Friday, July 28, 2006

OK seriously, women's development

Gender and women’s development in Honduras is a big issue. It would be pretty noticeable for me even if all the NGOs weren’t talking about it, because the gender roles are so much more defined than what I’m used to. Coming directly from the states I would have thought of this as innately bad, because that is what has become mainstream knowledge for us. However, in certain ways, especially in the rural areas, you can see how the system makes sense to them. Women cook and clean and raise kids because almost all of the paying work available is very physical work. More do home-oriented small businesses such as bake or run a pulpería (mom and pop store), but these are usually just part-time. At least somebody in the family is sure to dedicate themselves to child-raising, as opposed to in the United States, where this job is in many cases usurped by TV and video games, extremely poor substitutes for the presence of a real parent. It certainly shows in their family unity.

To be honest we could use some of this ethic in the states, where the women's movement has blown by its objective and passed into the realm of Victim of Commercial Culture. It seems to me we failed to create an environment where women feel free to determine their own destiny and now, instead of being told they have to marry and have children to be successful in life, they are told they have to work as many hours as a man and make lots of money and buy lots of things.... to be successful in life. I don't know how qualified I am to say this, being a man and all, but it seems to me that if what a woman wants to do is raise children, that should be cool too. SOMEBODY has to do it. I'd certainly pitch in as a husband or even stay at home if I had a professional wife who loved her job too much to leave it, but at the moment we are definitely putting families on the back burner. Sorry for the tangent, but I had to say it (ask Maya, she knows).

Back to Honduras: so although I wouldn't hesitate a moment in saying they often have more family togetherness than we do in the states, the situation for women certainly isn't all roses. First of all, the problem, in my opinion, isn't that they are staying at home and raising children or doing family businesses or cooking or cleaning or whatever. On the contrary, many women are apparently happy in their roles because they feel useful and needed (no illusion for sure, the women do ALL the heavy lifting in this society). They don't have washing machines and ovens and tv dinners and vacuum cleaners and TV to keep the kids busy, so they have a full job all day long. They also take a lot of pride in their work, and the times I have tried to help out in ¨women's business¨ such as cooking or cleaning when there was already someone else doing it have mainly resulted in embarassment for both parties involved.

The problem, then, is not that women do all these jobs and not really much of anything else, but that they don't really have any say in the matter. The patriarchal fathers are expected to ¨keep control¨of their house and their woman (even though they contribute essentially nothing to it besides money) and they often do so in a way that isn't respectful to the voice of the women. There are no statistics available I'm sure that could be remotely accurate with regards to domestic violence. The machismo culture demands of a man that he rule with force, because a REAL man doesn't ask questions, he gives orders. A man saying thanks to his wife for bringing him coffee? Not likely.

Ironically, there also exists an active pressure for men to cheat on their wives. It's not like they don't know it's bad, but it is certainly one of the best ways for a guy to prove his manliness to his male buddies. Someone who has various women is often looked upon with respect, if not awe. When you consider the way women are looked upon who dare to cheat (or even, sometimes, to have more than one boyfriend in their life), this blatant double standard becomes immediately obvious.

I've thought a lot about what I could possibly do with regards to women's development, but as a male, it is really really hard. I didn't notice this as much until a couple months ago, when Nicole, one of the previous volunteers in El Despoblado, came to visit her old friends from the area, a group of women that I have talked to a fair amount (the son of one of them is a fairly good friend of mine). The easy trust and friendship that she had with these women blew me away. It made me realize more clearly how reserved and even tense the older women are when talking or working with me. With women my age, it's hard to keep track of the work through all the flirting. I have tried to work through this with basically no success. It's interesting, because female volunteers often complain about the difficulties they have of working with men who aren't really disposed to take their ideas seriously. Whereas they miss out on one half of the society's activities, I miss out on the other half, and I'm not entirely convinced I have the better deal, even though being a guy helps a lot for working with the male-heavy community organizations. The women are just AWESOME. I look at the 50 year old Honduran doñas who have raised 8 children and held their house together for more than thirty years and still go about their daily lives with a cheerfulness and lack of complaint that absolutely puts the men to shame, and I am awed.

So to reiterate the question, what can I do? At this point I am trying to be patient with the women I know in the community and hold on to my conviction that often times, simply being a good person and setting a good example can have surprisingly large effects in this world. This, along with eventually being a good parent, is what I consider the surest investment of my time to improve the world. Everything else is more unsure. This attitude also helps me to not get too uptight about my work when things aren't going well, because I know that the value of my friendships with the people in my community is not something to be dismissed lightly, at the very least for myself.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The secrets of J.J.

