Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen."
-- Henry Miller

Saturday, April 11, 2009

In Memory

Easter often coincides with the anniversary of my mother's death - April 11, 1997. I was in graduate school in George Washington University in Washington DC just finishing my comprehensive exams. My mother had been struggling with ovarian cancer for about 2 years and had taken a turn for the worse but my father had hidden it from me so I could focus on school. All I remember from that frantic flight home to see her before she died was how beautiful the weather was. April 11 often coincides with the most beautiful part of the South Carolina spring at my childhood home in Sumter. The azaleas are a riot of coral, purple, hot pink, and red with some white blossoms tucked in for contrast. The tulips that I bought long ago in Amsterdam are bobbing in the breeze and the dogwood trees and wisteria are in an ecstasy of bloom. Even my father's prized lilac bushes that were specifically bred to survive the hot Southern summer produce fragrant purple flowers.

Last year I was in South Carolina nursing my father back to health after he had surgery for a broken arm. We spent the day quietly at the hospital, reflecting on how much we missed her but not talking too much. We're not a family that talks about our emotions freely. I took photos of the garden in Sumter realizing somehow that I wouldn't spend another Easter there.

This year, I had hoped to go to England to visit my mother and grandmother's grave. My mother was cremated and my father had half of her ashes placed in the grave of her mother and half kept in a marble box in South Carolina for the inevitable time when he would die and they would be comingled. We traveled to Stratton Saint Margaret, the village where my mother grew up in Wiltshire (now a part of Greater Swindon) and had a small ceremony there for her with her family who were unable to come to the funeral in South Carolina. 1998 was the last time I saw my Uncle Roy, my Aunt Pearl, and my cousins Francis and Rob.

I just couldn't get it together. I returned home from Colombia on April 8 and had to try to get the ticket and everything sorted by the 10th and my jet lag, unorganized finances, and the complex Dutch and UK train systems on line defeated me. So I stayed home this weekend. It was lovely in Amsterdam today. The weather was warm and balmy. The tree leaves are starting to bloom. The daffodils are out. My friend Naomi gave me a bouquet of daffodils (the favorite flowers of both my mother and I) which I placed in my favorite blue pitcher that my mother and father brought back from a vacation in Italy before Alyson and I were born. I went to the butcher shop and bought a lamb shoulder and to the market where I bought some peas and some mint. I have rosemary growing on my balcony.

I'll honor my mother's memory by cooking today. She taught me how to cook when I was about 10 years old. She was a great cook even though she didn't enjoy it like my father and I do. In previous years, I've always tried to cook something special on the anniversary of her death so as to be bonded in memory of all those Christmases and Thanksgivings and Easters cooking in our kitchen in Sumter with my mother (and then my father). Although I am not in her kitchen today, the skills that she taught me (it's all in the timing! hunger is the best sauce!) will stay with me. I'll always be with her when I cook.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Guerrilla disease

I haven’t worked in Latin America (proper) since 1997 when I worked with Witness for Peace and NCOORD looking at issues in Nicaragua and Guatemala and this trip to Colombia marks my return to the context. In 1999 I lived in Guatemala for a little while mostly to study Spanish (and drink beer, and dance meringue, and go to movies with my friend Jamie). I always wanted to return to work here but there are so many capable locals who can do the work that they don’t really need many folks from the US to come down. On top of that, the US has played such an active role in many of the conflicts (overthrowing the Chilean government, supporting the Argentine dictators, overthrowing the Guatemalan socialist leader, Arbenz on behalf of the United Fruit Company, waging war in Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and our continuous attempts to over throw Castro in Cuba) that American do-gooders aren’t that welcome. In particular, Colombia has “suffered” from particular attention by the US government. Our insatiable appetite for cocaine has made the route from the coca fields from Coca right up the Central American peninsula quite dangerous. There’s money to be made there and the overlap between political battles between the government of Colombia waging a war against terror against left wing guerrillas with the aid of “paramilitary” groups combined with the money to be made in a land grab to run cocaine, grow bananas, pineapples, avocados, coffee, and tobacco has made life hard for the peasants (indigenous people, people of African descent, and mixed “mestiza” population) who work the land and try to scratch out a living. The US government spends a lot of money arming the government of Colombia to “fight narco-traffickers and terrorists” with little to show for the 1.7 million USD dollars per day that the US Government gives to the army but the longest running civil war in the world and the most internally displaced people in the world (an IDP is a “refugee” who has not crossed an internationally recognized border).

