Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A reflection on accompaniment

This piece was written by SHARE Grassroots and Tours Coordinator Danielle Mackey and it was published on her blog and in the Volunteer Missionary Movement's publication Bridges. It does a wonderful job of talking about the type accompaniment that we work for here at SHARE.
On Saturday at midnight I stood ankle-deep in tawny sand, observing the waves. The tide of the Pacific is magical at that hour. Its foamy edges strain to reach higher, starving for the beach. In its hunger it breaks down the oldest, most durable bits of earth— pummeling rocks into slivers of sand— simultaneously undoing and recreating the stuff of life. It's funny how watching the ocean in its most eternal, basic function can be mystical.

The ebbs and flows of life in El Salvador mandate these reminders of consistency and beauty from nature. I can learn how to be from this nature. For example: last week I was preparing a magazine piece based on my two years of blog entries from this little country. I found myself surprised by the way that my learning has happened: two steps forward, one step back. Again, and again. My final entry was a perfect example of the trend: I wrote about a discussion of sexism in El Salvador that I had helped lead, in which I advised visiting students to have a healthy suspicion of male strangers; two days later, I had a kind and connective human moment with a young man selling coffee on the street. I am starved for these moments of learning, of breaking down existing knowledge and building it into something wider and deeper.

In my job at the Share Foundation I accompany delegations of people from the United States as they experience the daily reality of El Salvador. The most recent group came from Georgetown University's Magis Immersion and Justice Program. The three professors, nine students and I spent three days in a rural community called Santa Monica. Santa Monica is several hundred families living in sheet metal homes sewn into the landscape by laundry lines and small vegetable gardens, all of it bordered by dusty roads. The scarce work to be found is in sugar cane harvesting, susbsistence farming, or making the 2.5 hour trek to the capital to work as an armed guard.

Santa Monicans radiate with a certain intimacy with life— tough stuff included— which seems to leave them wise. In a brief conversation with one man from the community, he showed me this quality while leading me through the awkward forward-and-back learning dance I can't seem to avoid.

It was the evening of the first full day in the community. The group had eaten a traditional dinner of red silk beans, eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onion, fried plantains, thick corn tortillas and fresh cheese. We were seated in a circle preparing to close the day with a reflection when a host father of two of the young Georgetown men tapped my shoulder. I got up, exhausted and a little irritated by this five-millionth question of the day, in the middle of an intentionally quiet time. We separated ourselves from the meditative group and he asked, “I was just wondering, can we wash our host boys' clothes for them?”

The question took me aback. Washing clothes in the Salvadoran campo means doing it by hand-- rolling the round chunk of electric blue soap around a wet clothing item, scrubbing in brisk motions with a small brush to reach each tiny thread of fabric, and then rinsing and wringing it countless times to chase away the soap. T-shirts take about five minutes, and tougher matierals like jeans or bed sheets up to ten. It's a hefty job.

The more I thought, the more I cringed—and not for the logistics of clothes-washing, but rather for the implied position into which that pushes the host family: service. We visit the community to learn from them; they graciously open their homes and daily lives for us— complete strangers— and ask only for a few days of companionship in return. I'd imagine that it is very hard to open your tin shack to a visitor who comes from a country which you see through the lens of the television— fancy cars, decadent restaurants, Desperate Housewives. The desire to be a good host is cross-cultural. What can you do to make someone from that golden world feel comfortable in your hard-won impoverished life? It must take true humility.

We're aware of this dynamic in our visit to the community, and we want to compensate for the unfair way the world works. We want to serve these people. Certainly not the other way around.

“No,” I say to him, shaking my head vehemently, “Please no, it's not necessary.”
Their host father looks hurt, bruised. He looks away. He speaks softly, avoiding my eyes.
“But it's the only thing we can give.”

Whoa. This delegation guide—this young woman who has been learning for two years now and claims to finally understand a thing or two—knocked ever-so-gently to her naive haunches.

I understand: this man is not really asking about washing clothes. He is asking about washing feet. Śhould anyone be excluded from gifting themselves? Clearly, no.

As I later discussed this moment with the delegation, we realized that there were many forces at play. For instance, most times in life, we members of the U.S. middle-to-upper class are in the position of giver. Donating money to Haiti and soup cans to the food drive, or serving meals at the homeless shelter. Thoughtful things to do. But maybe we forget to think about the ownership inherent in this situation: we are the owners of the resources. We choose to dish them out. When, where, and how. That is powerful. Charity implies a hierarchy, and the giver is at the top. Sometimes, we might forget about this central part of our economic interactions, because we concentrate on how we're alleviating need. It feels good to give.

How does it feel to not be at the top? Many of us in the United States have the luxury of ignorance about that. Many of us can only imagine. Read this paragraph, and then close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Think: have you ever had to ask for a few dollars from a well-dressed stranger to afford your next meal? How would it feel to need? Could you maintain eye contact while you asked?

This might bring up indignation, desperation, shame. These clamouring feelings, summoned only when we begin to feel rock-bottom vulnerability, could lead us to further questions: Who “owns” the right to food? To solid housing? To life?

In that swift moment, I watched the whole game turned on its head, when someone born into the societally-mandated “low” position of receiver asked to be giver.

And so my learning rhythm continues: one step back, two steps forward, led by the generous people of El Salvador. My contract with Share is up in August, and I'm staying here. My time with VMM and Share has supported me through finding my balance in this tiny country, and I now wish to accompany others as they do the same: I am applying to teach in the bilingual schools around San Salvador. One step at a time. This mystical, eternal project of learning continues.

-- April 2010

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