Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Do We Mean, “Normal”?

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the United States was telling me how much Tegucigalpa had challenged her expectations.

“I expected there to be poverty and all the bad things you hear about,” she said, “But there's malls here and TGI Friday’s – it’s actually pretty normal!”

“Normal”, of course, was a short-hand for “familiar." But I knew, and sympathized with what she was trying to say. Realizing that Hondurans eat at TGI Friday’s, that they take their kids to karate class, watch Netflix, and snap Instagram shots of their latte art, makes Honduras feel a lot less foreign.

A few weekends ago, I went to a friend’s house and we cooked pasta with pesto and an apple pie. I went and saw a Hollywood movie (in English, with Spanish subtitles) in this mall, then I went out with friends to a tea shop and sipped lemongrass tea while we talked about books we’d recently read.

To me this felt normal, by which I mean familiar. Not all my weekends are like this, but the familiarity was comfortable and rejuvenating. And I realized this – I can create a life for myself here in Honduras that feels familiar. But there was nothing about that weekend that was normal.

I live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where half of all residents are still rural farmers, and where the GDP per capita is about $6/day. Over 60% of Hondurans live in poverty, and 60% of these poorest Hondurans will have dropped out of school by age 12.  

This isn’t just Honduras. Something like 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day. Poverty is normal. The threat of diseases like malaria, dengue, HIV-AIDS is still normal. Gender inequality, racial discrimination, violent armed conflict – these things are still all too normal.

TGI Fridays is not normal.

It’s only natural to feel more comfortable in places that look familiar, or to connect more with people who share your background, your interests, and your outlook on life. But to see these things as the norm is dangerous. When we have the idea that “normal” means “like us”, that means that those who are different are somehow “abnormal”, and, thus, that they should change.

This is sneaky rhetoric. It happens in the United States when the goal for immigrants or ethnic minorities is “assimilation,” which often secretly means, “act, talk, and think ‘normal’,” which often means, “act, talk, and think like the white, male people in power.”

Acting “normal” becomes the test for which the reward is professional advancement, integration into social groups, and the constant murmur of, “why can’t the rest of them be like you.”

But a world in which all think, speak, and act alike is no world I want to live in.

It’s easy to come to Honduras and connect with people who are like me, friends who grew up on the same U.S. media, graduated college, and enjoy travel and hiking and coffee shops. It’s harder to connect with the girl in my neighborhood who dropped out of school at 15 to have her first child, who makes what living she can selling gum and newspapers by the bus station, and who’s too tired to have many hobbies.

It’s harder, but there’s more to learn in that friendship than in people who reinforce what I already think and know. We have a problem in our world where powerful people know and interact only with other powerful people, and view those with less education, fewer connections, less experience as less interesting, less worthy of attention, less normal.

Until we know and care for people who aren’t like us, we can’t be their advocates and they can’t be ours. We can’t start the work of reconciliation across culture or class or position. We’ll keep thinking “their” underprivileged position is because they aren’t enough like “us.”

It’s not that I shouldn’t enjoy lemongrass tea with friends when I am in a position to do so. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with karate or Netflix or Instagram. But it’s important to recognize how rare and unusual these privileges are where I am – and how rich lives can be even when they don’t contain them.

This is a challenge to myself to redefine normal and stretch my boundaries of the familiar, to appreciate the wealth of differences this world hosts, and accept humbly that I’m not normal, not remotely, and that that’s okay.  

Take Care

I fell down. It doesn’t matter how, but I ended up with two skinned knees and a patch scraped off my forearm. Embarrassing. Grimacing and feeling the tingly sting I hadn’t felt since I was young enough to run on gravel.

Even cool, clean water stung at first. The angry red patches clung tightly to the bits of dirt and I had to pour and pour until the wound dripped clean. I had a raisin-purple bruise beneath.

They gave me the day off on Monday. Rest! Get better! I stared at my joints so swollen they looked like foreign things. They were like children, crying out to be bathed and cared for. When I tried to run, I shuffled. Stubborn, the knees wouldn’t bend.

They are tiny little scrapes, really, the kind children are distracted from by popsicles. But they demand my attention, my care, and I realize how unaccustomed I am to caring for myself. Someone else always had to tell me to go home when I was sniffling. I don’t like to stop.

I get pitying glances, on the bus and in line to buy band-aids. There were gasps and hands clasped against chests. Everyone told me to buy a different cream that they swore by. They were just little scratches, a moment of clumsiness, I was embarrassed by the attention. It’s nothing, I kept saying, It’s no problem, though it stung to stand.

Cuídete! They tell me here when I leave in the morning, Take care of yourself. I think of myself, as any selfish human, but that doesn’t become care, the gentle attuned-ness to needs and inclinations.

