Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Hope for Change in Los Pajarillos

Posted by Mary Liu at Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It’s been a little over a month since I left Honduras. Now that I’m back to the fast-paced life of rotations and hopping from city to city, I immediately notice the blatant disparities between my current lifestyle and those people in Los Pajarillos, Honduras. #1, I drive a car to rotations, while they walk 2 hours down and up a mountain to go to and from work. #2, I went from DC to Ann Arbor to San Diego to Calabasas just this past weekend, while many of them have never left their village, let alone visited a metropolis. #3, I have dined out an inordinate amount this past month in DC, while they make their own food from scratch daily. #4, I constantly use my Blackberry to go on the Internet or connect with people, while the entire village lives without electricity. It’s disturbing witnessing myself slip right back into my old lifestyle even after I was exposed to something as eye-opening as this experience.

To go back to the beginning, I had decided to go on this trip with a friend of mine, Sheerali. We wanted to get out into the world to show what we were made of. After all, we were in school for so long and seeing only the four walls of a classroom or the library can make you a little antsy. Most importantly, we wanted to step out of our Ann Arbor bubble and challenge ourselves, using the tools we have gained from school and life experiences, in a completely foreign environment. We were aware of the Honduras Medical Brigade, which several pharmacy students always participate in every year. But we were seeking a more dynamic interaction with people in the community, where we would not be limited to the walls of a pharmacy dispensing medication. The Honduras Public Health Brigade had just started its first year here at Michigan, so Sheerali and I decided to join.

The Brigade seemed perfect for us, except for the fact that neither of us remembered any Spanish from our high school years. And speaking from experience, it’s not like riding a bike. The language doesn’t instantaneously come back to you once you’re in a country full of Spanish-speaking people. So I intended to borrow Spanish tapes, like Rosetta Stone, thinking I could go from non-speaking to fluent in a few weeks. I even brought my old Spanish notes from high school and my little English-Spanish translator. It turns out that what you learn from reading text on sheets of paper and electronic devices can only take you so far, especially when the electronic device stops working once you arrive in the country. I ultimately relearned Spanish while speaking with the children who attended the 1-classroom school in Los Pajarillos.

At first glance, this classroom looked like any other classroom in the states. It had desks, chairs, workbooks, and drawings on the wall made by the students. But once the students entered, you noticed the difference immediately. Forty to 50 children rushed in, boys and girls ranging in age from four to 13 years old. Some walked in without shoes. None carried book bags. And there was only one teacher for the entire school. But, somehow, it all worked. The children had bright smiles on their faces, eager to learn.

The first day we went to the school, we handed out yellow toothbrushes to each child. We also taught them a song that went to the tune of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”:

Cepillense los dientes, los dientes, los dientes

Cepillense los dientes, dos veces al dia.

Si no lo hacen, tendran dolor, tendran dolor, tendran dolor

Si no lo hacen, tendran dolor, recuerde los cuidarte.

We quickly realized, however, that the kids weren’t familiar with “Mary Had A Little Lamb” when they started singing the song to the tune of “Frère Jacques” instead. Whatever works, right? After we lectured on the importance of brushing your teeth daily, we took the kids outside around the pila and practiced brushing teeth. The kids must have thought it was a competition, because they brushed vigorously for well over five minutes, until white foam bubbled out of their mouths and dripped down to the ground. When it was time to wash up, all the kids fought for the faucet. Some even went inside the pila to wash up. They tucked their toothbrushes in their pockets as we went onto our next activity: freeze tag. The brigaders were the “bad guys”: plaque, gingivitis, missing teeth, illness, etc. If a child was tagged, he could only be saved when tapped by a toothbrush from one of the designated “good guys”, which were one of the children we chose to rescue fellow classmates. We went back a second day to teach the children about wound care. Ultimately, we hope that we got an important message across about health and hygiene to the children. Understandably, one lesson may not change their behavior, but repetition of this lesson from their teacher may.

Our main work was to focus on helping a family that was chosen by the Basic Sanitation Committee (CSB) to build structures vital to good sanitation practices: a latrine (toilet), pila (sink), stove, and concrete floors. With only eight people in our group (seven females, one male) in our Brigade Team, and the majority of us with no prior woodworking experience, our work was cut out for us. Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, a few of us had some experience using tools. I was dubbed a pro with the hammer. Unfortunately, that skill was only limited to hammering nails straight down and at no other angle whatsoever. Sam discovered that cutting metal wasn’t her forte, but bending and breaking it was. Sheerali found a knack for the saw, and thank goodness for Andrew, who was a jack-of-all-trades. We all pitched in to mix cement, gravel, and dirt to form the concrete floors. I focused on building the latrine for the rest of the week, which required woodwork, brick-laying, melting plastic, and cutting aluminum and metal. After completing the final touches on it, I had the honor of testing it out.

The family, as I mentioned before, was chosen by the CSB. This committee was formed in June 2009 by members of the community who voiced concerns about the overall health and hygiene in their area. They created a survey which inquired each household about their living conditions, with specific questions such as “Do they have concrete floors?”, “Do they have a latrine?”, and “Do they use their latrine?”. After latrines fill up, a family has to dig another hole to hold the waste. Not everyone digs another hole, but instead, uses a neighbor’s latrine or goes out in the bushes. Recognizing that people who fail to meet the aforementioned criteria can damage their own health as well as the health of the entire community, the CSB goes out to each household once a month to follow up on each family’s progress.

This particular family consisted of husband Santos Velasquez, wife Maria Cardona, Maria’s sister Yoni (age 14), and children Deinis (age 10), Yosos (age seven), Milis (age 4), and Garis (age 2). Their “extended” family included a hen with her chicks, two doggitos, a mule, and one scrawny, orange cat. The cat was famished, dirty, and surrounded by mosquitos when we first saw him. I felt as if it was my duty to fatten this cat up by the time I left. I was even tempted to smuggle it back to the states with me. Sure enough, as the days went by, the cat looked healthier, cleaner, and cared for. On our last day working on the house, I started worrying about what would happen to the cat after we left. Who would feed him? Where would he get his food from? Would he ever reach a healthy weight? These questions triggered larger questions about the family and community. Would the amount of toothpaste, soap, and shoes be sufficient for one family? Would the children at the school still remember to brush their teeth daily?

I left Los Pajarillos with conflicting thoughts: a sense of accomplishment for the hard work we had done, but also a sense of urgency for all of the work that lies ahead. My goal is to return to communities like Los Pajarillos to implement improvements in health that are sustainable.

Change, whether for an entire community or just for a single individual like myself, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work and a conscious effort to improve your life and those around you. But, as long as you make the effort and have the patience to see it through, a change is possible, and well worth it.


Unknown said...

Sounds amazing Mary! I'm encourage to want to make a lasting difference in the lives of those less fortunate!

Anonymous said...

Great job, Mary.


Anonymous said...

I'm inspired! :)
What an incredible experience! Good luck with any and all future endeavors...

Anonymous said...

I'm inspired! :)

What an incredible experience! Best of luck with any and all future endeavors!

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