Something To Count On

Tuesday night I had a plan. Not big plans, a little plan. A friend had lent me the 5th season of West Wing on DVD, and since I had hit the gym on my way to work that morning, I would get home early enough to make a nice dinner and watch an episode or two. Not exactly Paris at night, but I was looking forward to it.

As I drove home, I thought of what I might make, and settled on a dish that I came to love when I was living in Japan. Gyoza, which in Chinese restaurants are called potstickers, are half-moon shaped dumplings stuffed with minced vegetables and meat, then pan-fried. My own adaptation is to toss them onto a bed of chopped lettuce, tomato, bell pepper and spring onions, then add a dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, and chili oil. It makes my mouth water just writing that now, so as you might guess, I was looking forward to it Tuesday.

Except when I got home there was no electricity. That’s not that unusual here; usually it lasts about a half an hour, so I lit a few candles and did other things. An hour came an went. I was getting pretty hungry, so I nibbled on what was in the fridge. I opened a book my cousin had given me for Christmas, and began reading it by candle light.

Another hour, I nibbled some more. The book, The Art of Political Murder, was engrossing, so I just kept reading and nibbling. Finally, about 9 o’clock, I gave up on making dinner and decided to have a bowl of cereal. Just as I poured the milk, the lights came on. Three hours of patience, poorly rewarded.

The book, however, didn’t dissapoint. It’s an account of the 1998 murder of Monseñor Gerardi just days after his office published a report on the massacres which took place during Guatemala’s vicious civil war. That report blamed the army and associated paramilitary groups for 80% of the massacres. In Guatemala, openly accusing powerful figures of wrongdoing is an act of tremendous courage, because it frequently is answered by repression and violence. Bishop Gerardi knew this, and the author of the book suggests that he might have believed his status as a high-profile Bishop of the Catholic Church offered some protection against open retribution. If he was counting on that, rather than just courage, he was proved terribly wrong; he was killed in his garage by repeated blows to the head with a block of concrete.

Though I’m only a couple chapters into it, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand Guatemala. Author Francisco Goldman is an accomplished writer, and by portraying the heroism of those who fight for justice, he also captures the fear, repression, and impunity which dominate so much of Guatemalan life, just below the surface. It’s the Guatemala that most visitors thankfully never experience, but that is a basic fact of life for those who live here.

Most of us know that the majority of Guatemalans live in poverty, and we try to imagine its effects on people’s lives. Maybe we get the gist of it, though of course until one is personally experiencing it, long-term, with few possibilities, we can’t really know. Even harder to fathom, though, is the effect of living in a climate of fear and repression, of impunity by government officials, common criminals, and even one’s neighbors. There simply isn’t the sense of security, of being able to count on institutions like police or courts or neighborhood solidarity, that encourage one to stand up for what is right. So, often, good people keep their heads down, swallow their anger, and just try to get by without provoking any more problems.

A few years back it occurred to me that one of the strengths of Common Hope is that it’s something people can count on. For affiliates living in an unstable world, where events beyond their control — job loss, illness, street crime, earthquakes — constantly threaten to overtake them, we are a rare, constant presence in their lives. When we affiliate a family we make a long-term commitment toward long-term goals. We encourage them to dream, to make plans, to believe that they can improve their lives through getting a high school education, through changing destructive habits, through treating, or better yet, preventing disease. We make it clear that as long as they do their part, we’ll do ours. And we have a 20-year record of kept promises.

There is a lot that is beyond our control. Bad things still happen to affiliated families, and to our staff, and our supporters, for that matter. Then there are the broader events of the day: Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil at $110 a barrel, a recession looming. There is a lot beyond our control, but we are not powerless, and most of us do not live in a state of fear, repression, and impunity. We look to count on something, and see each other.

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2 Responses to Something To Count On

  1. ale April 10, 2008 at 8:38 am #

    The Art of Political Murder is an excellent book! definetely worth reading for anyone interested in Guatemala. We finished it right before visiting the Police Archives in Guate City. The book allowed us to better appreciate and understand what we saw and learned that day.

    Great post!!

  2. Sally Westby April 28, 2008 at 1:46 pm #

    Jeff – thanks for the info on the new Francisco Goldman book. He is one of my favorite new authors. If you haven’t read them, his fiction books are really something. All the best, Sally.

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