My knees woke me up in the morning, the drying scabs pricking. How disgusting. I scooped a pailful of water from the cistern and bathed them. The red was hardening and turning a brown-maroon. I sat in bed and cleaned my knees and forearm, watched the puckered pink skin begin to emerge. I’m not used to this conversation, this asking and answering with my body: What do you need? What will make you feel better? It was a moment that surprised me – the peacefulness of self-care.

What a silly and sheepish emotion, to suddenly love my knees and care very much about what happens to them. What if this love extended to the rest of me, the parts that cry out for sleep or for vegetables, for slowing down sometimes? From my knees to the rest of me, I want to take care. 

Encounters with Geckos

It is the hour of the morning where everyone starts to stir. I hear pots clattering, the hiss of oil in a hot pan, water splashing, and the girls downstairs singing along with Christian radio. I am in the shower, splashing water on my face, and before I’ve quite woken up I turn for shampoo and grab at a gecko, nearly transluscent, skittering down the shower door.

Blinking from the water and steam, it pauses, in the wrong place, waiting for me to act. I don’t scream, but my heart beats, remembering suddenly its stiff, tailless brother that I found beneath the hummus in the gas station.

I screamed then. It had been late, and unexpected, its flattened body pressed against the refrigerated shelf. The security guard had ambled over, pistol on his hip. He picked it up. He shook it a little in my face laughing at me, with me, whose heart still pounded, before he went to toss it in the bushes outside.

“Was it a cricket?” the cashier asked me – un grillo. I was buying chips and chocolates. It had been a long night.

“No,” I said, though they make similar hiccuping sounds. At night I hear the geckos clicking, and sometimes see them skittering across my ceiling, swift and fluorescent, but I couldn’t remember the word for “lizard” so I said it was a ranita con una cola, a “little frog with a tail”,  before I remembered the dark scab where its tail had been.

Geco, she said, unsurprised, “Yes, they’re always getting in where they don’t belong.”

I opened the shower door a crack and waited. It fled to the cool air outside, leaving me looking at its tiny prints on the door.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Biking Coast to Coast for Education

Orar. Soñar. Trabajar. Pray. Dream. Work.
– motto of Transformemos Honduras

Photos courtesy Transformemos Honduras and Costa a Costa:
“Six years ago, we had a crazy idea,” says Kurt Ver Beek, vice president of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ, by its Spanish initials). It’s true, the goal of a cross-country bike race to raise awareness about corruption in public education was ambitious, even a little crazy, but no less so than the idea to reform the education system in the first place. Crazy ideas – converted into system-changing realities – are the cornerstone of ASJ’s work.

ASJ, through the coalition “Transformemos Honduras” (Let’s Transform Honduras), began working in the public health sector and the public education sector in 2009. When Transformemos Honduras started working with education, there were fewer than 120 days of class per year (students met just 88 days in 2009), teachers showed up to class sporadically, or not at all, and Honduras’ test scores ranked dead last in Latin America, a place they had kept since 2000.

Transformemos Honduras got to work recording days in class and teachers in classrooms, bringing their shocking findings before the government, the media, and the Honduran public. Parents and community members became active volunteers, the Minister of Education was fired, and education in Honduras began to change. After just five years, days in class had jumped from an average of 120 to 200, teachers skipping class dropped from 26% to 1%, and test scores jumped from last place in Latin America to 10th out of 15th.

The other crazy idea, the cross-country bike ride called “Coast to Coast”, continued to grow as well. The logistics of the race are daunting: 437 kilometers, eight cities in seven days, over 150 cyclists, and 35 volunteers including police escorts, bus drivers, and coordinators of everything from lodging to snacks. But that hasn’t kept it from becoming an important advocacy tool and a beloved tradition, drawing attendees from all regions in Honduras and from countries around the world.

At each of the eight cities they pass through, the cyclists stop for an event in the city center to honor five public school students for academic excellence. The children smile shyly as mayors place medals over their heads, and even wider as prizes of bicycles and tablets are revealed. Transformemos Honduras leaders like Carlos Hernandez, ASJ’s president, speak about taking action against corruption in the education system. Parents cry; teachers and principles beam. Public officials speak about hope.

“There’s a lot more to be done,” says Carlos Hernandez, “But we also need to recognize how far we have come.”

Carlos Hernandez, president of ASJ, stands with Oscar Chicas, 
World Vision’s national director for Honduras.

Coast to Coast is a perfect demonstration of ASJ’s ability to bring people together. Private business donate money and prizes, city governments offer spaces– bikers are students and mechanics and doctors, nonprofit workers and international visitors.

