Author Archive

Nicaragua and Guatemala

Wednesday, March 31st, 2004

Nicaragua-Guatemala: –observing first hand the problems created by US interventions and local efforts to recover

Nicaragua and Guatemala in March 2004, I jumped at the chance. I had never visited either country, though I had used texts about the roles women played both in resistance and in rebuilding their societies. The politics swirling around those countries during the1980s are emblematic of current debates about how the US should use its considerable power abroad: big stick versus carrot, military interventions versus development assistance; trade and US corporations versus local enterprise.

The trip was organized by MercyCorps as part of their effort to provide donors and friends with a deeper understanding of their distinct approach to development by on site visits. Our trip was unique because all participants were women and we would focus on projects affecting women: the shorthand title was Women to Women, W2W. The headquarters of MercyCorps are in Portland, the largest of five nongovernmental international organizations in the city.

Many MC staff frequent my monthly Development Salons which provide a gathering place for the amazing number of residents of the area who are deeply involved in development projects or studies. After wine and cheese, someone talks about their work: about ICT linking Nepal residents and diaspora, new types of microenterprise in Afghanistan, community development in Tanzania, politics in Indonesia, immunization in the Philippines. The Salon has provided an international ambiance and contacts for all participants. At the salons, I heard about the distinct approach of MercyCorps to development assistance, and I was curious how rhetoric played on the ground. So I added days on both ends of the official trip to meet members of the local development community on my own.

Green Empowerment is a much smaller NGO in Portland that works with partner organizations in Central and South America and in Asia on renewable energy projects to provide electricity and water to poor villagers. Its Nicaraguan projects continue the work undertaken by a fund set up in memory of Ben Linder, who grew up in Portland; another component is the Borneo Project, started by Berkeley students. Jaime Enrique Munoz heads Asofenix, an affiliate of GE that receives Canadian fund to improve the living of poor women and children. His group promotes biogas, solar cookers, and improved Lorena stoves for household; they also install solar panels on community buildings and install microhydro dams for energy and potable water. Once a Sandinista official, he resigned in order to work with the poor; he runs a tiny pulperia (general store) out of his house and works on some renewable energy projects.

The original Lorena stove, made of adobe and popular in the highlands of Central America, was touted in the 1970s as an efficient stove that would reduce the amount of fuel consumed, espcially in the Sahel. The stove’s ambient heat was hardly an advantage in the Sahara; further, women lacked tools to chop the wood into small sizes. Nor do the poor in much of the developing world use wood for cooking; rather they burn fuelwood consisting of anything from leaves to straw to paper. Jamie says the Lorena stove doesn’t work well in Nicaragua because with poor quality dirt in the adobe, the stove actually burns faster. This fascinated me, as I was for a short time an energy “expert” arguing that most improved cookstoves did not work well outside the laboratories of well-meaning proponents of appropriate technology. Rather, these stoves often increased the pressure on women’s time. In that vein, I wrote “The Real Rural Energy Crisis: Women’s Time.” Jaime’s improved stoves, made of concrete with steel linings, saves 50% of the fuel. Because of its expense, street food vendors are the major purchasers.

Fundacion Solar in Guatemala is also a partner of Green Empowerment. Their programs seemed better funded than those of Asofenix. GE provided a technical review of a community-owned micro hydro project in Chel, Quiche, and then helped facilitate a $25,000 CO2 emission reduction credit trade between the indigenous community group in Chel and a Canadian foundation, EnerGreen. This trade is significant because it establishes a precedent for small non-profits in developing countries to benefit from the emerging greenhouse gas credit market.

I was equally curious about the Sandinist women’s movement in Nicaragua. Articles I had used in my Women’s Studies courses at UC Berkeley reflected both a revolutionary zeal and a social conservatism. Virginia Vijil, who organized the Nicaraguan part of the MC trip, arranged for an intoxicating series of talks by women leaders in Nicaragua that delved into these issues as background for our visit to MC projects upcountry.

On the first day we met for an early breakfast with Dora Maria Tellez, from 1985-1990 the Minister of Health in the Sandinista government, current member of the Nicaraguan parliament, and a recent candidate for mayor of Managua. In 1979, she was one of two comandantes who led the attack on the presidential palace in Managua which led eventually to the end of the Somoza regime. She is famously quoted as saying that the women who fought with her were “militants by day and traditional oppressed women at night.” This in an army that was one-third women and which had special uniforms for pregnant fighters.

While Dora noted that the revolution had opened doors for women in politics and education, and given them options for work, she reiterated how hard it is to change family and community structure. Her personal style and dress openly declare that she is a lesbian, yet she remains a commanding figure in the country. A local writer commented that “coming out” in a patriarchal country itself sends a message.

Dora is frustrated with the current political system. The 35 parties, which are grouped in parliament into five coalitions, make instituting new policies difficult. She argues that the closed list system encourages splintering among right and left by giving power to the party heads. Dora feels that voting for individuals in a single constituency system would require the winners to have greater response to the people. What about women in parliament? Because parties have informal quotas, 10% of members are women. Dora also commented wryly that many women are judges because the low pay discourages men.

When asked why the US supported the Contras, Dora replied “we are the backyard of the US.” During the revolution, our rhetoric frighted interests in the US, yet we tended to “talk hard and act soft. We need to reverse that.” Dora wishes the US elites would stop “cooking our power.” She continued: US policies such as free trade dominate us today despite the opposition by most parties, yet US supplies a mere 6% of international assistance; most comes from Europe. The contra war undermined the successes of the revolution: we eradicated polio, but now malaria is endemic, and 20% of the kids have no access to school. This reversal, after all our commitment and effort, is enervating: our enthusiasm is gone.

The exhaustion of revolution was echoed by several peasant women we met in Masaya who told movingly about making explosives in their homes, of the siege and bombing by Somoza in 1979 with the help of Israeli troops, of sons killed or disappeared, and of belonging to the social movement Cursillos de Christiandad –rethinking life– which preached social responsibility, and which Somoza attacked. Overall, they seemed to think that the revolution had been good for women, but they felt betrayed by Daniel Ortega. Today, they said that new revolution is against global forces, not local.

