Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Precious Water - A Hike to the Source

The people of this place live within their history as much as they live within their daily lives.  Beyond the highway, beyond the cobbled town streets, beyond the dirt road, they are isolated.  Atrocities during the war years left scars on their bodies, scars in their hearts and holes in their families.  They point to the places where women and children were massacred.  They sing their songs and they tell their stories.  This is a good thing.  This is a healing thing.  This is the work of the church in this place.

Little by little as family members were wounded in the struggle or and others were driven from their homes, the town was essentially abandoned.  Families sought refuge Fe y Esperanza, the Lutheran refugee camp Faith and Hope.  After the war, the old people returned home.  Some of the younger people went on to study or work in the city, and others joined their parents in tending the family farm plots.  The soil is fertilized by the milk cows that wander the fields where corn, beans and fruit trees produce abundantly.

The people never forgot the care which the Lutheran Church provided during painful times thirty years ago.  Now, through the work of the Commission of Historic Memory, the church has received the call from the people to build a little church here, along with a community center and a small memorial to the women and children who were killed in this place.  A small group of us accompanied the Bishop as he led the community in the first Lutheran worship the people have shared since they were refugees at Fe y Esperanza.  We celebrated Holy Communion with blessed water in a pink plastic cup, because no one could find any wine nor grape juice (nor even grape soda -- the Bishop was ready to be creative.)  The people celebrated, sharing the host and drinking the sacred water.

Earlier in the day, a group of us walked to the water source.  This is the place where the cows and humans alike go to drink.  This is the place where women have gathered for generations to wash their babies and their clothes.   The water source is a long walk from town, down, down, down to a grotto where agua dulce (sweet water) spills from the hillside.

The town's current water system works poorly.   There is no pressure and often no water at all.  The struggle to have reliable water piped to homes is echoed throughout El Salvador.  Thanks to improved coordination,  Habitat El Salvador is exploring the possibility of developing a new water system for this town, as well as for a few other rural Lutheran-Church-connected communities.  We walked to the source with a friend from Habitat to learn more about the quality of the water and the force of the flow.
The road

The Path
We drove about 5 minutes out of town on a "road" (town consists of the school and a field and a scattering of homes alongside a small chunk of paved road).  Then we walked through a barbed wire fence and down a rocky, steep path.  "Watch out for the mine," said the pastor in front of me, pointing to a soggy pile of cow dung.  There were several mines amidst the rocks and roots and hanging vines.  The humidity was oppressive, but we appreciated the dense canopy which shielded our heads from the hot sun.  "This is the path that people take when they walk here," we were told.  I could not imagine walking down this path with a group of cows.

The water source
The water was cool and clear.  Years ago someone inserted a pipe into the rock so that the water from one of its exit points flows in a concentrated stream.  In other places along the rock wall, the water runs down the vertical face and collects in small pools.  In front of the pools ancient rock tablets, smoothed over years of use, give testimony to the generations of laundry beaten and scrubbed on their surfaces.  We drank, we felt the water, we walked in the oozy gravel and mud at the base of the pools.

The Laundry Rocks
The Field
"We came down the path for walkers, so let's go up the path that is used by people who ride a beast," someone suggested.  "That way you will get to know the route."  This seemed like a good idea because in my mind a person on horseback would probably use a slightly less rugged and steep trail than the one we experienced on the way down.  The first bit of the climb consisted of rocks, roots, mud and "mines."  It was an arduous climb and we used trees to help pull ourselves up.  Suddenly the trail opened up into bright sunlight and we were standing in a vast field filled with bean plants, butterfly weed and dotted with an occasional tree.  The soil was moist, black and fertile.  The grade was incredibly steep and we had to dig our shoes into the soil to make our own stairways to the top.  At one point the Habitat woman and I decided to plunk ourselves down in the dirt to catch our breath.  Apparently this was humorous and photo-worthy to the heartier Salvadorans among us.  In reality, I think everyone was a bit grateful for the rest.

The Field
The "beast path" was definitely shorter than the human path, and it did give us a chance to drink in the beauty of the hills and the valley and to feel what it might be like to farm on this very steep, steep land.  The friend from Habitat noted that there might be a way to permeate the ground at this higher level nearer to the town and to tap into the vein of water which gushes out below.