In a country where bad news is the norm, the week-long race speaks to hope for a better future. Bikers cross landscapes of incredible beauty, almost as beautiful as children with big dreams and the parents, teachers, and public administrators whose passions for education are making those dreams possible. Cyclists push themselves to their limits and past them. Friendships develop across cultures as all push together towards the same goal – better education for Honduran children

From the tropical beaches of Tela to the bustling urban center of San Pedro Sula, from the breathtaking Lago Yojoa to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, cyclists celebrate the good work of Transformemos Honduras and challenge people across Honduras to join in continuing it. By the time they reached the port city of San Lorenzo in the south, where the air smells like fish and sea salt and the sun burns hot enough to leave tan lines around hats and sunglasses, everyone is exhausted, but inspired – ready to get to work.

“Sometimes as Christians, all we do is pray that things will change,” Carlos Hernandez told the audience in Siguatepeque as skinny boys leaned against BMX bikes waiting for their turn to show off their tricks. “We have to do more than that. We have to dream that things can actually be better. And then we have to work.”

And people listened, from newspaper reporters to city commissioners, from the fastest biker to the tiny second-grader who is one of the best students in her city.

“Education is not just the work of these students here, and not just of their teachers, their principals, or even their parents,” Hernandez continued. “Education is the work of every one of us here, because that is how we are going to transform Honduras.”

Award-winning students pose with the winners of that 
day's bicycle race from Tela to El Progreso, Honduras

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Morning, Teacher

I constantly have moments here where I step back and think, How did I get here?

I had one of those a few weekends ago, leading 18 children off a public bus and into a movie theater, remembering acutely the aphorism about herding cats.

The U.S. Embassy had rented out a theater playing Star Wars in 3D, and our English classroom from Nueva Suyapa had ended up on the list of invites. The Embassy is always throwing cultural events, but for my 18 kids, it was their first time in a theater, and they were going wild.

Maybe I need to back up and explain how these children became mine in the first place.

ASJ holds Youth Impact clubs in communities where children are at the highest risk of joining gangs. One of those communities is my own, and the club is just a block from my house. I stopped in one day and mentioned casually I’d love to volunteer teaching English or whatever they needed.

“Can you start Saturday?,” they asked.

They needed an English teacher for their Saturday morning classes, 8am to noon. Just a dozen or so kids (there were 25). Ages 10-15 (youngest was 8, oldest, 19). Intermediate level (mostly beginners). Of course we have curriculum (not for beginners).

I said yes.

I love teaching, though I’ve never really learned how to do it correctly. I get excited about the things I know and I want others to know them to. I taught English through college, though never to children, but I wondered how different it could be.

It’s pretty different.

“Good morning teacher,” my students chirped at me on the first day. It’s the first thing they learn in school, this little song to the tune of Frere Jacque: Good morning, Teacher, Good morning, Teacher, How are you? How are you?.

It seemed like the line of students just kept coming. They filled all the desks in the classroom until newcomers had to sit on plastic stools with their notebooks in their laps. The students ranged from sweet, dimpled Esteban who has only just turned 9 to shy, self-conscious Ingrid at 19. They range from chatty 15-year-old Edgardo who writes stories about karate masters, to 12-year-old Yosmeli who smiles through the class without understanding much of anything. Teaching them is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I sped through my carefully-arranged lesson plan in half the time the first Saturday morning, the last few minutes pulling desperately from whatever songs and games I could think of. It was too early to conjugate verbs, so we played “Simon Says” and “Fruit Basket,” sang “Father Abraham,” “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” We learned lists of animals and wrote little stories and the clock ran slowly until finally it was noon.

I took the volunteer job on a whim, but for the children, English is much more important. Honduras’ economy is so tied into that of the United States that English is almost required of many higher-level jobs. English opens up jobs in tourism, the possibility of studying abroad – worlds that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

I know how much hope these childrens’ parents have for them, how proud they are of the few sentences their children are already able to pronounce. Good morning, teacher. How are you?

I try to make English fun and practical and relevant to their lives. I try to recall the few Paolo Freire articles I read, that one class I took on Teaching Grammar to Speakers of English as a Second Language, and it’s not enough, I feel like I’m talking to the wall, to myself, as the children shift in their seats, confused and bored, until suddenly I stumble into the right thing to say and they laugh.

At the movie theater, they slipped the glasses over their eyes and wriggled in their seats as the opening sequence of Star Wars rolled. Whoever in the embassy thought it was a good idea to give everyone a free, large, sugarry pop was clearly not thinking of the chaperones.