The elite women and men I talked with were equally ambivalent about the meaning and impact of the revolution. Oligarchy prevails in the country; these families often split between supporters of Somoza and the Sandinistas. Virginia Vijil invited me to her birthday the day before the trip began where three of her four siblings, and their families, gathered. Her sister had supported Somoza and continued to argue that it was the Sandinistas that bombed Managua; Virginia countered that only Somoza had airplanes. A brother and Virginia’s ex-husband had both been ministers in the Sandinista government.

Virginia’s house was the back section of the larger building that had once been occupied by her family. An early supporter of the Sandinist movement, she refused to use her husband’s position in the ministry to obtain scarce commodities while he enjoyed the fruits of power. Over time she became disillusioned with many of the Sandinista leaders, but also with the conservative head of the Catholic Church, though not with her religion: her house is filled with symbols and she gives financial support to nuns working in a nearby slum. After her divorce, Virginia rented the front part of the house to an international organization, then studied for a law degree. For 20 years she worked for the UN, primarily in the country; but her last assignment was in East Timor.

From so many voices, certain themes emerged. Sandinista supporters said “we were arrogant, tried to do too much too fast.” Literacy campaigns spread all over the country in the 1980s; but today schools and teachers are underfunded and peasants see no reason to send their kids to school. Peace allowed money to flow to the elite, encouraging corruption in government and outside. Most Nicaraguans are poor, 42% earn less than one dollar a day. NGOs, a new phenomena in post revolutionary times, are taking up the slack in social services. Without the heavy-handed US intervention, many think the revolution would have learned from its early mistakes and succeeded in establishing a more egalitarian society.

As in many revolutions, women participated and died, but the men still expected to assume their patriarchal dominance once the war was over. The conservative churches, both the dominant Catholic and the growing Evangelical, support tradition. Post-revolution, men migrated to the US for jobs. One third of households are women headed; 70% of the workforce are women; domestic violence is widespread. Electing a woman, Violeta, as president resulted in “air circulation,” commented one feminist, but now situations are stiff and it is hard to breath. A community worker summed up the malaise in the society: Nicaragua suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

Many Catholics bemoaned the political role of the conservative church hierarchy and praised progressive orders such as the Maryknolls who promoted a people’s church. The continued hold of Catholicism in Nicaraguan politics is illustrated by the story of Rosa. In 2003, Rosa, the 9 year old daughter of poor Nicaraguans working on a plantation in Costa Rica, was raped and became pregnant. When her parents took her to a doctor, she was “held hostage” to prevent her return to Nicaragua. At this point, the story appeared in the newspaper and feminists from Managua were able to bring Rosa to a hotel room to discuss what she wanted to do. Once she said she “wanted the thing out,” the feminists were able to sneak her back to Managua. Therapeutic abortion is legal in Nicaragua under a law passed during the Sandinista period, but the publicity forced the government to set up a panel to decide the case. When the panel was indecisive, an abortion took place even though the Minister of Health objected. Soon after this incident, a ten year old Nica girl in Costa Rica was similarly raped; but she was forced to give birth.

During the two intensive days in Managua, before W2W began, I met local women and men activists and staff of international groups engaged in development, many of which arrange for volunteers from the States to come to Nicaragua for humanitarian projects. A teenaged group from a Canadian church was on the plane, headed out to build a playing field A medical doctor from Oklahoma was on his sixth trip in two years to train doctors in new techniques for hearing loss; he had also set up a clinic in Jinotega to treat what he feels is an epidemic of hearing loss among children in the region. Funds for his clinic come from friends, his church, and himself. Doctors who receive his training in Managua agree to volunteer in the clinic.

This use of volunteers is particularly significant in Nicaragua, though a glance at volunteer opportunities in Central America also lists many possibilities in Guatemala and Honduras. They come for weeks or years, a curious reverse flow as so many Nicas immigrate to the US because there are no jobs at home. The volunteers fill in gaps for construction of sports grounds and hospitals. I recall that after WW II, students took boats to Europe to help rebuild roads and schools. Later planes took students to Africa for a summer experience. Since 1961, Peace Corps has provided an more intense involvement for many people, but requires a two year commitment. Whatever the length of time volunteers spend in a developing country anywhere, their work clearly impacts more on their own lives than on the communities they come to assist.

Two projects stand out. A diminutive Italian school teacher, Zelina Roccia, had come to Nicaragua in the 1990s and was astounded at the number of street children, a post- Sandinista phenomena. After raising money in Italy, she returned to set up the Quinchos project, in many ways the most successful project for street kids I have observed, and I have visited such projects in India, Indonesia, and Brazil. What is different is the method first of weaning the kids from inhaling glue, and then of reinserting them in society by placing them in local schools in the rural town of San Marcos, away from the street influences of Managua. Two boys are now studying in Cuba. The girls’ houses are new, on the far side of San Marcos. But they join the boys and children of the local community at cultural events, dancing, singing, plays, at the community center placed half way between.

Lillian Hall arranged this visit. She came down as a recent Cornell graduate during the revolution and found herself volunteering for the Ministry of Agriculture in areas invaded by the Contras. Lillian recalled some near-misses, remarking casually that the Contras targeted those who were involved in education, health, or agriculture, hoping to undercut any advances by the Sandinistas. Young urban high school and college students, volunteering with the National Literacy Campaign, were particularly targeted. Lillian has remained in the country, except for earning an advanced degree. Supported by ProNica, a service project of the Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, she identifies projects like the Quinchos for assistance and coordinates a center where volunteers who come to work on these projects stay when in Managua.

The Jubilee House Community (JHC) is another example of how a few dedicated people can make a difference. For over a decade, JHC worked with homeless and battered women in North Carolina; post-revolution misery in Nicaragua drew them, and in 1994 a group of five adults moved south with their children to begin community development in Cuidad Sandino, a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Managua that was overwhelmed by refugees from the 1998 Hurricane Mitch and has 80% unemployment. Volunteers are an essential part of their planning. The day I visited, students and faculty from Bucknell University were receiving orientation from Mike Woodard, one of the original founders. The university sends volunteers every semester who must have taken courses to prepare them for their two week project building a health clinic in Nueva Vida, a self-built housing community down a rutted road from the JHC center. Mike showed us the garbage dump, used by Nueva Vida residents, which is in a dry river bed. Rains carry the refuse throughout the area. He also pointed out the grafitti on many houses, tagged by former Los Angeles gang members who have brought their violence back with them when they returned.