We finished our climb well moistened from perspiration and a little winded, but satisfied that we had been to the source.

Water - we forget to appreciate it until we do not have it.  We waste it until we have a limited amount of it.  Water - for washing, for bathing, for drinking, for blessing in a pink plastic cup - it is precious.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Got Cilantro?

For anyone who grows cilantro or buys cilantro, you know that it is a short-lived crop and does not keep very well in the fridge or on the counter.  So, when you have a batch, it's important to find good ways to use it. It's also important to wash it well by grabbing the bundle by the stems and swirling the leaves in a bowl full of water.  Repeat this step if your bundle is pretty dirty.  Then remove any slimy stems or leaves.

One of my favorite things to make with cilantro, whether in El Salvador or the US, is chirmol.  It's easy, it's tasty, it's healthy and it goes with everything.

3 medium tomatoes, chopped small
1/2 medium onion, chopped small
Juice of 1 large lime
Chopped cilantro to taste
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Mix up all the ingredients and let it sit for a bit, then enjoy!  You can keep it in a sealed container in the fridge for a week.

No matter how big a batch of chirmol you make, you will no doubt have leftover cilantro.  A good way to keep it is to let it dry.  You can dry it with the stems on or off.  I do it on the kitchen counter on a clean cloth and cover it with a second clean cloth.  In El Salvador during the rainy season, it takes a while to dry.  Once the leaves are crispy, remove them from the stems and put them into a recycled spice jar. I prefer to crush mine right before use.

Dried cilantro is great in chicken soup, beans, rice, salad dressings ... any number of things.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

El Baby Shower

Balloons were going up as I arrived.  Three long tables were covered with striped cloths, and blue plastic resin chairs were set all around.  The welcome table had shiny blue ballon shaped like a baby carriage stating "It's a Boy" taped to a stick which also had a foam figure of a little boy taped to it, all stuck into a little basket with some yellow fru-fru.  The expectant mom arrived with party favors, and the hostesses got their game supplies together.

You might think it is a little funny that in El Salvador, a baby shower is called a "el baby shower" (just emphasize the SHOW-er over the ba-by).  The invitation for this shower went out by email to the mom's many church friends.  It was interesting to see the "reply all" responses that filled my inbox..."what a beautiful invitation" and "what a wonderful blessing."  Not a single person responded with a plan to attend or not to attend.  

This is not the mom's first baby, and it seems pretty typical for family and friends to put together small baby showers for each new addition to the family.  It also seems pretty common to have women and men at these events, which are usually described as convivios (literally "living together" but in the sense of "let's all celebrate together as a community").

We sang a song as guests started to take their seats, and the new mom's mother arrived carrying a Super Selectos bag with some plastic bottles in it.  Wine.  Huh.  Middle of a Friday afternoon...why not?  I was a little skeptical of this home-brew hibiscus flower wine.  It's made by small cooperative connected to the Lutheran Church guest house, and my previous experience with it was a not-so-wonderful gulp of vinegar.  Fortunately the wine-makers seem to have perfected their technique, and the Baby Shower wine was pretty tasty.

Now that the wine was poured, it was time for games.  The first game was a baby word search.  Everyone was supposed to start at the same time so it was pretty funny to see pastors trying to cheat.  The top 3 winners each received a basket of candy.

For the second game we were divided into 3 teams by tables.  Each group was given 2 sheets of fun foam and a couple of pair of scissors.  In the allotted time, the team had to cut out baby clothes shapes from the foam and clip them onto the clothesline (a piece of ribbon) with tiny clothespins.  At the end of the time, table 1 had more clothes than the other tables, so they won.  Table 3 shouted out, "That maquila (sweat shop) has a lot more workers, so that's why they won!"  Maybe this is not as funny in translation as it was in person, but everyone got a good laugh out of it and all the tables then got prizes.