In fact the US influence here is so strong that I’m supposed to pretend I am Dutch or any other nationality besides American. I’m an attractive target for political guerrillas to trade with the Colombia government and I can put the teams here in danger because the patients will fear that I’m a spy from the government and the paramilitaries. While my experience in Lebanon with Hezbollah taught me that its better not to lie as they usually know already what nationality you are, I’ve resolved to say “I live in Amsterdam, the Netheralnds” and “I flew here from Holland” – all of which is true. It’s hard though because my Spanish isn’t great nd we’re not supposed to speak English in front of strangers including in bars or restaurants or in the clinic in front of patients. I mostly stand around listening eagerly and hoping to catch a few words. My dormant Spanish has made a creaky comeback and I can chat to an extent as long as the other person doesn’t speak too quickly. My vocabulary is good by my grammar sucks. I mostly limit myself to banal observations about how hot it is or how delicous the frijoles I'm eating are.

After 10 years of focusing primarily on Africa with some focus on Haiti, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – I’ve finally made it back to South America. I’m learning a lot here. Many of the issues that plague the people of Latin America also plague the people of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the poor in North America… in particular, the disease of the poor are the ones that have the most restrictions on how you can treat them. One that I found particularly interesting is Leishmaniasis also known as Kala Azar. It appears to be a larvae from a but that when you are bit, injects parasites into your blood and you have wounds that won’t heal on your legs and arms and you can get parasites in your spleen, liver, and bone marrow. The bugs that carry this disease in Colombia live in rotted wood. In Colombia, we mostly treat women and children with this disease because they are the ones who are gathering wood or water and going out into the jungle the most. However, in many of the mountainous areas of Colombia, there are also a high number of Leishmaniasis cases.

The disease is very stigmatized and known as the Guerrilla disease. Therefore the government requires mandatory reporting of anyone who has this disease (violating their right to privacy) and strictly controls access to the medicine used to treat it. As we see mostly women and children, we are trying to lobby the government to drop this stigmatizing treatment of these patients and let us treat them so they can go on with their lives. While I have seen access to healthcare controlled for certain ethnic populations (poorly staffed and run health clinics for the Acholi in Uganda or the Ogadenis in Ethiopia), this is one of the first times I’ve encountered a disease linked to political issues.

The Lipstick Jungle

On my first day in Bogota (a Sunday), I sat watching television with the head of mission here. Every other commercial was for a fat burning pill or a special halter that lifted your breasts up high so you could have better cleavage. It made some of the back braces I’ve seen seem comfortable. My traveling companion is Colombian and we had a discussion about the different standards that Colombian people have about their physical appearance versus the European and Norte Americanos who come down here. Colombian women favor close fitting stretchy clothes (really, no matter what their body shape is) and wear skinny spaghetti strap tops and skin tight leggings. They always seem to have long painted nails, immaculately done hair and makeup. It’s quite different here than the normal humanitarian crisis where the fashion du jour is baggy linen pants, tee shirts with the company logo, bandanas, hiking boots or tevas, and shapeless faded clothes. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if I’m at a Grateful Dead show or a humanitarian emergency.

She was outraged by the expatriates that seem to see it as a political statement to never bathe, to wear clothes filled with holes, and wild unkempt hair and beards. “It’s disrespectful to the people who make an effort to look clean and tidy no matter what their status.” I agree with her. I’ve heard (mostly men) make proud comments at meetings about how they won’t wear a suit or be dictated to by others. “We don’t wear suits! We come in looking like we have come straight from the field!” they tell me as they sit on tables rather than chairs and stomp around headquarter in downtown sophisticated Amsterdam in hiking boots, pants that zip off to turn into shorts, with crazed looking hair and beards.

The expats in Colombia still wear the “uniform” of faded tee shirt, linen pants, and sandals but the national staff here normally prefer to wear tight jeans, sexy tops, and the shapeless open logo’d vest over the top that can be quickly shed at closing time. The hair is immaculate and the make up is on. I think its starting to rub off at least on the female staff. I found this quote in a report from head quarters to the field.

“Colombia is a favourable country for different kind of (plastic) surgeries. For ex-pats this has shown to be attractive. However, as every surgery has its risk, it is recommended to undergo any elective surgery after the mission and not during holidays. “

Already I feel super frumpy in my baggy linens and tee shirt. I have taken care to wash my hear and apply product and makeup each morning but still the national staff seem to regard me with a sad and patronizing look for my inability to look like I’m on my way to a disco in 100 degree weather with 100% humidity in the middle of the jungle. My preference for organic fabrics and loose fitting clothes is at odds with the polyesther stretch outfits and short shorts here. At least I’m wearing lipstick and mascara!