David and Nancy Slinde Speaking at their "Sending Service"

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Immersion Part III

When we first met the Mayor, we told him we were Rotarians, community volunteers, and willing to volunteer in his community. He suggested we begin with a tour of Concepcion Batres which is a township the size of a Wisconsin County.

The center city of Concepcion Batres is on the far West border of the township; there are a total of 32 pueblos. The city roads are paved with concrete or cobble stone and a layer of cow plop on top of that. Outside the square mile of the city the roads are dirt, but in very drivable condition. The landscape is a beautiful variety of the color green that we enjoy in Wisconsin.

Heading east towards the Rio Grande, we drive through many streams of clean water. There are a number of natural springs in this area that produce these streams; we stop at one that was built into a park with swimming pool. Further into our drive, we pass through a rushing stream of highly polluted water from a neighboring community. The water contains chemicals, animal and human waste. The high level of pollution is contaminating the water table in Batres Township. The Mayor has a current water project to bring fresh water to every home, but wants to address this issue since it has broad impact in the human, animal and agricultural use of the water.

The primary crop is corn and sugar cane with many grazing cattle. 90% of the land in agriculture is owned by the people living on it. The Mayor would like the people to embrace new agriculture methods like crop diversification and rotation to increase productivity and protect the environment. His goal is to add an agricultural specialist to his staff to help the farmers implement these newer agricultural practices.

We drive through San Diego, La Pancha, Nueva Hacienda, El Guerrero, Canchilla and 9 more as we begin the drive to higher elevation to a “window” for a breath taking panorama of the terrain. The area before us is an environmental preserve. The Mayor is looking to encourage tourism by building an overlook to view this beautiful place with the hope of a restaurant to follow. The national government has a contest to promote tourism. This project will be entered in this contest.

We dead end at a place called Puerto Viejo (Old Port). This is a wilderness river area. There is no apparent access to the opposite side of the river that has the appearance of a tropical jungle. On our return we pass two men headed to Old Port who have new fishing nets they made, hand crafted paddles and a rebar anchor for their dugout. They catch fish to sell from this elevated environmental sanctuary.

Due to the frequent flooding of the major and smaller rivers, the Mayor has a project to relocate 140 families to a stable area. A family needs $1000 to apply for the “sub division”. If it’s $200 or $400 or $1000, it’s beyond their reach. The Mayor knows this but is hopeful that an NGO might help these people.

The mayor has a passion for his people. In a culture where power and leadership are often abusive, we find his sense of protection and service to his people uplifting.

David y Nancy

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Immersion Part II

Guillermo picked us up at 8 am in a lightweight Korean truck. The three of us squeeze into the front seat. We meet Victor his associate for the day and are off heading east on Hwy 2 to join with 2 men from the Mayor’s office of Jucuaran.

The truck climbs the range that is the barrier between the plains and the ocean. Agatha was just a week ago and there are tree limbs and many washouts along the roadway. The drainage systems are full of mud and men with strong backs and shovels are removing the mud, clearing them for the next rain. At 9 we arrive in the small seaside community of El Cuco.

In El Cuco we turn west, backtracking. Our drive is high in the hills that parallel the ocean coast. It takes us another hour driving on a hilly stone road at 5 miles an hour over boulders and avoiding wash outs created by Agatha. Our descent into the community is as difficult as was the ascent over this boulder filled road. Finally we are at ocean level and the road abruptly ends in an area of trees.

A small group of leaders from the directiva of Agua Fria joins us for the brief but rocky and tricky walk to the ocean. This is an historic area from the war as this beach was the site where ships with arms for the guerrilla fighters landed to unload for distribution. Now Pedro says that it is an area of forgotten people. Jose tells us how the land on both sides of the road belonged to the people of the community but after the war, the government (military and Arena) took the land located on the ocean side for private and tourist use.

