alyson and I his joie de vivre and love for that sunsplashed country and its music, food, and people.

The Eulogy
When my father was ill last year, I came home from overseas to help Alyson take care of him as he recuperated. We spent a lot of time together and one day he told me how much he hated growing old – that it was not for sissies. We reflected on how some of his woes were caused by his lifestyle – good food, good drink, and living life to its fullest. “Would you do it differently, if you knew?” I asked him. “No,” he said firmly. “To thine own self be true.” And he was – he was always true to himself.

He was born in George, Iowa, a small town near the border of Minnesota where he had what seemed to be an idyllic childhood. He told us his stories of his grandmothers hollyhocks and four o’clocks, rhubarb pie, hanging out with his friends at the swimming hole, helping out his grandfather Pa at the bar that they owned and running home from outraged teachers to be protected from spankings by Ma. But he lived through the depression (and we were always reminded of this when he would advise us not to spend all our money on frivolous things and that a sandwich with one piece of cheese was PERFECTLY ADEQUATE). His father fought in World War II ending up in Papua New Guinea which I recently visited. His mother moved to Minnesota to work to support the family and he told us funny stories of selling gardenias to soldiers out on dates and being terrorized by priests at Catholic boarding school. We heard stories of his working in a hotel in New Mexico, picking apples (and being fired) in Washington State, working in a bowling alley and a bank in Los Angeles. He talked about his glamourous cousin Sue who took him to lunch at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco and cherished memories of driving through the night to come home to his cousins Catherine and the Veenker clan to drink beer, play cards, and catch up on the family gossip.

Eventually he joined the US Air Force- and traveled the world as he had traveled the US. He went to England where he developed a deep love of British culture. He was stationed in Turkey and Greece – we have the old Bouzouki records to prove it. Eventually, he ended up in England again where he met my mother, as legend has it, on his birthday. He claims he wooed her with American whiskey and cigarettes. They fell in love, married, and had adventures together all over the world – from Taiwan to Belgium to settle in Sumter, South Carolina.

Alyson and I remember South Carolina the best – Mom and Dad dancing together and family parties with other mixed British-American friends. Dad would pick us up from school when we got sick and haul our bicycles home. Parties at the house included Dad’s specialties: Brandy Crème Royal, Cherries Jubiliee, his world famous Iowa potato salad and other amazing meals. It’s a tradition to watch Jeopardy in our family and he was so proud when I made it onto the show (although he soundly beat us at a game of Trivial Pursuit the night before my audition). He sat through numerous football games, marching band contests and piano recitals but also went to New York City to see Broadway shows and enjoyed long evenings at the beach playing Steal the Pack.

I received many gifts from my father: a love for traveling the world - he gave me great advice that I foolishly ignored about the tourist traps of camel rides behind the pyramids in Egypt; a love for reading – sharing a taste in British police procedurals, fantasy novels, and “bawdy thrillers”; a love for cooking – one of my most cherished memories is making his famous spaghetti sauce one last time this past Christmas and arguing over how much celery to use; liberal politics – oh how he missed not being in Sumter when a Democrat took the White House in November so he could rub it in to his Republican friends, and a love for music and dancing – including Frank Sinatra, big band music, and Broadway musicals. His love for adventure and sense of humor made our lives fun and rich. He would come to visit me in Chapel Hill or Washington DC and even Guatemala – often staying up later than the youngsters and regularly shaming us on the dance floor. One of our favorite stories is how he charmed a Dutch girl in Guatemala away from my friend Jamie because he was such a good dancer. We had to drag him out of the disco.

He was always surrounded by women– from the ladies of Warren Court like Lynn and Sandy and the Wand girls visiting him in the hospital, to the ladies of the British Wives Club, to the nurses and physical therapists with whom he flirted during his illnesses. Even in his last hours, a nurse admired his fine head of hair – one of his biggest vanities. “Imagine that,” he said to me once “ 80 years old and still vain.”

I'd like to thank my sister Alyson who brought Dad into her home and took care of him the last six months. The last 11 months since he fell and broke his arm have been hard for all of us. When his good friend Mrs. Farris gave us a photo from his 80th birthday party the other day, Alyson and I were quite taken aback to see how he had aged in a year. He told Alyson once how shocked he was to look in the mirror and see that he had become an old man overnight. Whenever we would be worried that he was becoming a hermit, traveling only to Aldi’s and the library, we would suggest he try out the senior center. He would tell us with great outrage that he didn’t want to hang out with old people and he was CERTAINLY not going to learn small engine repair or whatever scut work they palmed off on old folks.

Alyson and I hated having his freedom curtailed and leaving his beloved house in Sumter. Moving to Columbia was difficult for all of us. However, even in his last months with us, we still enjoyed our family pleasures of watching “obscure Irish dramas”, arguing about politics, visiting with dear friends like the Arndts and Farris’ for gossip and British treats, and cooking elaborate breakfasts with both bacon AND sausage. While his death came as a shock to Alyson and I, we both feel some sort of peace in our grief, because he is reunited with our mother who he loved, and won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age any more. We can both imagine him now, dancing and laughing and enjoying all the good memories of a long life filled with love and happiness.