Monday, March 29, 2010

Colombia’s Government Wants a Country of Snitches

Check out my latest article, published on the international women's journalism site, The WIP.

A painting on the wall of the Medellín Youth Network’s office illustrates the group’s stand against militarism.
The other day I was translating at a meeting between a U.S-based NGO director and a Colombian human rights lawyer. The NGO director remarked how the situation in Colombia reminded him of the story of a frog that, placed in a pot of lukewarm water, doesn’t realize his awful plight as the water is slowly heated to a boil. I translated frog as sapo, which is more accurately the word for toad. Though it didn’t occur to me in the moment, it is also a colloquial term in Colombia for a snitch. “Ah,” said the lawyer, “that’s why Uribe wants sapos!” 

We laughed for several minutes at the joke but the fact is, it’s true. In the context of a decades-old internal conflict, dissent, opposition, and questioning are all repressed – often violently – here, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe repeatedly attempts to draw civilians into the fray. The latest example, to which the lawyer referred with his joke, was a program announced in late January for students in Medellín to spy on each other and report to the Armed Forces in exchange for $50 a month.

Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

On culture shock and readjusting

I have been back in the U.S. for just over a week now. My contract with FOR has finished, and I am taking some time to decompress and contemplate my next steps.

Being back is strange, but perhaps not as strange as I might have imagined. Perhaps that's because I arrived from Bogota, a huge metropolis, to East Lansing, Michigan, a quiet Midwest college town. Perhaps it's because I have largely been able to sleep long hours in in the comfort of the same bed I slept in from age 8 to 18. And compared to the severe culture shock I experienced moving from the countryside of Urabá to Bogotá, this adjustment is feeling relatively painless.

That's not to say that I haven't experienced bouts of culture shock. Arriving in the Miami airport last Wednesday, I was saddened by gringos' lack of politeness and friendliness. In Colombia, any interaction with a stranger involves at the very least a "hello, how are you?," be it at a checkout counter or in the airport security line. If someone nearly bumps into you, as happened to me in the Miami airport bathroom, in Colombia each party will always apologize and excuse themselves. Not here, apparently (I did! But she didn't).

I also miss speaking Spanish (I had to stop myself from saying “que pena” to the woman in the airport bathroom), and dancing Salsa. When the other day I complained on my gchat away message about my desire to dance Salsa and my recognition that it was extremely unlikely given the lack of even a Spanish radio station in the Lansing area, a friend emailed me a link to a Salsa club nearby. “I stand corrected!” I thought. But it turns out I was right all along: the place closed over a year ago. Sigh.

There are things to appreciate about being here, obviously, mostly having to do with food (as well as, of course, seeing family and friends). I have eaten sushi (without fake crab meat!), Indian, and Bangladeshi food, goat cheese, bagels. And the beer! It is dark! And flavorful! ¡Qué delicias!

I would love to hear what kinds of experiences others have had when returning to the U.S. (or your home country) after an extending time abroad. How did you deal with the varied emotions? With the fact that non-English words would come out of your month and few would understand? With the difficulty of communicating, even in English, all you learned and how you changed and grew during your time away?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reclaiming Land and Life in Colombia

The following is an article of mine recently published in IFORNews, the publication of International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the international secretariat of which FOR USA is a part.

Reclaiming Land and Life in Colombia

One of the stories that does not tend to make it into the news articles about Colombia’s armed conflict is that of internal displacement. Over 4 million Colombians have been internally displaced – and countless killed – due to the country’s armed conflict, which has spanned over nearly five decades and multiple administrations. Many of these dezplazados (displaced people) are peasant farmers or indigenous who flee their rural homes to seek refuge in nearby towns. However, the violence follows them there, and they must flee to the far-away cities of Medellin or Bogotá, where their likely future is a life of misery living in the shantytowns that grow daily on the outskirts of Colombia’s biggest cities.

Despite the potentially bleak future awaiting Colombia’s millions of displaced people, there is an effort afoot to reverse the flow of campesinos (peasant farmers) away from their land.  In the department of Antioquia, for example, the Antioquian Campesino Association (ACA) is helping campesinos return to and reclaim the lands from which they were violently displaced. These returns are made possible by international accompaniment, including that of FOR USA’s Colombia Program.