I've fallen in love

Colombia, September 12, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mary Tam/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Helpers came in all shapes and sizes, excited to participate in the community action. Photo: Mary Tam/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Me and Luis Carlos taking a breather during the Colombiaton clean up. Photo: Jennifer Schmidt/Mercy Corps

I have fallen in love … with Colombia.

Our team arrived six days ago and over the last few days I have gathered a number of observations and, more importantly, have learned that inspiration often comes in small packages.

Observation #1: Expect delays. Plans here are fluid and we constantly adjust to circumstances beyond our control. We missed out on visiting survivors of land mine explosions in Samaniego due to a storm. However, we landed safely the following day and were welcomed by the kind of dense heat that immediately soaks into your skin. One of our first field visits was to a school that participates in our Espacios Para Crecer (Spaces to Grow) program. There we met children who had previously spent their days selling fish, shucking oysters, working at corner stores and selling fast food. The children explained that before they had no time to play or, what we like to refer to in the states as, just be kids. Worse, such jobs make the children extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The children shared some of their favorite activities – playing, drawing, fútbol. I ended the visit having learned new handshakes, wishing I had more time to spend with them.

Observation #2: Be ready for location changes. We were visiting el Hospital Universitario Departamental de Nariño (the local hospital in Nariño) when we received word that a bomb had exploded not far from the location of our next visit. Hence, the decision was made to meet at a local school instead of the original park. Regardless of the location change, we were still able to meet a group of multiplicadores (youth leaders) of the Vivo Jugando program, which combines sports and dialogue to address issues of gender based violence. These teenagers trained for four months to teach other children and youth of all ages about equality and respect. The youth hope to continue this program, but much depends on funding and school partnerships. One of the youth leaders noted that boys and girls learn to play together but that these lessons extend far beyond the playground and into the home, and beyond the home into daily life. I left there telling Oscar, an employee of our local implementation partner, that these kids are more mature than I am. It wasn’t an exaggeration.

Observation #3: “Just do it.” Nike supports the Vivo Jugando program by providing participants with uniforms, shoes and soccer balls – prized possessions in these communities. These words are much more than a slogan, which I learned while visiting a settlement called Colombiatón, where thousands of displaced families have relocated due to natural disasters or conflict. There we met with youth who were taking community issues into their own hands with the help of Mercy Corps.

We gathered in a small park surrounded by adolescent mango trees. Fernando Torres, Civil Society Coordinator, told us that all the trees we saw in the park and surrounding neighborhood had been planted by the youth. We participated in a park cleanup as well and embarrassingly my gringo hand developed a blister after just a couple minutes of weed wacking with the machete. As we began to collect leaves and trash, children and community members trickled out to help.

By the end, our cleanup crew had just about tripled in size. The youth leaders have hopes of expanding their work beyond environmental concerns to address the serious issue of gang activity. They wisely advised that if you want to make something happen you just have to do it, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you. As we piled into our van upon leaving, I wondered what our world would look like if every person on earth had the same initiative as these kids.

Colombia’s current tourism campaign includes an ad that reads, “Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay.” While this is obviously not true for the nationals who face displacement, exploitation, poverty, economic deprivation and violence, it is certainly true for visitors. I’m already fantasizing about how I might return and be absorbed into a culture of passion, music, inspiration and sharing. I wish I could stay longer.