June 22, 2011
Winter in Florencia is very different from winter in the northeast of the United States. There is no need for heavy coats, snow shovels or heaters here. Rather, one is well suited for the winter with a poncho, rain boots, and an umbrella. It rains almost all the time. However, some days the temperature reaches 90 degrees with clear skies, which make for very, very hot days. I change shirts, socks, and sometimes pants every siesta because I’m either soaked from the rain or soaked from the sweat I worked up at IRD. There’s literally water everywhere—filling up potholes, causing rivers to rise several feet, seeping through house walls/tarps/wood that line people’s homes. But, like Coleridge penned, “nor any drop to drink.”
Water, clean water, is a prized commodity. And in the barrios most afflicted by the internally displaced situation, such as “El Timi,” “Palmeras,” “Kennedi,” “El Minuto,” “El Triunfo,” and “Piedrahita,” there is no clean running water. In these barrios people typically buy clean water in pouches. Some people have access to wells or the river and boil the water in order to kill the bacteria that are present. However, hygienic and disinfection practices are rarely exercised, if at all, and numerous people get sick.
This is one of the many areas IRD has expanded into with respect to education and social empowerment. The IRD nutritionist, Luis Mayer, leads workshops in which women learn the proper techniques in hygienic practices for drinkable water and food preparation for cooking. Upon completion of the workshop these women receive a certification from IRD and the Secretary of Health of Florencia. This opportunity allows women to be educated in the dangers of unclean water and empowered to seek jobs requiring certified workers. Despite this effort, most people living in the highly concentrated barrios with internally displaced persons, or invasiónes, are not so much troubled with the quality of food or drink, as long as whatever they have before them allows them to survive the hardships of poverty.
Invasiónes, literally “invasions,” are lands on the outskirts of the city newly settled by people who have been displaced by death threats, conflict, fear, and/or forced recruitment from rural areas. Most people living in invasiónes reside in homes—more like tents—built with wood infrastructure and covered by green and white tarps and garbage bags, sometimes metal. The damp dirt floor carpets the inside of the single room tent. A mattress, sometimes two in this space, functions as beds for five-person families, sometimes more. The kitchen is constituted of a couple pieces of wood laid outside. The toilet is a simple outhouse. It is an unbelievable sight to say the least. Thousands upon thousands of people live within feet of one another in a land with hectares of verdant space.
One rainy morning, the regional director, Claudia, the psychologist, Reinaldo, and I, climbed by way of taxi toward the infamous El Timi for a conference (El Timi is one invasión). We attended a conference sponsored by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many organizations were in attendance: Acción Social, International Red Cross, Colombian Red Cross, Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), Doctors Without Borders, UAO, and the mayor’s representative. Many residents of the invasiónes of El Timi and Dos Quebradas were also in attendance. IRD attended to offer psychosocial and nutritional support in future events, in conjunction with UNHCR and the other institutions. By implementing said services, more activities and training for the youth and adults, might bear good fruit. Afterward, children read stories telling the community what change they expected to see. They basically asked for more space to grow and develop, asking for things such as parks, civic centers, better roads, new bus routes, even a simple thing like a small sand soccer field. At the outskirts of Florencia, El Timi, the city built on wood, tarps, and garbage bags, stands in deep contrast to the wide, open farmland Caquetá is known for. The barrio is in pretty bad shape and it is no wonder children, adults, and elders have complained. The residents of El Timi will not begin to hope without any educational and health support. Most of the adults of El Timi cannot even read or write and most of them have no healthcare (some do, but do not receive proper treatment and care). There is a lack of support, in my opinion, in all aspects of the persons’ lives in El Timi and this is why affliction is the right word to describe their living situation. Whereas suffering is physical pain, affliction encompasses suffering, estrangement from social and political spheres, and deprivation from educational and health-related rights. Affliction is a word charged with multiple meanings, according to Simone Weil in Waiting for God, and I think she is right. Affliction is complete disengagement from the world and all its senses. To suffer physically is natural for humans. To be completely detached from the world is un-human.
To be human, that is, to act humanely, is not a competition. There are no honors or prizes, not knighthood, Nobel Prize, or even sainthood, capable of distinguishing the being of one human, or humans, as more valuable or better accomplished than another’s being in the world. Neither are there punishments or wars capable of marking the being of one human, or humans, as worthless or inferior. Displacement by the guerilla or drug traffickers does not render displaced persons as un-human or savage. By no means! They suffer from anxieties and fears—that’s natural after one has been kidnapped or threatened with an AK-47 pointed at one’s head! Despite their necessities, they always find ways to be hospitable to strangers because they know what it is like to be a stranger in a new land. As strangers in a new land, they found ways to nourish their lives through hospitality and charity. In this day and age, the practice of hospitality and charity is one thing we could all benefit from, lest we think our barbaric and savage ways are incorrigible.