A European NGO had built modern bungalows across the road from JHC for teachers, and I mistook them for Nueva Vida. No, said Mike, those NGOs imposed their ideas without consultation. So they made two major mistakes: the homes were connected but Nicaraguans like single dwellings. Also, they placed the septic tanks in the back yard right under the rooms that most occupants built to enlarge the homes.

Sanitation is a huge problem in this flat dry area. JHC itself built a type of latrine that was new to me. By siphoning off liquid waste and situating the curtained door toward the almost constant wind, this dry latrine had not yet needed to be dredged. Another innovation is an inexpensive water filters: ceramic lined with colloidal silver. Production has been perfected by JHC which sells the filter for five dollars! The filter is now reproduced globally.

Nearby, a huge shed housed a women-owned sewing cooperative “Maquilador Mujeres.” The women worked for two years with no pay to construct their future work site and today run the coop themselves. In 2002, the women made and sold over 60,000 organic cotton shirts and camisoles for Maggie’s Clean Clothes in Ann Arbor MI. Since my visit, the Sewing Cooperative has been designated a “free trade zone,” a first for a worker owned factory!

Both Quinchos and Jubilee House are run by foreigners and depend on foreign funds. In contrast, the MercyCorps project we visited in Jinotega, Aldea Global, a small farmer’s association that is now run entirely by its members. Started by MC in 1992 to increase food security and improved agricultural practices, and build small scale gravity flow irrigation systems, the association became an independent NGO in 1996 in order to reduce dependency on foreign leadership and funding.

After a few rocky years, the association is prospering. Our delegation was met with songs and a band when we arrived at their office: Virginia even danced with a board member! We then divided into three groups so that we could talk to the women and men who were the founders, the office workers, or board members. Coffee and beans are major crops; to increase income they have begun to grow organic coffee for export and have won several prizes for their product. MC is assisting in marketing this “single-origin” coffee. As VIPS, we were treated in the evening with a cultural program of traditional dance and skits.

Next morning we drove north into the dry farming area to meet women from a mircrocredit project. Songs and dances welcomed us to the community hall, decorated with balloons and a banner –perhaps the only one they had– that read “Happy Retirement.” The program opened with a prayer that was Catholic as compared to the Protestant prayer yesterday at the office; indeed the hall was on the grounds of a church and lunch was cooked in the church kitchen. One member described how they had increased egg production, and income raising a new breed of hen. Women had to build coops to keep these large layers from mixing with the tiny local chickens scrounging on the ground. They were taught to collect refuse from the coops to use for fertilizer, how to use old cooking oil to improve the feed; how to de-worm each hen twice a week.

As we walked to several villages to see the chicken coops, we attracted a procession of women, children, and a few men. All were dressed in odd combinations of second hand clothes often shipped by charitable organizations. Like too much food aid undermines local agriculture, these cheap clothes undermined the domestic textile industry. As we observed their carefully maintained chicken coops, the topic turned to the problem of water: for chickens and for people: kids sometimes stay home from school because they lack clean cloths. Gravity flow systems were overused and intermittent; wells were going dry lack of rain and high demand; lake access had been denied by a big landlord. What about family planning, I asked my escorts, as our procession walked up the dusty roads; the women laughed with embarrassment. A staff member said that Profamilia had a clinic but it sold condoms or pills which many could not afford. Contraceptives were free at the very public government clinic, discouraging women from going. Children were much in evidence throughout the day; they ran in and out of the hall or followed us to the villages: no school because of a teachers’ strike. Another example reflecting the poverty of the country.

Back in Managua, we packed for the early morning departure for Guatemala City. The transition from a colonial village to a modern city reflected the differing response of the US government to local yearnings for greater equity between wealthy elites and the poor villages. Through supporting the Contras, US bled the Nicaraguan revolution; through army support and training, the US backed Guatemalan dictators.

Instead of driving north to the MercyCorps project center in Coban, we waited for an afternoon interview with Wendy Berger, wife of the recently elected president of Guatemala. Tired from our early morning flights, we rested around a pool at the Marriott Hotel, then were briefed over lunch about MC programs and our agenda.

Arranged by the charismatic and politically savvy Guatemalan head of MC in the country, Borys Chinchilla, the meeting with the First Lady and her staff in the elegant reception hall in the executive office provided an opportunity for him to explain MercyCorps programs: the expansion of the Tucuru health center into a community resource and the new initiative to help settle land disputes between villagers and large, and usually absent, landowners. Such programs fit well with the policies of the new administration which reflected the longing for an end to the deep divisions in the country between the army and the Mayans. Berger had been the mayor of Guatemala City; his defeat of former dictator Rios Monte was a triumph for democracy. Wendy Berger, emphasizing that the country “needs it own recipe,” talked about the her desire to encourage more nongovernmental organizations and bring them together in a network to discuss priorities. Wendy underscored the importance of encouraging more women to vote, to for conflicts to be solved by mediation. To assist the poor, she wants to promote mircrocredit programs, health and nutrition, and improved cookstoves. Guatemala is the largest country in Central America with the most people in poverty.

The delay in our schedule put us into the worst of the almost all day traffic congestion caused by so much new road construction. We ate in a small café en route, arriving at our hotel late in the evening. With staff driving four cars, our trips in Guatemala were both more comfortable and more intimate than in the van we used in Nicaragua. After six days in close contact, our group was bonding despite the age span: two in their teens; three seniors; two in their thirties, and most in their fifties. Chair of the MC Board Linda Mason brought both her mother and her daughter; Cindy Albert Link brought her daughter. Six came from around Boston; six from the Northwest, including Mara Galaty, MC Director of Civil Society Initiatives. This variety was reflected as each woman introduced herself, and talked about her life and family, career choices, and expectations for the future. Our growing friendship enriched the trip immeasurably.

Coban is the capital of the province of Alta Verapaz, a remote and mountainous area north of Guatemala City which was never conquered by the Spanish. Security is still problematical, particularly in the valleys where rogue soldiers, demobilized but with no other jobs, continue the only job they know. For this reason, Borys enlisted a police escort for our four-car cavalcade as we descended toward Tucuru health center: two on motorcycles leading and a car following. Borys said he encouraged their participation by providing gasoline and a meal.