Well, it really has been an exceedingly long time since my last blog update. I've made three tries at it and been thwarted every time by computer problems. The most recent attempt, I took mom's advice and started typing my post up in Word beforehand so I couldn't lose it with an Internet Explorer problem, and then the power went out. I might as well just type up the posts online since if I remember to use blogger's save feature, they at least get saved on a remote computer that won't lose them.

Since I have so much catching up to do, I am going to keep this post mostly to news and try to do more musings and stuff in my next one. That way I will at least be sure to get the basic stuff out.

June started out stormy and then turned just plain rainy, with some weather that kind of reminded me of last september.... gray and drizzly all day long. Pretty soon my house was all humid and the doors and windows had expanded again, making them a pain in the butt to open and close. I spent a lot of time in June working on Maestro en Casa related stuff, because we had the ¨recuperaciones¨, which are make-up exams for people who have failed a class to try and pass an exam that counts for all the marbles. I had two students who failed math, and the majority of my English class failed, so I had lots of work grading papers, preparing more exams, and scheduling some extra study sessions for the people who wanted to brush up some more before taking the recuperation.

I should mention here that this exam is usually when the teacher removes all the difficult questions and hands the kid their passing grade on a silver platter, which must be why my math students didn't know a damn thing they should have about math, and my english class was full of students I could swear failed last year. I've probably mentioned before that the flagrant apathy for academic standards pisses me off, so I explicitly told both classes that the makeup exam would be every bit as hard as the first one, but with the same format and the questions changed. Both my math students failed again (they got worse grades the second time, as far as I can tell they didn't study) and only like 6 of the 30 english students taking the recuperation passed. They will get another chance in November, but I figure probably only the most motivated will pass that time since they will have had so much time to get rusty. Sometimes I feel bad about the results of English, but mostly I don't because almost none of the people who failed turned in all their homework or came to every day of class. The people who did that passed. Coincidence? I doubt it.

So we passed through that stuff and have almost gone all the way through Spanish as well. It was interesting for me to teach this class because of how much easier it is to teach than English. I have had at least 8 classes of Spanish grammar, that I can remember, and maybe 2 of English, so ironically I am better-equipped to teach my second language.

I deviated from the book a little bit, cutting out some of the grammar stuff that is just a big fat waste of time (learning the different types of determinants, grades of adjectives, etc) and adding in some writing practice. I think this has gone very well, and while the writing abilities of most of my students are still apalling, they seem to have made noticeable improvement. This is pretty cool considering the short time we've been working on it, and the fact that being able to write coherently might be the most important thing I can teach them.

More recently, we had another round of beekeeping workshops, this time with the theme centering around how to raise good queens and keep the colony from being polluted by ¨bad¨ genes; bees that don't work hard or keep the hive clean, or bees that are too agressive, etc. In some cases people WANT really mean bees, because theft is such a problem, but that's another story. This workshop was just as fascinating as the first, and I'm looking foward to the next (and final) one. Tomorrow I'm going to a meeting related to this project, and we'll see what the actual logistsics are with the beehives they are supposedly going to give away. Apparently it is Heifer International behind this, doing one of their ¨pase de cadena¨ projects (I don't even know how to translate this well into English... ¨chain passing¨?). AHPROCAFE, an organization that really does tons for coffee cooperatives in Honduras, is managing the project and funds/materials it seems, which must be why it's a bunch of coffee producers participating. I guess eventually they are going to hand out some hives, and the compromise of the person taking the hive is to give away the first queen they produce and teach the person they give it to how to beekeep. I wonder how well this theory is going to really work, considering how complicated and scientific beekeeping is. It would take a damn long time to teach someone about it.

Heifer does this kind of project with cows too, stipulating that when they give someone a cow their compromise is to give its first born offspring to another person. It's a nice idea, but in the functional reality, it really isn't that much different than giving people money in my opinion. When anything goes wrong, as things inevitably do, people start to lose interest, the chain gets broken, they sell their cow for a cool 7,000 lempiras or so, and the local Hondurans who are supposed to be monitoring the project turn a blind eye. Of course they're not going to tell on their neighbors; what does Heifer expect?

So it will be interesting to see how the project plays out in the long term (for me personally, it's a pretty small blip on my radar) but at the very least these workshops are really interesting.

