Lessons from Panama

Angela Bosse was one of 16 university students going to a rural community in Panama to do human rights work with Global Brigades, a non-profit organization focused on helping communities in developing countries. Here’s what she learned:

Realize you know nothing

No matter how much research you do, no matter how much you prepare, the vast majority of your work is going to be from what you learn on the ground once you get there. We prepared for months, and we were still confronted every day with unexpected challenges. I felt this as soon as I stepped off the plane with my backpack and was hit by a wall of tropical humidity unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The sense of the unknown was terrifying and exciting.

The joy of camaraderie

Not all of us were human rights students. Some had never left the country before. Only four of us spoke fluent Spanish (yours truly not included).

As we rolled down the Pan-American highway past jungle growth and banana trees, my Type-A brain whirled with questions. How is the group dynamic going to work once we are all stuck together for a week? What will our living conditions be like? Are we prepared enough for the family cases? We also had two girls joining our group from Pennsylvania State University who nobody had even talked to before. Are they prepared? Will they mesh well with the rest of us?

But I needn’t have worried. Our team was amazing. Even in the face of difficulties like a last-minute family case change — with all new circumstances and information— to a power outage during a thunderstorm, to dealing with humid 38-degree weather every day, the group met everything with a positivity that astounded everyone from our translators to our coordinator.

As cliché as it sounds, the bonds forged in that one week of heat and insect repellent will last a lifetime. There was such joy, camaraderie and genuine friendship in the group, by the end of the week it felt like we had been together for a month.

The generosity of those with the least

One of the most poignant moments for me was when we visited the home of the woman who heads the community bank in Zapallal, the town we were working in.

From a North American perspective, the house would be considered poor: the floors were dirt, there were cracks and holes in the walls and the wires for the few bare lightbulbs were exposed along the beams of the ceiling. Everything was open to the air and the outdoors. Chickens ran around freely. But it was tidy. If you looked past the little bits of dirt, you could tell the house was well cared for, and kept with pride. There were family photos on the wall, lots of benches and chairs for guests and friends. It was someone’s home.

It was my own consciousness of these thoughts, judging this woman’s house from my own standards, that made me feel guilty. This woman was generously opening her home to me and welcoming me in. I felt such gratitude for what she was doing for us, and what I had seen all through that week was reaffirmed: the kindest and most generous people are those that have the least.

How expectations reveal assumptions

As a journalism student, I’ve learned there are always two sides to any story, which helped me cultivate awareness of my own biases on this trip. That tool was invaluable, because when you go to a new country, your perspectives and assumptions are going to be challenged constantly. What’s interesting is how your expectations reveal those assumptions.

For example, indoor plumbing. In many places in Latin America, even in the cities, the pipes are too old and narrow to safely flush toilet paper down. Before this trip, it had never occurred to me that if you had indoor plumbing there might still be restrictions on how you use it. My North American expectation would have been if you have indoor plumbing, then you can flush toilet paper down it.

This is just a minor example of what life is like for so many people. It’s just a little thing, but it dictates part of how people live their lives.

Balancing journalism and volunteerism

In addition to just being a volunteer, I was also responsible for filming everything to make a video of the work our brigade did.

When you are already invading people’s private lives as they tell you about their personal problems during legal clinics and they welcome you into their homes, one of the rudest things you can do is shove a camera in their face. In addition to language, my camera felt like an added barrier between myself and the people I was interacting with.

As a storyteller gathering material, it can be difficult to step back and give your subject space, particularly in a situation where you have only one chance to capture the moment. Learning to balance my need to tell the story and my desire to be non-intrusive was my biggest challenge on this journey. I learned how to introduce myself in Spanish to people and explain what I was doing with my camera and tripod set up, and then ask their permission to film. Very few people said no.

How change works

While working in the community, I was struck by how the people I encountered lead lives that were so similar to mine. The human experience of growing up, getting married, having babies, even getting divorced — it’s universal. The difference for people there is that the simplest things we often take for granted, like getting a marriage license, are inaccessible.

There isn’t always much you can do to change things. The problems are so entrenched in the political and legal structure, and even when you can help, what you can give may only do so much. Global Brigades makes that very clear with their holistic model. The whole point of the work they do with their volunteers is helping the communities improve and grow in a self-sufficient, sustainable way to the point where they no longer need Global Brigades’ help. It’s the kind of volunteer work that actually makes change.

Reasons for hope

The engagement we received from the community members was so encouraging. Our legal clinics were full of people coming to ask questions and learn how to solve their problems. In our adult workshop there was an amazing discussion about gender roles and how to change them. The majority of our audience were women — young mothers, teachers, grandmothers.

One woman told a story of how she had four daughters and one son, and she raised her son to do the same domestic chores her daughters did. When her husband questioned her, she told him she was making sure their son would never have to be dependent on a woman, and that no chore or task is beneath him because he is a man. Her daughters were taught the same, to be independent. After this woman finished, another one stood up and said, “I am her daughter. And because I was raised this way, this is the way I am raising my daughters.”

This is how change happens over generations. It was so empowering to see these women engage in a conversation about how they assert their independence. And as the older woman pointed out, it’s a two-way street. In Latin culture, women are expected to do all the domestic work and the men are expected to go to work, then come home to eat and sleep. This system makes both parties dependent on each other, although the balance of power is often unequal. Without the man, the woman has little to no income. Without the woman, how will the man eat? How will his house and clothes be cleaned?

After hearing that talk, I remember looking around the schoolyard of children running and playing and feeling sadness for the hardships they face, but also hope in them to be part of the generation that changes the future.

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