Fiscally nuts. Socially insane.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Inside Ecuador

This past week, I went on an eight day Christian (no, I'm not religious) service trip to Ecuador. Our twelve man group left almost two weeks after the Ecuadorian-Venezuelan-Columbian triangular conflict hit the news, so to be honest, I was a bit worried. I never really thought Ecuadorians would be dumb enough to kidnap Americans on a poverty immersion trip, but I didn't put it past Chavez and the Venezuelan government.
I soon realized I had nothing to worry about. As I assumed, the Ecuadorian people have no problem with Americans. In fact, they welcome us into their homes with open arms. Most of them wish they were American, considering their state of poverty.
What I didn't count on, though, was the absolute lack of interest from the Ecuadorian government in our location, Duran. Duran is a suburb of the city of Guayaquil, and its residents live in a horrific form of poverty; most live on a dollar or slightly more a day. Located geographically opposite and politically unimportant to Quito, the government simply doesn't care. The current president, Raphael Correa, ran on the platform of reforms for the poor, but has largely ignored them since his election. So my outlandish kidnapping and death concerns were dispelled quickly.
We were welcomed into the Rostro de Cristo mission (excellent organization) in this urban-ish area, and it was here where we spent the week. The idea of their organization is building relationships with the people of Ecuador, so we spent our immersion week playing soccer, getting absolutely crushed in Ecuadorian checkers, playing cards with patients at the Padre Damien foundation for Hansen's Disease (leprosy; yes, it's still around, and still terrible), and learning all we could from these people about the government from their perspective.
Considering almost the entire country is in poverty despite the very, very elite, and education and health care systems are dismal at best, socialism seems to be the common strategy of the people. They all want better schools; they all want to, well, not die when they get sick (at this point, both those things are slightly unrealistic). 
I understand a lot of things about Ecuador now. I mean really understand it; grasp it. The country is corrupt; presidents typically don't last a year before overthrow (Correa being an exception) and no crime is priceless. The medical system is in shambles. A third of Ecuadorians live on a dollar a day (I lived on two while down there, it's hard). I learned how much of the world lives like this. I mean really learned it, and really lived it.
But most importantly, I think, was the understanding that there is a major difference between poor and poverty. Poverty is a state physically impossible to overcome from the inside. Without structural changes to government, it is not actually possible for these people to move their way up economically. A man in Ecuador named Daniel (they all have very American names, which struck me as funny) was given the rare opportunity to live and study in America. His flight was paid for. His schooling was paid for. He attended Gateway Community College (not due to unintelligence, due to money) and received his Associates degree in medical technology, and he went back to Ecuador to live with his family. With one of the better resumes in the country, he began the job search. How is he now, five years later? Living on nothing, in the same floorless tin-roof house he grew up in. 
That is poverty.
See, the people who come from Duran are broken down into a few groups, educationally. The lowest group never tries high school. They didn't have money to buy school supplies, their family needed them to get a job. They probably make up 10% of the people I met. Another 50% are those who dropped out of high school because they ran out of money. Another 30%-40% finished high school. They next 10% started college and, again, ran out of money. The last 5%? They finished college, got a job in downtown Guayaquil, got fired because they could afford the 18¢ for the ten minute bus ride into the city, and wound up selling fried plantains on the corner for a dime the rest of their life. That is a state physically impossible to overcome. That is poverty.
There are parts of Duran known as land invasions. These are typically swampy areas taken over by people so poor that they actually travelled to Duran for work. These people settled on government land and built themselves beautiful 6x6 sugarcane and tin homes on stilts so they would be out of the disturbingly stagnant and disease infested water. Since it was government land, though, the government showed up with bulldozers. They knocked every home down, giving people just enough time to retrieve only themselves. They usually left behind the small amount of stuff they actually owned. Then the government left, and the people rebuilt. The government came back and did it all again. And they rebuilt. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. "This happens all the time, all around Ecuador," A Rostro volunteer, Nate said. "It goes on until either the government or the people give up. "In this case," he said, pointing behind him into the never ending swampland mess, "the people won." It is called Veintiocho de Augusto (Twentieth of August), after the day the government gave up and handed over a deed to the land. The people live on twice-picked garbage dumped their by lazy garbage men who don't want to drive another twelve miles to the garbage dump.
That is poverty.
No one in America is in poverty. That statement, made by a politician, would get him or her never, ever, ever elected again. Ever. But after those last three paragraphs, I hope to God you agree. McCain was in the Appalachia area this week. Yes, these people are very poor. Their life sucks. But it is possible, with a little elbow grease (okay, okay, a lot of elbow grease), to get out. That is America, that is the dream that this country was founded on. But most of the world doesn't live like that, and that sad realization is something I found myself forced to come to this week.
So I find myself driven to go back. I want to go back and help these people. The personal relationships I formed with so many have honestly changed me. Oswaldo, Roxy, Maria, Brian, Aide, Diana, Gabriel. They are no longer faces on "Adopt a Child" commercials. I understand that they are real people, living real lives, and they need help.
Maybe some day you'll get down there yourself; my words just don't suffice.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I really want to read this, but I don't want to rush it. Don't let me forget to read/comment on this post!