There it was — the look, the stares that I got as soon as I entered a place like this following after the Profamilia workers. The look, which seemed to follow me everywhere I went seemed to say” What is that guy doing here? He’s not from around here? What does he want?” This was a sort of self-constituting othering that seemed to occur whenever I entered the room.
We had just entered a bare concrete catholic church where the only adornement was a wooden cross. There were about 35 young women, some pregnant, some with children, here for a lesson on sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid them. The room was scorching hot. The fans worked furiously but vainly because all they did was to move around the sweat-laden air imperceptibly. Laura (a pseudonym, the Profamilia worker with whom I have been pair for several of these trips and someone I discussed in a letter home) started off with a pretty standard discussion of STD’s, their associated risks and how to avoid them. The women seemed mainly bored, apparently having heard this kind of discussion earlier. Another member of the team, sensing that people weren’t paying attention decided to try an unconventional tactic. He asked for volunteers, and after one came up, pulled out a dildo from a backpack and handed it to her saying ” pretend this is your husband, how would you put it on?” The room erupted in laughter and my mind started doing mental cartwheels. Was this actually occurring in a church!?! in Colombia? where abortion is still illegal because the country is so conservative. While the room was still laughing the volunteer tried to put on the condom. Taking a Profamilia- branded condom, she struggled for a while but eventually succeeded in putting it on the dildo and passing it back. Many of the women then peppered Laura with more questions regarding family planning and she ended up setting up a desk where she registered their attendance and starting handing out vouchers for surgical sterilization procedures to be done at the local clinic. While she was busy, I decided to wander the crowd and start talking to people.
As I started talking with people I was assailed with the usual questions of who I was and what I was doing here, and upon hearing my accent where I was from. By now, I have gotten pretty good at explaining myself in a way that people here understand and feel comfortable talking to me about. I say that I’m a student from the United States here to research how Profamilia is doing and what could be improved. Initially, my explanations were much more confusing to local residents and they would warily stare at me. But now, I’ve learned how to better project me motivations
Most of the stories in particular of the people I talk to start off similarly on the theme of poverty and how it is the cause behind many of their problems. But, today I’d like to tell you about one woman whose story particularly stood out to me. When I first approached her, she was taking care of 2 young toddlers. During the course of our conversation she told me not only about her interactions with Profamilia and why she was here(to get a voucher for a free surgical sterilization) but also her life history. The kids that she was taking care of were not her own, but her child’s, she had gotten pregnant at age 15 herself.1 She was here in Cartagena because she had fled from her village in another part of the country and now relied on her extended family and non-governmental organizations just to get by. She stated that Profamilia had helped her and her family with medical care and family planning but they were often limited by what they could do by her finances. As an example she had mentioned a workshop where Profamilia workers had told her how to maintain hygiene by regularly washing her hands with soap. However, he community did not have running water or a sewage system — merely electricity pirated from the electric substation in the center of town. In addition, water was prohibitively expensive for washing because it was brought in by wheelbarrow. This does not even take into account the cost of soap — which was higher than what she could afford for the quantities that were needed to regularly hand-wash. For her, the choice came down to buying vegetables for her family, or buying soap — so she always bought the food instead of the soap. I met other women that day and talked to them about Profamilia as well, but I kept ofthinking about the effectiveness of our workshops and medical checkups if people were unable to implement the advice we were giving them. As it is, we were the only social service agency to work in these neighborhoods( the government has no presence) and could only reach a small number of people and even then our workshops weren’t nearly as effective as they could be simply because of people’s financial circumstances and the crushing poverty in which they lived.
Throughout my trip here — I have wrestled with this problem of trying to understand if I am actually making a difference. The standard argument of our work being a drop in the bucket certainly applies but I wonder about the futility of our efforts given that the fundamentals creating poverty and illness continue to remain the same. Also, my research into Profamilia and my experiences with them have made me respect the incredible work that this organization does and the hard work and dedication that not only characterize the organization but also the individuals working for it. However, the document I produce and work I have down here seem to be of only marginal benefit. Profamilia will get another study showing how they can improve, they may choose to implement some of my suggestions and improve slightly, and some recipients of Profamilia aid will have slightly better experiences. However, I am pessimistic because I think that the fundamental conditions are not going to change. Poverty, and its associated health problems will still exist and continue to perpetuate itself. Despite what we put on our website (our – being used to describe SOL )2 about the work that me and my colleagues have engaged in, are we actually making a difference? Will the work that we do effect any real meaningful systematic change?3 I don’t know. More importantly, who are we actually helping with the self-congratulatory accolades, public relations, and appeals for funding? Us, or them. Did you notice the difference that exists in the previous statement? It’s the same kind of othering that occurs when people here categorize me as being not on of “them.” In the future, I think I’d like to bridge that difference that exists and work to create a movement for change on a massive scale so that we aren’t stuck with the band-aid solutions currently offered in place of a fundamental rethinking of our values and the systems that care or abandon people.
- Internal Profamilia statistics show that amongst internally displaced individuals (desplazados) in Colombia, 90% of them will have had at least one child by the time they are 20 years old, creating cycles of endless poverty [↩]
- This shouldn’t be taken as an insult to the program in particular — just a critique of a kind of thinking which lauds activities that have little real impact. WISER is something which I am particularly critical of. It’s very popular at Duke and is often lauded by administrators and public relations individuals for the great work it has done and how it demonstrates civic leadership etc etc. Students also jump on that bandwagon. However, the stories about WISER never seem to mention that the people of Muhuru Bay actually demonstrated against this project. Who are we really benefitting when we prop up WISER on a pedestal, us (Duke) or the supposed recipients of our beneficence? [↩]
- This also may be too much to ask of 17 college-age students over 8 weeks. But more has been done with less — just see my email signature line. [↩]