The mayor elected in 2009 is FMLN, defeating the Arena party for the first time. The mayor wants to assist the community in development and has introduced them to Oikos. There are ideas to develop a part of the bay for a shrimp or tilapia farm. This will take much training and supervision so this project will not start soon. Despite being in the bay, fishing is not a nutritional activity even though it is a major source of income and food in El Cuco, just miles away.

The adults are uneducated campesinos whose lives are hard labor in fields but with no agricultural training. Knowledge and skills are very limited. Oikos has begun a project with them for development of self-esteem and current farming skills. They are teaching the workers about crop diversification for better nutrition and care of the soil. In the past, the farmers have planted only frijoles and corn, getting only one crop a year because the extreme weather variations and usually wet soil. Introducing watermelon and other produce will benefit all. There are very few fruit trees in this community; mangoes are the standard tree.

Homes were not readily visible and part of Agua Fria is accessible only via a rough foot path. Other homes are off side paths from the main street. 53 families live here with an average of 5 people in each (265 population).

The school for grades PK – 6 is on this main road and the school yard is basically mud. There is no dry area of land – everything slopes toward the building from the hills behind. 81 children attend the school – some in uniform, some without shoes, all of them dirty. Many are light skinned with brown hair. Many have finer features than the Mayan or historical appearance. Facial expressions are bland but they watch us with curiosity. There are several dominant girls and much interaction girls with girls, boys with boys.

There is a female principal with one male and 3 female teachers. Each has a combined class PK-K, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6. The classes lack text books and dictionaries. The rooms are dark – the school is dreary. Fathers have helped with roof and fence repairs and are bringing rocks for an effort to change the flow of water and mud away from entering the school.

As we spend time at the school with community leaders, we sense they are hoping we will become project partners. They need $500 for a concrete mix to improve the school yard. They need text books. If any of you Sunday school teachers or Bible study groups are looking for a mission, Aqua Fria needs your help.

David y Nancy

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Immersion Part 1

Getting started

At our last meeting with three church leaders, Volunteer Missionary Movement coordinator Danny and NGO Executive Director Benjamin, Benjamin suggested we take the time to become familiar with the area before jumping into any projects. He suggested we begin with introductions to leaders of civil society (police, mayors, schools, procurdura HR); integration into cooperatives – ngos and organizations – local, national, international; and education about the territories – soil, education, weather, people

After we moved in, we visited the police, mayor, and schools. Then we experienced tropical storm Agatha. Eight miles away from our home, flooding of the Rio Grande San Miguel forced the evacuation of 43 people of a community in the Concepcion Batres jurisdiction. They were directed by the police to a Conception Batres school, a make-shift shelter with only basic provisions for the 43 people in its care.

After visiting the shelter we went to this section of the Rio Grande to witness the actual damage to their homes, fields, crops and orchards. Some people remained in their flooded homes with 12 to 16 inches of dirty and muddy river water everywhere.

We walked around and through previously flooded fields. Fruit trees have rotten fruit hanging from their branches. The new corn crop is now infected with mold. This is a substantial economic loss to the subsistence farmers who are very poor. We continued our tour with members of the directiva. They were still checking on the status of families to determine who had left and who were still in their homes. At the home of the leader of the directiva we met a 101 year old woman who while very fragile was sharp and talkative.

A man was paddling a dug out on our side of the river across the rapid flowing water to San Felipe. The dug outs we saw are familiar to ones we have seen in museums of the Great Lakes.

We left this area to head towards the mountains. We also saw storm damage here as a huge tree blocked the dirt road. Benjamin’s associate got out of the vehicle to help Benjamin maneuver around the obstacle. The road is very rough and we bottomed out on smaller size boulders sticking out of the roadbed. After traveling for 30 minutes by SUV we stopped at a level clearing where we noticed a number of bamboo and thatch huts. Benjamin informed us that these are drying buildings for the crops at harvest time. We continued up the mountain by foot passing many 8 acre fields and pastures. Cattle and herds of cows passed us coming down the mountain. We walked for another 30 minutes, greeting herdsmen who stop to talk with Benjamin and Guillermo. The cows wait impatiently as they are headed to a fresh pasture.

