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.

1 comment:

  1. That encounter was definitely meant to happen, for some reason! You've been brought back together at seemingly 2 pivotal times in your life. How wonderful to have these kinds of things happen! Your time in Colombia has seemed very interesting to say the least.