They gasped as the story began, reached their hands out and try to touch the ships that seemed to jut out of the screen. I watched their wonder and it was wonderful.

Thank you, teacher, they said as we left, one by one, and I melted a little bit. "Teacher" is a role I didn’t expect and a role I’m still learning to fill. But this group of kids makes me want to try harder to earn it.

Confessions of an Ungenerous Person

Christ of Picacho, visible from Tegucigalpa's Central Park
Tegucigalpa’s center is muted; it shines beneath a layer of dust and candy wrappers. Walking entrepreneurs shout their wares and it’s a haze of sound, of movement, of dust and the exhaust of cars and buses.

It was too early for church that Sunday, so I bought coffee and bread spread with refried beans and sat in the park to eat it. Even on Sunday morning, Tegucigalpa’s city center bustles with people. Families dressed in their best trickle in and out of the great cathedral, women assemble tables of bracelets or hair bands to sell, groups of children wander around the ancient trees that guard the center’s corners, pointing to the great bronze statue of Francisco Morazán.

I got up again and pushed through the crowd to the quieter street that leads to my little church, unmarked and tucked behind a wall whose graffiti tells the president to “get out”. I know the way by now, past the second-hand store and the history museum. I stepped off the curb to avoid the man passed out on the sidewalk, and walked quickly past the men without legs and women without teeth who held their hands out.

Two lempiras!” one woman shouted at me as I passed her, and I shook my head as I clutched the breakfast that had cost me fifty. I always shake my head at beggars, but this time was different. I kept walking, but I felt suddenly as if I was carrying a great weight. I slunk into church like a sinner and sat in the back pew. All I could see was her hand reaching out, again and again. I had not even looked at her face.

This is my confession: I am stingy with money. Tight-fisted. Un-generous. And until I passed Christ on the street without looking at her face, until I realized how much more I spend on coffee than on others, I did not see it as a particularly troublesome thing.

In Honduran Spanish, to show that someone is tacaño, you tap your palm against your elbow. You’re stingy, it means, selfish with your money. Because of this, you can call somebody codo, or “elbow”, to the same effect. It's an insult, whereas I'm used to thinking of this stinginess as "smart."

Even churches teach this: be wise with your money. We hear this as “stocks”, the wisdom of the world. We praise thriftiness, even while we admire extravagance. Though we use our money foolishly, we don't trust others to use it any better than ourselves. In our thrift or our codo, that becomes an excuse not to give -- They would only waste it. 

Giving well is difficult. I studied nonprofits in college, and quickly learned that none are perfect. There seemed always to be a better, more effective, more efficient option. I heard speeches, I wrote papers, I volunteered time, but my money stayed in my pockets and my bank accounts for my own needs and the things I convinced myself I needed.

In 2013, I visited Compassion and World Vision child-sponsorship projects. Linking donors with a sponsored child is a massively expensive endeavor, and I left the project thinking that though the work was worthwhile, I wouldn’t personally sponsor a child. Better to give to the programs directly, of course, but I never did, and the children’s sponsors checks continued to come.

(Is it better to give wastefully than not at all?)

Giving is complicated. I say no when children ask for money because as long as they are profitable they will be kept in the streets, out of school. I say no when adults ask for money, I don’t know why – maybe I decided it was too hard to decide case by case, it was easier to say no always. I didn’t want to give badly, I told myself, but no, the truth was that I didn’t want to give – even two lempiras, which is less than ten cents and buys nothing more here than a one-liter bag of clean water.

I made myself believe that not giving wastefully somehow made up for the fact that I was barely giving at all. I knew too much about dependency, had heard too much about abuse. It was too hard to decide so I decided to do nothing, until the day I had enough for a coffee and not enough for the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked I had passed every day without looking at them.

Here is what my eyes are opening to: giving is not as much about money as it is about recognizing someone else's need. Giving two lempiras can become as much pressing your hand against an "untouchable" hand as it is about what the lempiras will buy. Giving is a human response to human need, and in stinginess I deny not only others' humanity, but my own.  

Generosity is a muscle, and this year I want to exercise it. I work at an organization that is able to run because of people who give. I am able to do this work because people gave to me. It is time to let myself make mistakes in giving, to have people waste my money and yet to give again. 

I want, of course, to give wisely. I want to give in ways that help, not hurt. But I am done being paralyzed by too many imperfect decisions, letting complications make the non-decision that my selfish self already wanted to make.

It is time to walk to church in Tegucigalpa as Jesus would walk to church. Generously. At the very least, looking into the eyes of the people who ask.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Constructing Transparency

“So, what exactly do you?” Even three months in, my friends and parents are asking me this – probably because I haven’t been able to give them a very good answer yet. My official title is “Research and Communications Facilitator”, while my access card says “Investigadora” – “Investigator”.