The drive was spectacular, but scary. I was in the front seat of the SUV that Borys was driving quite fast. Of course he not only knew the road well as he drives it several times a week, but waved to everyone along the way. I decided, if he does not die in an automobile accident, he might well become the country’s president. As we drove, Borys pointed out fields farmed by squatters who fought off soldiers to obtain the land. Now access to the road has been cut off by a fence across the path that was erected by the absentee landlord once peace was returning to the area. Such land conflict is typical of the type of dispute MC is trying to mediate. Hillsides were sprinkled with tiny churches that reflected the proliferation of Evangelical sects in the country. It was said that Rios Monte set up his own church in order to use the custom of tithe monies in his failed political campaign!

MercyCorps assumed control of the Tucuru health center in 2001 in order to fill the vacuum in leadership following the transfer of the founding Catholic missionary. The center serves some 30,000 primarily indigenous Q’eqchi and Poq’omchi, 70 % of whom are indigenous women living in rural areas. The goal is to provide sustainable health services by working in collaboration with local organizations, health practitioners, and government health officials. The MC project sees citizen involvement as a key to improving health status and reducing the high maternal mortality rates. This emphasis on strengthening civil capacity is what sets MC apart from many other aid agencies that focus on provision of services.

Community health centers have been set up beyond the reach of roads so that local women can walk to the weekly clinics staffed at least weekly by the project. The community itself must invest in the center by providing the space and small funds for medicines. My group of four walked from the jeep that had brought us high above the valley along narrow paths between fields to Sacpur. Overhead, a power line passed on its way to Tucuru. I wondered why the villagers did not help themselves to the electricity as people do in many squatter areas I have visited. Perhaps the scattered settlements lack the anonymity of urban slums. As the path wound downhill, erosion cut rivulets in the crusty sand and made walking difficult. Two local men gallantly supported me until we reach an adobe platform where a center, and Evangelical church and the padre’s house were congregated. A 36 year old woman was cradling her 8th child: she would have liked fewer but only recently did a woman Cuban doctor explain using an injectable form of family planning. She was wearing factory made clothes, probably second hand from the US. A few wore huiles hand made on a backstrap loom. One woman kept weaving as we sat on the porch talking to the health committee of four women and a man who was the head.

The village land was part of a large finca. In 1974, the community, with the help of a Copan cooperative, bought the land from the absentee owner who was having difficulty finding workers because of security problems. They grow corn, coffee, and beans. The church complex was a logical place for the health center since 75% of the people are Evangelical and church services are held three times a week and on Sunday. Catholics lack a church and meet in their homes, but use the center. Inside the clinic were posters of stick figures that tracked the health of each pregnant woman in the area.

This community outreach is grounded in the Tucuru health center whcih tries to integrate indigenous cultural practices into western medicine. A doctor and nurse are always available. While the government health system contributes some staff, most are project personnel, Cuban doctors, or volunteers. Sarah Dobra, a student from the U. of Oregon, was an interning at Tucuru for three months. The center handles about 30 births a month and keeps them for 24 hour observation. Children often suffer from diarrhea, respiratory diseases, or malnutrition. For sick men, the center has three beds. We saw student dentists at work, and were impressed wit the pharmacy organized by a local group. AIDS is a local problem, but lacking a laboratory, blood tests are sent to Copan.

As a delegation of women, we were greeted in the town hall by a large group of women from all the communities, colorful in the huiles. They were members of a women’s organization Amsat, “women going forward,” that started its branch in Tucuru in 2000. The leaders are demanding greater roles in local decision-making so that more houses will have water, improved stoves, and opportunities for income. The craft products they exhibited showed clearly the need for improved projects for income activities.

We gave a lift to staff member Olga who is a member of the indigenous Poq’omchi population. She told us that in order to go high school, she had to run away from home because 6 years of school are considered enough for girls. To support herself she worked in houses. She met “a nice man who was half German” and has 2 daughters. But after nine years she left him because he drank and became violent. Olga lived with her mom while going to college where she learned English, a skill that has opened up translation jobs with NGOs. She has nearly finished college; she came up to Copan to take a course the following day. MC encourages her by giving her time off to attend. Now she fears that her 18 year old daughter, just finishing high school, will just get married instead of studying more.

Another example of Borys’ astuteness came the next morning. Our schedule was again rearranged to arrive at the MC Copan offices shortly before, Glenn Anderson, the USAID director for the region, was to come by. After briefing about the land mediation project, Anderson spoke about US assistance to Guatemala was had been cut in the last budget because of continued human rights violations under Rios Monte? Now, with the recent elections and a democratic president, Anderson was trying to increase our aid, and asked for the help of our delegation.

The land mediation project and supporting an existing, but weak, network of NGOs in Alta Verapaz were ideas promoted by Mara Galaty in her capacity as director of Civil Society Initiatives. Her job is to incorporate the involvement of people in all MC projects; she helped with the transfer of control to the farmers of Aldea Global. This attention to civil society sets MC apart from many other aid agencies.

Land conflicts smolder in the region with 360 registered with the government. In frustration, 85 farms have been occupied by force and in one village the police were held as hostage. The MercyCorps project employs a two part strategy: to mediate disputes, and to build capacity for conflict resolution. Regional centers have been set up in 9 towns plus Coban which are staffed by para-legals; small grants are given to local groups for training in mediating land issues. JADE, an organizations of Guatemala City lawyers, is enlarging its base with the help of MC. JADE is “ha-day” in Spanish, but it is indeed a jewel. Of the five disputes settled under this initiative, in four the landowners either sold or donated the land; in the fifth, the squatters left peacefully.