For a treat, we were served ice cream (which they often call sorbete) or a different kind of ice cream called nieve (a Mexican style "ice cream" made with water and fresh fruits), with a "picnic" cookie (the cardboard wafer kind we all loved as kids).  In the meantime, a roll of toilet paper was passed around the table and each person broke off a chunk, estimated to be the size around the new mom's belly.  Her dad over-estimated her circumference by more than double, which was good cause for a lot of laughter!  As guests relaxed and as the mom opened gifts, a big bowl of candy was passed around the table.  If you are thinking that these refreshments had a common theme - you are right! Sugar on sugar on sugar. Oh, except for the wine.

The gifts were cute and mostly practical.  In El Salvador, Winnie the Pooh is a must-have on at least one nursery item for every newborn.  Different than in the US, babies in El Salvador are typically gifted with a tiny comforter trimmed with lace and a little pillow to match.  Most moms seem to use the pillow to block the baby from rolling off of a chair where the baby might be placed for a nap.  A hanging clothes organizer is also a must, usually very ruffly featuring Pooh or another cartoon character.

At the end of the party, each guest was given a little jar of home-made strawberry jelly (made by the new mom's sister) and a baby boy recuerdo (souvenir) with a little clothespin for clipping a picture on it...perhaps of the new baby.  As guests were leaving, all of the extra candy was given out, as well as a couple of extra bottles of wine.  One funny image that will be stuck in my head for a while is watching the new mom's mother pondering what to do with about an inch of wine in the bottom of one of the bottles.  She held it up, tipped her head, looked at it, shrugged, tipped the bottle up to her mouth and gulped it down.

The second baby shower of the week was a small family affair, and my husband and I were very honored to be invited as family.  The party was held in the garage space of a small home, and we arrived just as the sky decided to rumble and flash and dump down tremendous amounts of rain.  We held a 2-month old baby, visited with young people we have known since they were babies themselves, and shared lots and lots of hugs.  A few home-made decorations were taped onto the wall and a pink balloon made from marshmallows was placed in the middle of the table.  Family members arrived soaking wet with plastic bags carrying pupusas, plantains, beans, cream and juice.

Grandma and Grandpa, whose home was the site for the Baby Shower, arrived a little late.  They had been to the one-year anniversary vigil marking the death of a beloved sibling.  Grandma was super surprised to see the party - she is very forgetful and didn't remember there was going to be a convivio in her home.  She lives in the moment, and the joy on her face and the kisses she shared all around were precious.

The young couple is expecting their first baby - a little girl.  There were a few gifts shared after the meal - a little comforter and a pillow, a baby clothes organizer, a baby manicure set and some clothes.  A small gold box held a pair of tiny gold earrings.  Salvadoran baby girls have their ears pierced as infants.  Another gift bag held a tiny pair of red shoes and a small embroidered white cloth.  Traditionally, babies' belly buttons were covered because of a belief that babies "breathed" through their belly buttons and the covering was a way to keep out evil spirits.  Baby girls still often wear the white cloth tied around their tummies with the idea that it keeps their belly buttons from becoming "outies."  Pediatricians often gently remind new mothers that the best way to care for a new belly button is fresh air, but it is hard to go against the long-lived traditions of the grandmothers (which in my opinion often have merit in their mystery - though I am not sure about the white cloth).

The expectant mother shared a little recuerdo with each of the guests - a marshmallow kabob (and the strawberry-shaped marshmallow was really delicious!).  The expectant dad is nervous.  He ate 3 kabobs.

Since my own daughter just had a little girl who is growing fast, I was able to share a few gently used gifts from her.  Everyone was very impressed with the muslin sleepy sack - a way to swaddle the baby during the first weeks without danger of blankets covering the baby's nose or mouth.  Safe sleep is not something Salvadorans talk about - whereas in the US, we are very focused on baby crib environment.

We took a lot of photos at both baby showers.  These family gatherings of 4 generations are precious, as is the celebration of welcoming new life, living together, in community.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Caminata Ecológica - Ecological March 2016

We arrived in Parque Cuscatlán before the crowds.  St. Francis was there to greet us.  We met Friar Domingo and a few other coordinators.  Later we would realize that these folks were dynamic, energetic, gifted speakers.  Little by little small groups of people arrived.  Many carried posters.  Solidarity t-shirts were the uniform of the day:  ACT Alliance, Water Forum, No to Agri-Toxins, No to Mining.  If you didn't have an eco-t-shirt to wear, you pulled out your all-occasion-marching Oscar Romero shirt.  You can't go wrong bringing the Monseñor to a march of the people.

