My Problem with Missionaries
(this is the soapbox-y post)
Yo, Playona. The world is hard. What are you going to do about it? Don't look at me. I certainly can't answer that for you. Sometime you are going to have to suck it up and own it. You are proud, strong, and sassy. You have a rich culture and more passion for yourselves, your families, and your community than most 'dedicated artists' I know. Quit making excuses. I know it is scary to take risks and do new things. I know this girl who once left all of her family and friends behind to go live in a completely different world 3,000 miles away. It was scary, but she hasn't died yet. You are smart and capable people. Men, put your beer down, and try thinking with your brain. Women, stop making fun of so and so's shirt or so and so's hair, and try thinking about your future. Kids, do your own freaking homework for once.
I wish I could say these things. I wish that if they heard these things that they would actually believe them.
Someone told them they were poor. Someone came here from the US, told them of their extreme poverty (even though they technically don't fall under the poverty line. Poverty is defined as less than $2 a day and extreme poverty is less than $1. A wild estimate for my community is probably $7 a day) yet they think they are the poorest race in the world. Whoever this was, they glorified the riches of the United States, making Americans out to be kings. I don't know how long ago this was. I don't know who this was. I don't doubt they had only the best intentions, but I resent them for it.
If every year in school your teacher pulls you aside and tells you that you are the dumbest kid in class, don't you think you will start to believe it? By the time you get to high school -if you make it that far- when you have to tackle a foreign language, mitosis, and logarithms, you are never going to give yourself a chance. You are too dumb for this anyway. Welcome to my community. Yes, they do think they are dumb, but that is a whole different can of worms relating to the Panamanian school system and I am not even going to go there. Sometime or another, 1 or 2 or 50 gringos told them they were poor. They believe it. I cannot lie, technically, it is true. However it is only true because as Americans we have a defined, concrete, dollar centered definition of wealth.
My community lacks latrines, electricity, a running water system, and cash. That, by our $merican cultural definition, defines poverty. Yet every family here owns land. Every family produces more than half of the food that they consume. I have eaten more here than I ate some weeks in college! Each family owns their own house. If they have a canoe and a motor, they own it. With very few exceptions, they have no debt. How many Americans can say that? I certainly can't. I don't think I know anyone who can...outside of Panama.
My community is a part of a comarca, a reservation for the Embera-Wounaan and their descendants. They own the land outright. They pay no taxes on it, have no mortgages, nor rent. With this land, the fish from the river, the game from the jungle, and their fields of crops, they have the means to feed their families, even nutritiously. Several have finally admitted to me, it is not that growing veggies is that impossible or expensive, they just don't really like them. Duly noted. I think I see a nutrition seminar in my future!
The problem isn’t that they are poor, it is that they know they are poor. If you tell a kid she is the smartest in the class, don't you think she will try to live up to that and keep the title? I know this kid did. They use their poverty as an excuse.
I am not saying that teenage girls are too lazy to make the effort to continue their education. Many of them just don't receive that option, but when they say they don’t want to bother because they are probably going to get pregnant before they could finish anyway, I pull my hair out.
I realize going to the hospital is expensive and that prayer is an important part of the healing process. But when it is a $2 chiva right to get to the health center and your 8 year old daughter just cut 2 of her fingers off with a machete and you decide not to take her because 'if she is a good enough Christian and believes hard enough, God will heal her', it takes all of my self control not to scream.
When I hear them say, 'I am poor, I deserve...' I get this irrational anger towards all mission projects and non profits or agencies that give handouts. I hate it when missionaries show up to my site. They just make my job harder, reinforcing the ideas that all gringos have tons of money and give out free stuff. And they give out CANDY. Please, take a look at that kid's mouth. Can’t you see that it is a miracle those teeth haven’t rotted out completely yet? Please stop feeding the problem. Sing songs and pray with them if you want. Teach them how to garden and use water filters. But when you give them free stuff because they are poor, what is going to motivate them to work for anything?
"I am poor. National politics don't affect me. If I vote, I vote for the one that promises me free stuff like electricity the fastest. Or I vote for whomever my husband/sister/father/friend votes for." I don't even have the energy to get upset or try with this one. It is basically how most of my own country votes anyway.
"I am poor, I have always been poor, I will always be poor." Classic cycle of poverty. If I had an answer for this I would be rich and famous and I would no longer be eating boiled bananas in Panama.
A frustrated as I get, I can't get mad at them. They just don't know any better. This is the only life they know. Eugenia doesn't know that veggies will make her boys grow better and be healthier, so she doesn't make them eat them like my mom made me. Idasema has a strong relationship with the church and trusts that more than the strangers at the health clinic. Maybe she feels like her daughter is safer with God than in the hands of the nurses with questionable training. It isn't that ridiculous if you think about it.
They don't see the correlation between education and a higher paying job because no one with that better job comes back to live in the comarca.
This is the part where I tie up my thoughts with a revelation, a witty quip, a plan of action, or bit of insight to put it all in perspective. I've got nothing. My community, and basically every poor community in Panama...Central America...the world at large...uses its poverty as a crutch. Poco a poco, we have to try to take that crutch away.
Yea, sure. I'll just get right on that.