Observing mediation is of course not feasible, but Borys determined to give us a flavor of the disputes. We drove north on the road toward Tikal with its Mayan ruins, and stopped for lunch at a tourist hotel with a swimming pool and cages of brightly colored tropical birds. Further on was a tourist attraction: the Candelaria Caves and a hotel with French food and charming cottages. The site was a national treasure, but the administration of the caves had been granted to a Guatemalan colleague of the French archeologist who discovered the caves and developed the site. He hired local men as guides and women to work at the hotel; schools were set up for children and a bus provided for older ones who wished to attend high school in town. Problem: the success of the caves provoked the villagers to seek a greater share of the profits so they petitioned the government to transfer the administration to them. When this was refused, they made a different entrance to the caves and are running their own tours. But that entrance is off the main road and has no hotel where visitors can rest.

To visit the caves, we walked through well tended paths, lined with tropical flowers and shrubs. The heat and ambiance reminded me of Indonesia. But not the caves. No lighted paths. After the lightbulb at the entrance, light came from the guides’ flashlights. Aided by a strong arm of a MC staffer Romero, I skidded down into the first cave. Only the promise that we were all going down and out another way kept me going. The cave itself was not spectacular, the footing was slippery, and often a guide had to join Romero to ensure that I did not fall. Of course I was paranoid about my two fake hips, especially since I had dislocated the left hip twice: the leg is useless until the bone is cracked back into the socket. Yet once we were down, we were told the only way out is back up. My memory of this escapade revolves around my delight at emerging out of the coolness of the cave into the humidity, and the cool beer we drank, waiting for the younger set as they explored the cave further. I kidded Romero that he was my Romeo!

For our last day together, we drove to Antigua Guratemala, a charming colonial city listed by UNESCO as a Heritage of Humanity and a tourist mecca with shopping, restaurants, and luxury hotels. We stayed at Casa Santa Domingo, built on the site of a monastery that was purposely destroyed by the colonial government after a series of earthquakes had so damaged this Spanish capital that the rulers moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City and insisted that the inhabitants also move. The present hotel is arranged around the old courtyards; lights are dim along the original walkways to simulate candles. Broken statues line these walks, contributing to the sense of place. Our visit was during Lent; to celebrate the approach of Easter, people from the surrounding villages brought their holy statues for blessing at the cathedral and carried them throughout the town, often walking over elaborate straw and flower designs drawn on the roads.

Tourists provide valuable income to the country, and great efforts go into providing a pleasant experience. American Airlines and several banks provide funds for cultural events – operas, plays, traditional songs and dance, come from all over Latin America. Profits from these events pay to have the streets kept clean and the houses to be painted in pastel colors every year. The town square is filled with women in huiles selling handicrafts; horse drawn carriages add to the photo ops. News that two tourists had been killed near Lake Titicaca was muted. Our farewell dinner was replete with margueritas and memories…and much insight into the challenges of socio-economic change in the backyard of the US which casts its shadow of inordinate power on these impoverished countries.


Sunday, March 10th, 2002

Bhutan is often referred to as the “hermit kingdom” to signify its remoteness to the world. Today the world watches the efforts of a secular king to lead his people and his monks and nuns into the modern world without losing their culture or religion. In 1952, Mil and I were able to take a landrover to Gangtok, in neighboring Sikkim, from the Indian hill station of Darjeeling. Neither Nepal nor Bhutan was then accessible by road; the building of the first road from India to Kathmandu in the 1960s is recalled in the thinly fictionalized book The Mountain is Young by Han Su Yin. By 1965 we were able to fly into Nepal on a DC-3, after three attempts to land visually before the fog descended. This year Mil and I determined to visit Bhutan as see how this guided modernization is going.

Bhutan is not an easy country to get to or to get into. To avoid the negative aspects of rapid economic transformation, the government limits visits and, until 1999, prohibited TV. Tourists must use government-approved travel agencies and are sent on fairly defined tours, whether cultural or trekking; we squeezed interviews into our tight schedule. The number of expatriates is limited and development assistance from outside the regions is accepted only from smaller countries such as Switzerland, Austria, or Holland. A representative from the Asia Development Bank told us over breakfast in the hotel that she had trouble convincing her boss in Manila that Bhutan had turned down an aid package because it felt it could not afford to pay back the loans.

Nor are data on the country east to collect. I found exactly two recent studies on women, neither published. Mil and I were both interested in the new decentralization laws, and I asked many people about elections. Often what we were told contradicted other sources; even the Lonely Planet guide notes that many facts are open to interpretation in this land of myths and legends. Few question the size of the country: 18,140 square miles, which equals Maryland and New Jersey combined. But population? When Bhutan decided to join the United Nations in 1961, it lack the minimum population of one million, so India somehow “loaned” areas to Bhutan to show that many inhabitants. That figure, adjusted upwards over time, is quoted today as nearly 1.5 million. Actual population is estimated at under 700,000; that is less than the population of Delaware.

Many of the sites we visited honored the present king’s father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, third of the current dynasty that united the country, who assumed the throne in 1952. Educated in England, the king spoke Tibetan and Hindi as well. He began a gradual reform of the country’s judicial and administrative services, created a national assembly, and abolished serfdom. In 1958 he invited Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi to tour Bhutan on horseback. He died of cancer in 1972 in Nairobi, we were told; but no one explained why there. The choten that defines Thimphu was built in his honor by his widow.

This king also ended Bhutan’s age-old isolation after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and the arrival of over1500 Tibetan refugees. With technical assistance primarily from India, Bhutan began a series of five year development plans in 1961. A hydroelectric dam provided the country’s first power source. Paved roads from India and across the country were first built only in 1972, after Bhutan signed a cooperative agreement with India for the defense of Bhutan’s borders during the China-India war. Since the king did not want to be totally dependent on a foreign army, he recruited young men for military training in India. Our first evening in Thimphu, Prem Tsering recalled his trip by horse to Sikkim on way to his school in Narkanda: how at dusk his group heard this frightening grunt of a best, stared into its unblinking eyes, and rolled to the ground. None of them had ever seen a jeep or car.

Bhutan had been part of the buffer zone created along the Himalayas by the British to protect the borders of the Indian Empire from China. To a great extent, geography dictated the relationship of each area to the British. On the west, the valleys of Kashmir and Manali had relatively easy access to the plains and were incorporated into India after independence in 1947. Nepal’s high escarpment guarded by malarial lowlands discouraged penetration from the south and had allowed the king and his hereditary prime minister to rule the interior valleys, paying nominal tribute to China. The British countered this by 1816 had a British resident in Kathmandu. To the west of Nepal, the configuration of mountain ranges changes with valleys and ridges becoming like spokes from a Tibetan wheel. Thus Sikkim provided a route into Tibet from Bengal; responding to Tibetan incursion, in 1890 the British declared the tiny state a protectorate; Sikkim was merged into India in 1975.