After that, me and the good people of COCAGUAL busied ourselves with a new little thing that came up: a workshop on organic coffee farming right in our home of Agua Fría! I guess it was a little more than a month ago, somebody from AHPROCAFE called up Juanita and asked if we would be able to get everything ready to host the event, which would have experts from Costa Rica running it and attendees from organic cooperatives all over Honduras. Isaí initially thought at first that the area didn't have the infrasture or the advancement necessary in organic practices to pull it off, but I said it seemed like a good idea and Juanita was practically chomping at the bit to do it.

So the cooperative said yes, and we began to organize the nuts-and-bolts type particulars: housing for 30-35 people coming for a week, food, materials, places to work, fincas to go to, and buying all the special materials we would need. We were tighest on lodging, so actually I ended up volunteering my house with my two foam mattresses for a couple people, figuring to just sleep in my hammock. For the cooperative, this was really a big event. Other cooperatives coming from all over to see our area, and two very famous experts from Costa Rica, one of which is sort of world-known I believe (or at least very locally famous in central america): one J.J. Paniaguas. The Js stand for Juan José as I recall, but as that's spanish people call him ¨hoeta hoeta¨ or just ¨hoeta¨. Isaí told me about this guy in reverential tones when we first learned about the workshop, saying ¨since he's coming all the way to visit us like this, then he must have to give us all his secrets.¨ He said it without a trace of irony, but I asked him,

¨His secrets?¨

¨Yes. The secrets of J.J.¨

It was like dialogue from a kung fu movie or something. I figured the guy must be some kind of scientist, but Isaí talked about him like a sort of revered guru. In a way, it turned out he was more correct.

The workshop started last week on Tuesday, and went until Friday. One of the experts present was a real coffee farmer, whereas J.J. farms vegetables, but is famous for the breakthroughs he has made adapting Japanese techniques to Latin America, and the incredible success he has had. He is actually not a scientist or even a person with a high level of formal education, but an extremely driven self-educated guy who, like many organic enthusiasts in the states, preaches it not only as a simple farming method but as a way of life. The first day, we sat through a few basic presentations by the coffee expert (really nice guy, too) and then J.J. came up and floored everyone, pouring out all his ideas in a speech that would make the most highly-paid motivational speaker from the states jealous. In a sense, it reminded me of that, too.... somehow, he had a way to relate all of the world's evils to a lack of organic farming, and likewise present organic farming as the cure to all these evils. Of course, he also had a very strongly religious and family-centered message, which if you cut out the Christian propagand I was pretty strongly in agreement with. I've never had much faith in trying to make people be better people, but I reckon that's not really my calling, and most people aren't as skeptical as me in that regard. The Hondurans responded very positively, and with that good start, the rest of the workshop was practically smooth sailing. I learned a lot, everyone else learned a lot, and we hardly had any technical difficulties.

There were some problems the night of the little going-away event because some wise guy hired a band (¨Los Pérez, the same guys that played at the May 3 thingy) to see off the group, and of course a bunch of locals showed up to raise a general commotion and look for free booze, having a completely erroneous idea of what was going on. I left early because I had to teach Spanish the next morning and didn't get to see the eventual confrontations, but I guess nobody got killed or even machete-wounded. Overall the event was a tremendous success for the cooperative. I can't even claim to have played a major role, since it was mostly Isaí and Juanita that worked on the organizational stuff, but I helped out where I could and enjoyed myself in the workshop. I guess there will be a follow-up in November, also in Agua Fría, and it should be good times.

I had an uncharacteristically large amount of free time this week and tried to start working on a little personal project I have been planning, to go to the different fincas of members of the cooperative and help them plan out how they want to improve them and how they are going to manage their money to make those things happen (easily the biggest obstacle to the small farmers getting things done around here... nobody has a clue how to manage money). I've done some preliminary trips to learn about fincas, and next week and I'm going to work more on it, hopefully spending a couple of days analyzing finances also with people.

Our tree nursery project proposal apparently passed, or it is ¨at 100%¨ at any rate. We still can't tell for sure I guess. The news has been so drawn out and come in such bits and pieces we never really had one moment to feel elated about it. I guess maybe that will happen when we figure out when/if we can actually start working on the darn project, or if it's just a red herring. News could come from the bank any day!!! yeah.....

That about wraps it up for the happenings since June. I love all of you, and I'm sorry Sam that I didn't get the chance to call. I got stuck in my site working on stuff, as seems to happen to me. I wonder if we'll get to talk before you get out of Australia? You got a land line? Hope things are going great over there! We Hensolds are just heading south, fast aren't we. :P