Oikos has developed the side of the mountain into an agricultural area by altering the terrain to provide safe rain water drainage, building spill ways to hold back the speed of the runoff. They have also planted hundreds of trees to provide for the absorption of rain water into the soil. We don’t see any homes. The herders we pass are soiled with leathery skin and missing teeth. There are no services in their community, there is no public school, committing the children to a primitive way of life for another generation.

To be continued:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Seed-Food Fest

The first Friday in June is Seed-Food Fest in Concepcion Batres. (Not to be confused with Seafood Fest, 4800 miles away in West Bend, WI).

Seed-Food Fest is held in the central plaza of Concepcion Batres. The plaza is one square block of green space including soccer field, basketball court, bandstand, fountains and lots of benches to just sit and watch.

The festival is sponsored by Oikos and the mayor. Oikos is the German funded, locally operated agricultural NGO that has been active in developing agricultural projects with community members for over 20 years.

A stage with speakers, entertainment, dancing is a main focus of the festival. This one day event provides Oikos stakeholders the opportunity to showcase their products to area communities. Large tents cover vendors selling various plants, vegetables, coffee, honey, beans, roots and live chickens. There were different types of seeds for sale but a 50 pound bag might last longer than either of us.

Some of the vendors consist of large families, others are more formal cooperatives, and others individuals. Vendors included men and women we previously met in the various communities in the Usulután area. This was a pleasant surprise to us and them and it also provided us an opportunity to affirm our presence and commitment to be in solidarity with them. Warm greetings were exchanged and conversation followed.

Unlike Seafood Fest in West Bend, there was no beer. But often like at Seafood Fest, the rains started about 11 am and continued for the afternoon. It was a cloud burst and we walked home in knee deep water flowing rapidly in the streets holding on to each other. The weather man indicates that the rain will stop in October. Lesson learned: always have your umbrella with you – we did not!

David y Nancy

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First days

It rained the first night. The roof still leaks. We have been unpacking, repacking for two days. Most of our clothes remain in a suitcase since we have no dresser. A few items are on hangers. We planned clothing for the city, mountains and plains. When we return to the US in September we will bring the cool weather stuff home and bring back more appropriate clothing for 85-100 degrees.

Sunrise is 5:30; we wake early with noise from the corn grinder across the street. By 6 am people are in the streets and commerce is in full swing. A little later, the children are on their way to the 3 schools in the community. Delivery trucks, carts and men on bicycles are hawking their products and services.

It’s 7:45 am and getting hot - we are both sweating. We have been pushing water since we arrived in Usulut├ín, but we use it all up by sweating. Breakfast is early, lunch is our big meal at 1:00 pm, with a lighter meal in the evening.

We do some of our toiletries at the pila in the back yard. This is the typical location of food preparation, washing dishes, washing clothes and washing humans. We are fortunate to have a shower. But with all the rain, look out for scorpions and tarantulas. Nancy was bitten.

It gets dark by 6:30 pm. The vendors shut down for the day and the streets are quiet. Most commerce comes to an abrupt stop except for a few tortilla venders and cyber cafe. I secure the gate since we are not expecting any visitors. A cucaracha flies in the front door and lands upside down on the floor, David sweeps him back outside.

We have our evening meal at 7:00. After eating, washing dishes, putting everything away, it’s after 8 and shower time. Then we lock the doors and retire for the evening to a good book or to catch up on emails and documents.

It’s very quiet. Maybe a brief dog fight and a rooster or two during the evening, but after a while we tune them out.

Rain again (it’s the season). We wake to check for more leaks and find a crab apple on the floor. In the kitchen we find fruit stems. We have bats. We’re going shopping today so we add garlic to our list.

Before we leave, we will spray the bedrooms with “Baygon” Ultra to control the cucarachas and rastreros (scorpions).

As we are writing this journal, a leaf falls to the floor from the center vent of the roof. With bats on our mind, we were startled, but just for a moment.

David y Nancy