The spokes extend into Bhutan; as the river valleys extend to the plains and reach the Brahmaputra the openings are referred to as duars [doors]. The river and the malarial areas limited access, but the British needed their buffer; by 1910 they had assumed control over foreign relations. Further east the mighty Brahmaputra does a hairpin turn in Assam and doubling back toward the Tibetan plateau, enclosing both Bhutan and the Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh, created out of Assam in 1987. When Mil and I visited Assam in 1952, we took a train up the Brahmaputra valley, then bused into Assam’s capital Shillong. [Nearby Cheripunji is reputed to have the world highest annual rainfall.] Back on the train, we went on to Manipur, a buffer state along the Burmese border, and along with Tripura, the first of the several Indian states now carved out of Assam. But Bhutan was closed.

Given the geography, each valley became a fiefdom, with the warlord building large dzongs or fortresses and watchtowers along the rivers. In the 11th and 12th centuries, many Tibetan lamas brought their Himalayan form of Mahayana Buddhism to the country and incorporated into it with a tantric form of Buddhism from India to form the Drukpa Kagya, Bhutan’s official religion. In the national museum, however, four Buddhist schools are portrayed. Once school allows monks to marry; others allow monks to buy out, paying for the years of support and schooling, should they decide to leave. Often a reason was the monk’s need to support parents or maintain the farm when other relatives died. Monks were cooking meat in the first monastery we visited; apparently eating meat is all right, just not killing a living thing.

The dzongs became both the religious and administrative center of each valley, exemplifying the dual system of government with both a spiritual and a civil government head that continued until 1907. Monks still play a role in government and are visible everywhere. Today the dzongs are a major tourist attraction. Many are designated World Treasures by UNESCO and are undergoing renovation with their rotting timbers being painstakingly replaced by methods appropriate to the time of original construction.

The dzongs are incredible. The largest is in Trongsa which not only guarded north/south but also east/west travel: the paths actually went through the buildings! Walking inside the walls made me feel as if I had taken a time machine back to medieval Europe: the walkways between three story buildings, the monks of all ages distinct in red robes, the civilians in their Bhutanese dress. Part of the dzong serves as a monastery where the monks live and study. In another section are administrative offices open to the public during designated hours. This juxtaposition but separation of religion and government began in the 1640s. Today the government supports the monasteries and supports over 5000 monks [and 250 nuns]. These monks, collectively known as the sangha. The chief abbot is elected by leading monks and is the only person besides the king allowed to wear a saffron scarf. Monks have seats in both the 154 member National Assembly and in the 14 person Royal Advisory Council.

The National Assembly fascinated me. Besides the 12 monks, 37 senior civil servants are selected by the king. The remaining 105 members, called chimis, are elected from each of the 20 districts. I tried to find out how the chimis were elected, and what was their relationship to the gup, the lowest level administrative official, who was also elected. The answers were confusing, and often contradictory. A major reason is that elections and representative bodies are works in progress . Laws are adjusted frequently and local practices seem to vary. One former member of the Royal Advisory Council told me that it did not really matter because everyone in the country wants the king to rule. And several people complained that recent –and very complicate– elections to the Royal Advisory Council were corrupt, “just like in India” they said.

Eventually I did learn that elections are based on the household, and women as well as men can speak for their families. These electors must come together in a meeting; they vote by show of hands. With 80% of the population living at least an hour’s walk from a road, getting to a village to vote is arduous. With the devolution of development to the local level, more and more community meetings are called; getting people to attend requires someone to walk around to each household. As a result of the recent devolution of planning, the power of the gup is increasing along with his workload. Education and training requirements for the office are now being discussed. Some strong gups have also become chimis whose role is advisory and who meet only twice a year.

To travel west to east across high mountain passes as high as 11,000 feet certainly inhibited movement. Wherever the wind blows freely, local residents, pilgrims, and traders erect prayer flags on tall bamboo poles. And a stupa marks the top of each pass. We photographed these and the hoar frost and the barely blooming rhododendrons as we drove from Thimphu to the tropical valley on Wangdi. Driving on to Bumthang, the mountain cover was more sparse with dwarf bamboo that feeds the large flocks of yak. This route follows the old tortuous paths in and out along cliffs and around tributaries. The paved road was built by the Indian army in 1972 and continue to maintain it with Indian repair villages spaced along the route. Roads were also paved to connect India to the south; most traverse areas out of bounds to tourists because members of insurgent groups in India cross the open borders to camp in Bhutan. The major trading route south of Thimphu remains open to tourists willing to take a long bus ride from the border. Pilgrims going to Buddhist shrines in India go this way; but ride Indian busses from the border. Previously angry Nepalis, who left the country in protest and now are having trouble returning, often attacked them. They were protesting laws that required everyone to wear Bhutanese dress in public and that stopped teaching Nepali in schools.

The only airport is in Paro in the west; no where else can even small planes land, though the country is now considering helicopter service. Druk Air – the only airline allowed to land – has two planes, each seating 72 people, and flies from Bangkok via Calcutta and from New Dehli via Kathmandu. Pilots are extensively trained in England on simulators, we were told; and they regularly total a house perched on a hill in the approach path. Efforts to move the family have not been successful, as so far no pilot has hit the house in real life!

The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is breath-taking with its dramatic views of the world’s highest peaks, including Everest and Kanchenjunga. The drop to Paro valley is abrupt; the dzong on the nearby hill proclaims the uniqueness of the country. We were met by our guide Karma whose square earlobes mimic those on thousands of statues of Buddha. He wore the requisite national dress: an ankle-length robe made of local textiles that was hiked up with a belt around the waist to form a loose pocket for resting the left hand or carrying things. In contrast, the van was a new Toyota HI-ACE. This mix of medieval and new continued to confound us: the signs were all in English and young people were constantly practicing on us. It felt as if we had wondered onto an elaborate Hollywood set.