June 2, 2016 marked the 16th annual Ecological March from San Salvador's central park to the Legislative Assembly.  The theme:  Love The Planet!  Small groups from Lutheran Church communities arrived, and the turn-out from the pastoral corps was impressive.  The Salvadoran Lutheran Church folks all marched together, and with a string of bright blue water jugs and a giant painting of Jesus holding the world in his hands, the Lutherans attracted a large number of photographers and videographers from the press.

We walked for 1.5 hours in the sun.  Most impressive were the moms who marched with little children, many who walked the entire distance!  Pick-up trucks with huge speakers blasted eco-themed music as the procession of about 2000 people halted traffic on some of San Salvador's main thoroughfares.  Every now and then, one of the priests from the Catholic Church got on the loud speaker and started leading chants.  

  • Without water there is no life.
  • Let's love the planet; let's defend the water.
  • The struggle for life began by defending water and food.
  • To have water and food, we began the struggle for life.
  • Fight for life and defend water and food.
  • To defend the water and food is the fight for life.
  • Against all forms of contamination and mining - Love the planet!
  • Alert!  Fight for water and the planet - if not today, when?
  • Love our mother earth, fight for water and food.

  • Protect life, fight for water and food.
  • To destroy forests, contaminate the rivers is an attack against life.
  • The water and life are not negotiable.

  • Love the planet, defend the water and what feeds us.
  • The water and life are at risk, let's care for the planet.
  • The water and life are not negotiable, let's fight.

  • Fight for the planet, save the water and the life. 
  • Love the planet, defend the water and the life!
  • Love the planet, defend the water that is life!

  • It is a right to have food and water free from agro-toxins, to defend her (the planet) is a must!

The march concluded at the Legislative Assembly gates, and a couple of deputies did come out to speak at the press conference.  Environmental activists have been working to get a water protection law passed for ten years.  Every year there are promises.  This year, the promises continued, as did commitments to raise the minimum wage for agricultural workers and work to protect indigenous seeds.  Hopefully this will be the year when the marching, the press conferences, the photo-ops and the praying will lead to concrete legislative action and positive impacts on El Salvador's fragile environment.

Note:  The bullet points in this posting came from a handout which was distributed prior to the march

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Notebook Notes and Thoughts that Stuck

The Foro de Seguridad y Soberanía Alimentaria (Food Security and Sovereignty Forum) at the University of El Salvador in San Salvador included presentations on Climate Change, Water Contamination and Responsible Use, Trade Agreements and Economic Forces which Impact Food Prices (including product dumping by international businesses into El Salvador) and Minimum Wage Disparities for Agricultural Workers (and discrimination as one impacting factor).

The forum began with a brief address by the moderator.  I wrote down two things which he said:   "One goal of this forum is to help us to construct a culture of growing food for ourselves without chemicals and without genetically modified seeds."   Recognizing that without water, agriculture cannot happen, the moderator stated, "The next war in El Salvador will be over water.  Water in San Salvador and in our other cities is already rationed.  We need to recognize the crisis."

Over all the years in which I have walked with our brothers and sisters in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, these two issues:  food and water, have been central in our ministry together:  flood management on the Rio Paz and Rio Grande San Miguel, contamination of the Rio Lempa, droughts and increasing temperatures causing hunger crises, wells going dry, contaminated water making people sick and on and on.  Every community.  Thousands of families.  The speakers at the forum were speaking the language of the church, and the Lutheran Church is intimately connected with an impressive network of creation-caring agencies and people.

Kevin Carter, 1993
The first speaker, William Rondy (of CEICOM - Center of Investigation of Trade and Investment - a non-governmental organization)  has been very much connected to the organic agronomy program at the Salvadoran Lutheran University.  He started his talk by showing an iconic photo of a little girl being stared at by a vulture.  Next he showed a photo of important world leaders.  "It's time to cry out, 'Human development is not helping everyone.'"