What this means in practice is a lot of reading, writing, translating, note-taking, and summarizing of long and complicated documents. It’s a desk job punctuated by regular trips and visits to everything from community youth projects to the office of the director of police* (*I still need to write about this one).

Here’s an example of what ASJ is doing, and how my work fits into it:

In October of 2014, ASJ signed an agreement with national anti-corruption organization Transparency International (TI) and the Government of Honduras (words commonly used to describe this agreement: landmark, groundbreaking, watershed). Through this agreement, the government agreed to open its books to ASJ (which acts as TI’s Honduran chapter), and in exchange, ASJ would provide detailed monitoring and evaluation of the transparency and effectiveness of some of the most vulnerable government systems: Education, Health, Tax Management, Infrastructure, and Security.

The government’s cooperation was a huge step forward. One of ASJ’s biggest hurdles previously was simply getting access to the information that could help them determine whether corruption was taking place. With more and better information than ever before, they were able to draw an accurate picture of the management of these government ministries.

What did that look like?

Almost my first week at ASJ, the TI team had a 80ish-page report for the ministries of Security and Education, the results of scanning tens of thousands of pages of documentation and analyzing them according to over 500 different criteria. (These people are absolute bosses, by the way.)

While I was still trying to master the difference between preterite and imperfect verbs, I had to read through the document and its 20ish-page summary in order to first translate the summary to English, and then summarize it even more to a more-manageable 5-6 page length.

The English summaries went back to the TI team, who checked them over, added comments, and made changes and additions. The documents bounced around for weeks as they were tweaked and altered, wording softened in some places and strengthened in others.

If it seemed like a lot of fuss for two documents, we just had to remember back to what they were saying about this document (groundbreaking, landmark, watershed).

Last month was the first-ever presentation of these reports – they would form a baseline against everything in the future would be measured. After such a public agreement, the government would be forced to acknowledge what they said, present a plan for improvements, and be checked against that plan every six months. They were a big, big deal.

So what kind of things did these documents contain? If you really want the details, you can read my summary of the Education report here – if not, I’ll catch you up.

The TI team first looked into Purchasing and Contracts in the Education system. What kinds of textbooks, classroom supplies, and computer equipment were they buying, for how much, and from whom?

With all the purchase documentation in front of them, the TI team started to see some strange things. Purchase specifications were written in strangely specific ways, ruling out companies who could have provided virtually identical products. These specifications meant that only one company fit the bill, even though they weren’t the cheapest or best-ranked company. (You see what that is, right? Corruption.)

Then purchases were delivered late and without proper receipts. Millions of dollars of goods were delivered without being registered. Textbooks were purchased from one company and delivered with labels from another company – none of this was supervised or sanctioned, which means that even if the lapses were errors and not intentional corruption, money that should have been spent on children’s education was being lost.

The team then turned to Human Resources. Now, ASJ’s coalition Transformemos Honduras exposed a few years ago that 25% of teachers on payroll couldn’t be found in their classes. This finding prompted the removal of the Ministry of Education and an overhaul in processes such that now, that percentage has fallen to 1%. But there is still a long way to go for a transparent and accountable payroll system.

In Honduras, there are very specific legal regulations about the teachers that are supposed to be hired for public schools. Teaching candidates take a qualification test, and are supposed to be hired by rank – the highest-scoring first.

Practically, though, bribes and connections often find candidates their positions. Some teachers employed at the time of the audit had scored only 60% on their qualification test – which shouldn’t even be a passing grade. The TI team also found some strange documentation. In some classrooms were the qualification test had been given, every single candidate had passed the test, and, even more strange, with the same pen and handwriting.

Other documentation that could have shown such irregularities was never delivered at all. One department said they couldn’t deliver it because the previous committee had it all burned. (You know what that sounds like? Corruption.)

These findings were ugly. Not only were unqualified teachers teaching, teachers with misconduct accusations also continued in their post. Last year, 60 teachers were suspended for everything from falsifying tests to physically and sexually abusing students – 59 of these teachers would later be reinstated.

Though Honduras has taken huge steps forward in the last few years – thanks in great part to the work of Transformemos Honduras and a new receptive Minister of Education – it clearly has a long way yet to go. Reports like the one I have been working on are important because not only do they bring these problems to light, they hold public ministries accountable for fixing them.

After the President of ASJ stood up at a televised conference and presented these findings, the Minister of Education followed him. “We’re aware of these errors,” he said, “And we’re working to fix them.”

Chalk another one up to the power of research and investigation, of persistence and bravery and telling the hard truth.