Education in English began as soon as the country began to open up in the 1960s. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had married an educated Sikkimese princess; her brother served as an advisor to the king. Recognizing the need for educated Bhutanese as the country opened, they convinced the king of the importance of educating the country’s youth. A quota was set for recruiting students and the advisor traveled by horse throughout the country talking to reluctant parents. Students would be totally supported at schools in Darjeeling, sent to higher education as appropriate, and hired by the government upon graduation. All the Bhutanese we talked to had been educated by the government, primarily in India; even our guide had been sent to Nepal and then France to improve his French!

In Bumthang we talked with Kuenzang Choden who, along with her older brother, was sent to India in the first group when she was nine. From her home she walked for 12 days with a trading caravan to the Indian border; the entire trip took a month. Once they were in Darjeeling, she and her brother did not often go home, but sometimes a relative would visit. She thought her parents were willing to send their children because they saw changes ahead. The family had been wealthy, with royal ties, and had owned considerable land. The abolition of serfdom and the limitation on land holding heralded a new era. Serfs were deeded land away from where they had been in bondage where they would be equals.

Many of the first group of educated children returned to become teachers. Today the country has placed community schools in rural areas, and set up residential middle schools. A university in the eastern part of the country offers liberal arts and engineering and teacher training colleges are found in different regions: the government has avoided concentrating higher education in the capital, Thimphu. Good students are still educated abroad, primarily in India; they must sign a bond to work for the government for five years. Planners are worried that the pool of educated people is rapidly outpacing available jobs, and for the first time have set up an employment section within the government.

Another worry about the rapid education is urban migration. Long time resident and education specialist Nancy Strickland argues that building community schools pulls students away from farming, this in a country where over 80% of the people live by subsistence farming.

And where food scarcity is a serious problem. She believes that a preferable approach would have been to require agricultural extension workers to add literacy and numeracy to their outreach activities. Similar attempts in both India and Indonesia to adapt primary education to the needs of rural areas were defeated by the urban middle class who opposed any dilution of western-based curricula.

One unintended impact of rural education is the apparent increase in gender disparities. Bhutan, like most subsistence societies, has a definite sexual division of labor that is fairly egalitarian. But historically, women stayed on the farm to support the brothers who became monks. Today the government supports the monks but the women stay on the farm to support their parents who generally leave their land to the daughter. Land ownership in most countries would seem empowering, but Anne Currie-Namgyal in a 1999 report suggests that even when women inherit land, men seem to control it, especially if development projects are involved. Because girls must work the land due to severe labor shortages, they cannot attend school. As a result, their lack of fluency in the national language, Dzongkha, also limits their trading in the markets.

Divorce is common; until recently neither marriage nor divorce were even registered. In Thimphu we talked with three young women in the government: two were divorced and raising children alone; the other brought her husband along to meet us. Custom required a young couple to marry if the girl became pregnant, but many refused. Kuenzang Choden says that illegitimacy was a stigma when she was growing up; the 1996 law on marriage requires men to support their children and provides blood tests if men deny their fatherhood.

Less discussed is violence against women. The Druk airline magazine had an evocative short story that I read on the plane. A young mother tried to comfort her hungry children saying that their father had her last money so that he could buy them food as well as oil for lighting the lamp for the religious celebration. The husband comes home drunk, kills his wife accidentally with the broken bottle, and reflects on his crime in jail not knowing what happened to his children. Our first stop along the routed from Paro to Thimphu, was to take photos and buy mandarins. A girl was crouched behind the counter whimpering; a man in Bhutanese dress wielded a five foot long branch and was beating her. As she ran across the bridge, several other women traders formed a ring around her, yelling at them to stop. Perhaps foolishly, I joined them. The man walked away. Later our guide said the man told him that his daughter had been gambling and that it was his right to punish her as he wished.

The owner of our travel company Etho Metho, or rhododendron, was an accomplished business woman who also owned an interest in cable TV. The queen mother continues to play an important role in the country. But the present king confused women’s status by marrying four sisters. The story is that he wanted a younger one but had to marry the others with whom he had dallied; after all, one man told us, he was the king, a young playboy, and who could refuse him?

Indeed, the country confused us. Run by a benevolent despot, he seems to be doing many things very well. But how long will the people be willing to play roles in his pageant? Kuenzang Choden says most village women she has talked to think their lives are better than thirty years ago. The new rich drive fancy imported cars; a new 100% duty may slow that trend. Still along the road we saw cars and motorcycles that had been covered with plastic and left on the roadside until their owners might return in days or weeks. Many families now send their children abroad to study; only some return because they can’t find jobs at home. Those living in Bhutan seem content with the gradual approach to modernization and optimistic that they will be able to avoid the wrenching changes that are creating crises in Nepal. We can only wish them well.

Celebrating in New Delhi: 50 years of marriage

Saturday, February 2nd, 2002

On the second of February 2002, Mil and I held a reception for our 50th wedding anniversary in New Delhi, the city where we met and married.  The event was a celebration of life together and of friends living or working in the world’s largest democracy.  Guests represented many facets of our professional lives, as did our trip to Bhutan and mine to Ahmedabad.  These visits, like our celebration, provoked comparisons of present, past, and future.

New Delhi, when I arrived there in August 1952 in the Ford Anglia, was little changed from the  colonial era when a  governmental city created next to the old Mogul town of Delhi with is towering mosque and Red Fort.  Independence brought many embassies, most temporarily housed in palatial mansions of the many Indian rajahs.  Mil’s office at the US Embassy in Bahawalpur House was in the zenana quarters; this windowless harem area was cooled only by a ceiling punkah pulled back and forth by a rope attached to the foot of a servant sitting outside!  Only the ambassador had a window air conditioner.  Most British wives had escaped the heat by moving to the hill stations; many Americans flew home.

New Delhi itself had two centers at the time.  The monumental government center with its parliament buildings, presidential palace, and the Cathedral where we married, all  constructed out of rose and tan sandstone, are situated at the end of a mall that lines the ceremonial Rajpath, or kingsway.  A statue of Queen Victory punctuated the other end of a now empty portico.  Roads radiated from both ends of the mall, their diagonals creating traffic circles throughout the city.  The commercial center, Connaught Place, has a double circle lined with white two story buildings, their colonnades a welcome protection from the sun.  Today the buildings are stained, the area crowded with cars and auto-rickshaws, and the green spaces buried under construction materials for the new subway.  This nexus is dwarfed by the expansion of commercial and residential developments.  The pavilion we rented on Ratendon Road, then on the outskirts of the city where the “jungle” began, is now considered downtown.