Mr. Rondy spoke about El Salvador's poverty and hunger issues within the context of global distribution of wealth and world hunger.  Then he shared a couple of examples everyone could understand.  He asked for a show of hands of anyone who had eaten a type of bird (some little indigenous species I did not understand).  A couple of old people raised their hands.  Then he asked for a show of hands of anyone who had eaten chicken.  He asked about the beans Salvadorans eat - those famous little red ones...

Salvadorans used to eat little spotted black ones.  Why did we stop eating those? Who decides what is good to eat and what is not good to eat?  Take Coca Cola.  Do we drink it because it is delicious?  We used to drink delicious beverages made from seeds and fruits.  If I told you today, "Eat this fried cockroach head, it is really delicious" you would maybe not eat it, but if I keep telling you it is delicious then ten years from now the whole country would be eating fried cockroach heads.  

What does the tag in the back of your shirt say?  Made in China.  Who decided all of our clothes would be made in China?  Low prices?  If the Chinese shirt is cheaper than the Salvadoran one, which do we buy?  When all the Salvadoran shirt-makers are out of business, then how much will the Chinese shirt cost?  Similarly the world is being divided up into zones of production for agriculture.  When products are grown in one vast zone, all with the same seed, all with the same fertilizer and chemicals, what happens?  More plagues.  And what if there is a disaster in that food zone?  And what if we are not producing any of our own foods?  We all go hungry.  This is why it is important to buy from small farmers who produce diverse, local products. 

Food sovereignty means that a country like El Salvador has the right and ability to grow its own food at prices that are fair for farmers and for consumers without unfair competition from subsidized foreign food (like US corn) which is dumped into the Salvadoran market.  As church folk we often find ourselves working to provide aid to people in need, and we need to be aware of the roles which US trade policy plays in creating and mitigating need.  We need to learn about the impacts of foreign aid food shipments made by the US government and by charitable organizations - shipments which contain food grown in the US by farmers subsidized by the US government - on local markets.  We need to learn about and advocate for locally procured food aid programs.

Angela Rodriguez
Angela Rodriguez, of the Economics Department at the University of El Salvador, focused much of her presentation on labor:   Fifty percent of our population is employed in the informal economy.  We need to understand this within  the context of things like product dumping (when multi-national corporations sell their product in El Salvador at a lower price than what local farmers can charge for their products).  For poor people, cheaper prices are attractive and important... but this drives down the prices local farmers can charge for their food...

We need to start looking at the producers of our food as valuable members of society worthy of a dignified minimum wage.  We need to allocate quality land to food production.  All of our local food production is done on the worst land, in rocky soil, on steep hills.  This causes us to have to import basic grains, which uses up valuable capital that we could spend on our own development.   Without land to farm, without employment opportunities, our agricultural workers are forced to migrate to other countries to find work...

Oscar Alemán
The final speaker was Oscar Alemán, a student activist from the Lutheran University.  He shared a video about the causes of global warming which was designed in a popular education style.  He did a quick lesson on soil, photosynthesis, worms, natural fertilizer and drew out a timeline of agricultural practices from the time before the Spanish conquest to the Green revolution.

The Green Revolution of the 20th century marks the time when governments and businesses cooperated to transition from smaller farms to industrial farming... We were told this would help us to feed the planet.  That this was the only way we could feed the planet - to farm using monoculture (one crop planted close together in vast fields - this type of farming is highly dependent on the use of pesticides, weed killers, fungicides, and chemical fertilizer, as well as the development of modified seeds which depend on the use of these products).  "To feed the planet" was an excuse - who really benefited from the Green Revolution?  Poor people on our planet are still hungry.  

We need to go back to the agricultural practices of our ancestors.  We need to honor women and men together in the field.  We need to focus on product diversity, and forest agriculture - planting trees to shade the little crops and to hold moisture in the soil.  

