Seed visit to Medellín and Chocó
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We are all connected. That's the painful and powerful reality that keeps resounding in my head after the week of Seed workshops and travel to visit the placements in both the city of Medellin and the department of Choco. As Seeders, we are members of a team, and although we spend most of our time working within our individual jobs and communities, we also are necessarily linked with our fellow Seeders. This means that, as a team, we somehow have to figure out how to handle vast differences in living style, work requirements, and contexts. We have to negotiate the differences in a way that doesn't make us resentful, and allows us to confront our own choices. It's a challenge in dialogue- can we talk our way through circumstances that try to separate us?
Colombia's vast geographic diversity manifests itself in incredible regional differences. At the start of the Seed program, our facilitators told us that each region was almost its own country, because of its particular accent, culture, industry, level of poverty, climate, etc. I didn't fully realize just how different the regions were until seeing three- Medellin (Antioquia), el Chocó, and the Carribbean Coast in a space of two weeks.
I have spent the last seven months adjusting to life on the coast. I live in an extremely rural, isolated context, in a community where everyone farms, even the teachers and shop owners. There is no industry, and everyone, although rich in food resources, is very poor. Many are illiterate. The schools opened two months late, there is no health clinic or even nurse for two hours in every direction, and in the rainy season, the road becomes completely impassable. Also, the community is rebuilding their former strength after being violently displaced by paramilitary and guerrilla forces twelve years ago, then returning slowly over the last ten years. The community is made up of fiercely independent, Afro-descendent and indigenous Colombians, who have organized into a community council that struggles to unite the community in its search for economic development and social healing. My work is often difficult, and made up of thinking about how to address high levels of material needs and the complete lack of services or economic opportunities, alongside the distrust and reluctance to collaborate among the wider community.
As I boarded the plane to Medellin, my stomach sank with worry. I didn't know how I was going to react to being in one of Colombia's beautiful cities, especially visiting the work and apartment of my dear friend and fellow Seeder, Jessica Sarriot. I have become quite defensive about the difficulties of the coast, both in the work and in the lifestyle, and being in Medellin was just going to make things worse. I spent the first few days amazed at just how opposite our lives were, as we took taxis, drank the tap water, and visited with some of her professional, well-studied collegues and friends. One of the evenings, we went downtown to the largest sports complex in Latin America to play beach volleyball. I became more and more confused. How could we enjoy this, I thought, when most of the coast doesn't have adequate roads? Of course, there was a huge group of police searching the grounds outside the stadium for knives, hidden while people attended the soccer game, reminding us that Medellin has one of the highest levels of urban violence and narco-traffiking in the world. How can we relate our work- on one side almost completely defined by the poverty of the region, and on the other, connecting the work of the church with the context of urban violence? How do I keep from resenting her internet access, metro system, and botanical gardens, and how does she keep from resenting my I've-got-it-the-worst attitude? Above all, how do we understand and work in a country where one region has world-class social and cultural institutions, prolific industry, and strong public services, and another isn't even able to open its schools on time?
Then we went to Chocó, and things got more complicated. The heat as the plane door opened reminded me of the coast, but disembarking, I realized that it was completely different. Just forty-five minutes away by plane from Medellin, we were in the middle of dense, humid forest, where almost all transportation is by river. However, I was amazed as we arrived at Istmina, the town where the Seeders Carolina Perez and Cellia Maria Vasquez live, at just how developed it actually was. I was expecting something similar from the isolated, poor, small-scale farming towns of my region, and was completely unprepared to find a bustling city.
Choco's industry is mainly gold mining or coca cultivation, both of which yield much more money than standard crop farming. Perhaps there is more money moving, but the region is startlingly precarious. Because many farmers have switched to grow coca, food is imported from the same Medellin, at sky-high prices. Environmentally, gold mining threatens the richness of the soil and the entire water supply, especially the massive river systems. The presence of the federal government is laughable, made up mostly of army fumigation campaigns and corrupt police stations. As we walked through gold mines where mercury is used for extraction then discarded in the water supply, talked with coca farmers, and quietly discussed the obvious presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups in the towns, we began to realize just how huge the threats to stability and peace actually are.
I grappled with the new information as we saw more of Chocó and returned to Medellin. The puzzle of Colombia was becoming more complicated with each new piece that we added. The Seeders gathered for a discussion about how to understand differences in context, especially relating to vacation and days of rest. This conversation and various others that took place that week weren't easy, but I found myself profoundly grateful for the perspective offered by the other Seeders. We discovered that, now matter how good our intentions, we still compare and feel jealous or guilty about the difficulties of our placements. Some of us can see fellow Seeders more often; others are more in touch with their families. Some of us have the anonymous freedom of cities, while others are in small communities where everything they do is known. Although we naturally compare, we have to recognize that every place has its difficulties and strengths, and each of us must be allowed to feel freely, without guilt or resentment.
During a late night discussion in Chocó, Carolina and I talked about the word “solidarity.” Even as we seek to be in solidarity with our communities, we have to remember that Seed is also our community. If the way we live doesn't allow us to be in solidarity with the other Seeders, we have to question ourselves. If my lifestyle means that I close my heart to empathy with Jessica in Medellin, I need to make some changes. If my defensiveness about the hardship on the coast means that I can't see the justice issues in Chocó and talk about them honestly with Carolina and Cellia, I need to take a look at myself.
Perhaps it is a big jump, but I believe that these conversations are the same ones we must have about the various strange puzzle pieces of Colombia. The regions are so different, but we can see uniting threads of economic hardship, violence from illegal armed groups, the enticement of illegal crops, government abandonment, and many more. The challenge is to refuse to divide and separate, but to see every problem as interconnected, and to likewise build an interconnected movement for peace and justice. In the same way, perhaps, we Seeders strive to look at a wide field of experience and difficulty, and construct a community vision of solidarity and hope.
As I dig deeper into the Seed program, I am finding a richness that challenges me in ways I did not expect. Through community, through dialogue, through walking with each other and talking things out, we are challenged to wake up to difficult realities, and not just shrug at difference, but try to actually wrestle with it. I am so grateful to those who are walking with me through these days.
*To see pictures from this week of visits, look here.