Nearby are the Lodi Tombs which today has become a park in the city.  In the 50s, the Ford Foundation acquired part of the park that held no tombs, and build both offices and a guest house.  In those days Ford gave more development funding to India than did any country; we referred to the local head of the foundation as the Emperor!  Today the Ford offices are small and occupy only one of the office buildings; the World Bank and other UN agencies fill the others and spill around the corner. The guest house is the India International Centre where we have frequently stayed.  Our room on this occasion was #52!   Roses were just beginning to bloom but marigolds, chrysanthemums, and gerbera were vibrant in the sun; February is a grand month in New Delhi.

Fifty years ago almost everyone with a car had a chauffeur so that when I drove about in my tiny car, I was an oddity.  Today the professional women I met all drove themselves though some families retained a driver to accommodate needs of several family members.  All these cars meant that until recently, the Delhi area was considered one of the world’s most polluted areas.  Strict conversion of trucks and taxis to PNG has already cleared the air, but the bus fleet conversion is going slowly.  Taxis, both licensed and gypsy, are inexpensive.  But we almost missed our flight to Bhutan when the taxi drivers called one-day strike to protest yet another expensive change: to electronic meters.  The taxi driver, whom we had used much of our stay and who had agreed to come pick us up at 5:45 am, eventually arrived but would not run his meter for fear of being called a scab and having his own taxi smashed!

Our reception was held at the Gymkhana Club which 50 years ago was the premier place for social events.  Today the five star hotels outshine the colonial ambiance and the food of the club;  but that was not the point.  Nostalgia was.  Dinesh Mohan arranged for us to rent a “cottage” for the event.  These small living quarters were in great demand in the 50s as diplomats and newsmen arrived in a city with limited places to stay.  Now the cottages serves as a private suite for weddings and receptions.  Artificial grass and red carpet were spread at the entrance, and shamianas lined the space where the buffet line, tables, and chairs. What we could not replicate was music.  Because the Gymkhana Club was on leasehold land from the government, part of the land had been reclaimed to build a residence for the Prime Minister.  His yard abutted the cottage, and music would disturb him.  We could hear a children’s party going on.

Starting a one o’clock on Saturday afternoon 2-2-02, guests were served small bites and drinks in the cottage.  After the food we toasted each other and the guests with champaign and ate a white cake similar to the one we had 50 years before; Peggy Mohan ordered it from a friend who has a small business making cakes at home.  In 1952, the British custom of fruit cakes at weddings was followed; the pound cake I insisted on had a wonderful taste, but the three tiers listed a bit.  Also in 1952, all liquor was imported.  This time we drank Indian whiskey and champaign.

Shakuntala Bhatia, my matron of honor in 1952, insisted that Mil and I wear gold and provided me with a kashmir shawl and Mil with a bright tie and handkerchief.  She began the toast by recalling how we had met: her husband Prem was an outstanding journalist who helped explain many nuances of Indian politics and elections that I was studying.  When I expressed an interest in learning Hindi, he suggested his wife.  Shakuntala told the amused guests how I could not distinguish between “th,” “thh,” “dh,” or “dhh.”   At least I knew there was a difference!

Three other guests had been at our wedding.  George Verghese, then a young journalist, continues to write books and articles on political topics.  Sharad Marathi, a fellow student at LSE, worked for years at the Planning Commission and served as India’s ambassador to the World Bank.  He and his wife flew up from Pune to attend, and to visit their distinguish medical doctor daughter.  Gopal Krishna, now a fellow at Oxford University for Islamic studies, was fortuitously staying in Delhi as he does most winters; in 1952 he was a young research assistant for Dick Park who was Mil’s best man.  Representing her mother was Gita Bery Bhatia who was a fifteen year old when we were married and living in her mother’s pavilion.  Sadly her mother has Alzheimer’s.

Many of the guests reflect my decades-long work on women in development (WID).  Dinesh, who organized the celebration and is now a professor at the Indian Technical University, was promoting appropriate technology in the US when I invited him to attend the seminar on WID that I organized in Mexico City in 1975 just before the First UN Conference for Women. Vina Mazumdar set up the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi and wrote a chapter with Kumud Sharma in Persistent Inequalities.  Anita Anand worked in journalism in Washington, DC, later return as editor of the Women’s Feature Service;  Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, a crusading women’s magazine;  Gita Agarwal is an economist and scholar who writes on women’s land rights;  Nata Duvvruy of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington DC was in town to review their projects on violence.  George Matthews of the Institute of Social Science  who gave us much material on local administration and on panchayats, also came.

Several of our friends in the US, who had travel plans for Asia, had considered attending; to our delight and amazement, five actually made it.  Elinor Gollay and Rex Brazell are traveling all over Asia investigating how craft workers are adapting to globalization.  Iskander Ahmed, who with his wife Gisele Yasmeen, also attended the conference in Ahmedabad.  Gisele wrote her dissertation on the foodscape [vendors and their environment] in Bangkok for the University of British Columbia; I was her external reader.   Iskander stayed on after Gisele returned to her job in Vancouver to improve his Gujerati.  Born in Kampala, he and his family fled Uganda when all Indians were forced out.  After years working in firms that import and export organic and natural  foods, Iskander is returning to the university to ground his business knowledge in agriculture; he then plans to promote organic crops that can be grown by poor farmers in East Africa and sold on the world market.  His parents joined us as well, on their way to Gujerat to revisit their ancestral homes.

During the ten days before the reception, we visited with most of our guests, enjoying their hospitality, learning about current trends in politics and women’s rights, and catching up on their families.  I also gave several talks, interviewed a wide variety of people, and collected materials on women’s housing, microcredit, and panchayats for my current writing.  The stay seemed very professional, until the toasts.  Suddenly the goodwill emanating from the guests, the memories, the fifty years of marriage with Mil, overwhelmed me, and I burst into tears.  A wonderful celebration indeed.