A bit of my container garden
We hear the word "plagues" but we know that every insect and every fungus was created by God or evolved (whatever you want to say) for a reason.  Each organism has its purpose.  In organic agriculture we use preventive medicine for our plants, natural repellents planting one plant near another so they grow together and feed the soil.  We focus on water harvesting and community water project development so that we can grow plants cyclically and have continual harvest in local gardens.  

There is earth below the cement.  Plant your food!

This was the last thing I wrote in my notes from my day as a student:  "There is earth below the cement.  Plant your food! "  Can't move the cement?  Plant in buckets or bags on top of it!  After all I learned at the forum, I think I also want to say:
1.  Plant your food!
2.  Support local, chemical-free gardens and farms!
3.  Try to learn something new about global food production and how US policies and trade impact people who live in poverty and small farmers around the world.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Student for a Day

The forum was entitled Seguridad y Soberanía Alimentaria en El Salvador - Food Security and Sovereignty in El Salvador.  The event was hosted by the University of El Salvador and featured speakers and honored guests from a number of ecologically-focused organizations, including the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, which is how I happened to be invited.

In previous visits to the university, Pastor Santiago and I have met with student groups and visited with faculty connected to students from the church.  This was the type of meeting I was expecting, but as I wandered onto the campus, found the economics quad, saw the large number of people in line outside the auditorium and learned Pastor Santiago was an honored guest, I realized this was something different.

Pastor Santiago and I sat in the front of the lecture hall with other invited guests.  The hall was filled with fifth year economics students, for whom this was a required event.  About 20 of the senior students who wore bright blue t-shirts were facilitating the event as well as conducting interviews with various eco leaders and activists, including Pastor Santiago.  By the time the first speaker began, the room was so crowded that students were sitting on the floor.  I pulled out my notebook -- this event was right up my alley.  This was going to be a fantastic learning opportunity.

OK, so, a really, really long time ago, I was a university student, and I actually took a class in economics.  However, following these amazing speakers with the data they presented in a language which is not my first language was exhausting, and exhilarating.  The passion with which these speakers charged the students to take their knowledge into their own small communities to effect real change and to work concretely with the government on food justice and ecology issues was infectious.

Stories are typically what stick with me.

Doris Evangelista spoke first about the legislative process for passing a Food Sovereignty law and the progress which has been made through activism.  (Food Sovereignty means a country, like El Salvador, will grow its own food for its own people.  Trade agreements and multi-national corporate interests have great force in determining what products are grown on the land and what practices are used.)  The speaker gave students specific instructions about how they can attend legislative hearings and secure meetings with representatives.  Then she provided some illustrations from her own research:

In Sonsonate, we talked with agricultural workers as we gathered data for a study of the impact which working in the cane fields has on the campesinos who work in the cane fields or in their own small plots near the fields.  One worker said he had searched for years for land to rent.  Finally he found a plot and he paid $100 per season to rent the land.  Each year, for three years, he grew companion crops together in the plot using healthy practices and was able to grow enough to feed his family.  This year he went to the owner to pay his rent and the owner said the plot was no longer available.  The sugar cane producer (with a large field of production nearby) offered significantly more money to rent the plot and grow cane.  

This is the way in which small farmers have lost access to land, and the way in which production of food to eat has given way to production of sugar to sell and production of hunger in poor families.

We talked to another farmer in Sonsonate who had rented a small plot to grow loroco.  He had a beautiful crop almost ready to harvest.  Then the cane producer sprayed weed killer all over the cane field and it killed the loroco.  The farmer went to the cane producer to complain, but was told that is the risk you take when you rent land next to the cane field.

And then there is water.  In the Bajo Lemma (Lemma River Basin) we talked to a campesino who had a small plot of crops.  During the drought he watered his plot from the river, then it was dry.  The water table had fallen so low that he could not get water from a well.  Nearby, the grand sugar cane fields had sprinklers running, day and night.  He had to watch his crops die because the cane stole all the water.

El Salvador we negotiated a trade deal with China to export sugar and everyone was applauding because this would bring economic development.  But what did it really bring?  Cancer,  Renal insufficiency.  Babies born with renal insufficiency.  Less access to land to grow food.  Economic development for whom?
Invited dignitary being interviewed by students