Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bouncing Off Marbled Walls.

As I walk, I can feel the city under and around me. As its buses roar and horns honk and people chatter and grandeur towers and bells ring and fountains burst and dancers tango and flowers sell and sun-streams peek and protesters march and news waits and cafe con leches steam and medialunas rise and park benches fill and couples kiss and cigarettes light and mates sip and pigeons flock and homeless sleep and gardens bloom and boats port and statues keep watch over it all.

I can feel this lovely city under and around me,
as its complex history bounces of its marbled walls.
and its people stand on concrete corners learning again and again who it is that they are.


Every month, LIFE Argentina (the organization Eric and “moonlight volunteer” with every now and then) takes a volunteer trip up to Northern Argentina. For the past five years, they’ve been working with a small community of Indigenous people in the province of Misiones. The community there is a contemporary Guarani village – a group of Indigenous people that lived throughout much of South America at one time. Their history is tragic, and their current existence seems to often be a struggle.

The village that we visited was small – about 80 families. They have access to electricity, but their water is all gathered from a spring on the edge of the village. A teacher comes from outside the community to staff the school during the week. The main language of the community continues to be Guarani, with some of the community members also speaking Spanish.

It was an honor to be their visitor. But, apart from that, both Eric and I struggled with our time there. We found ourselves feeling uncomfortable with the model of development used by the NGO we were representing – and the attitude with which they worked. It was difficult to participate in an effort that didn’t seem to respect or empower the very people it was there to serve. The services themselves (distribution of clothes, food, household supplies) were well intentioned, but seemed to be executed without the participation (buy-in, guidance) of the Guaraní community leadership. Certainly, our view as short-term volunteers is limited, and there may be many more factors at play than we were able to see in one weekend. But, I left with the following gems of learning in my hands:

1. The attitude or spirit with which we do development work matters. Maybe its even broader than that – the spirit with which we work matters. This intangible element to our efforts, whatever they may be, often has positive and/or negative tangible results.

2. The Guaraní people themselves are beautiful - and we very kind to us as guests in their community.

3. Its actually pretty fun to peel hundreds (maybe thousands?!) of hard boiled eggs – especially when you have good company. It was a pleasure to work together with the other international volunteers on our trip.

4. Mutual respect and community participation are critical for relationship-building and long term, sustainable development success. Without buy-in, input or guidance from community members, development efforts (no matter how well-intentioned) can easily become disconnected and ineffective.

5. We need to listen more. What do the people we are serving want? How can we best support them in their efforts? How can we work together in a way that truly moves all of us forward ... together?

[Sidenote: “Guaraní” ring a bell? A part of their tragic history was re-enacted in mid-80s movie “The Mission”. If you have the chance to watch it, be sure to also check out the special feature about making the film. Both Eric and I found it fascinating. Also important to note: the waterfall in the movie is actually way more impressive than it appears. Hard to believe, I know. But, it was absolutely amazing.]