Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Aftermath of Civil War

SUCHITOTO, EL SALVADOR – “Samuel! Samuel!” The two female voices of Ashlyn and Sara sang out in unison from no more than fifty feet away from me, where the outhouse stood. I didn’t answer back at first, hoping they would give up.

I was in no rush. After three weeks of being in Central America as a faculty chaperone with young college girls from DePauw University, two of which were spent in small adobe home of a local family, I had grown weary of their shrieks in the night over mosquitoes, crickets, bees, spiders, and of course, the three-inch roaches.

Ashlyn, the prettier of the two, always annoyed me because of the way she jokingly called me Sam-U-EL Jackson. I couldn’t tell if she was mocking my name or that she thought I resembled Samuel L. Jackson the actor. But something about this midnight cry for me seemed a bit more pressing. “Samuel! Samuel! Samuel!”

They called out again.
village outhouse
No later than a minute or two, I shined my flashlight onto their faces and widened eyes looked back at me. They had a look of sheer terror on their faces.

“There was a man with two big dogs out here,” said Ashlyn, her lips quivering.

“We came out here and he jumped out of nowhere,” Sara chimed in.

“When you stuck your head out of the door, he looked at you, looked at us and ran. Oh my God. I was so scared,” Ashlyn said.

What would have happened if I hadn’t done that? They were convinced that the stranger was going to pull out a machete or have his dogs maul them. I couldn’t say if I believed them or not. I don’t know what they saw, but they were for sure scared. Had I known this wasn’t just another cockroach call, I would have bolted out of that house.

Such was our trip to El Salvador. For three weeks, our delegation of 25 people from DePauw University, walked and lived on the unmolested soil of Suchitoto, a campesinocommunity sixty miles west of the ca[ital city, San Salvador in a province called Cuscatl├ín. None of the homes had running water. We had read all about how the El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had especially ravaged the poor, rural communities. Our mission was clear.
      Chapel, Suchitoto, El Salvador.

The university calls this a service trip. It could have been called a volunteer slavery trip. We divided into two teams. Team A roamed from village to village with a doctor, providing exams medical exams to whoever showed up at the clinics.

I worked with team Team B, making adobe bricks by digging into soil, adding cement and water, all with an eye toward erecting a community center for the villagers. The delegation was dispersed among the homes of local host families that been selected and checked by our coordinating non-government organization.

Groups from the United States had routinely come to this village with no incidents. No reason to think anything different would or could happen this time, we had told the students repeatedly in preparation and assured their parents in letters. But from day one, my deepest fears were coming to the surface. Young people with machetes swinging from their wasits and their non-stop chatter about gastrointestinal issues proved to be the least of my worries.

Three students, two female and one male, already feeling awkward knowing they would be sleeping on dirt floors in an adobe house, became alarmed when a drunk unexpected male guest of their host family, started making clear his unsavory intentions in Spanish for the two female students while standing right in front of them.

suchitoto view
Jorge, the male student who looks like a Northern European with blond hair, was Mexican and fluent in both English and Spanish. As the man talked, Jorge became increasingly uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangement. “We had the sense that Jorge wasn’t telling us all this man was saying,” one of the young women, said. Alarmed by the remarks, Jorge stayed awake all night to make sure the two girls remained safe.

There was no police force in that part of the province. He reported the threats to us, the faculty chaperones, who had planned every aspect of the trip and felt fully responsible for the safety of these young women. We quietly removed Jorge and the two young women to another house. No parental consent form could protect these girls. And if something happened, whom would the parents want to file a suit against?

  From that moment forward, I realized why two faculty members may have dropped out of the El Salvador trip and why the person on the other end of the receiver blurted, “So let me get this straight. You want to go to El Salvador? ’’ when hearing I was volunteering to go. Fear was not the only lesson of this trip, however.

In the house where I stayed, there was a little girl, Lilianna, no older than 4, who was constantly rolling on the floor and giggling harder than and louder than any of us had ever heard. She didn’t have a computer, television or an iPod. Nor did she seem aware that she didn’t have them. Lilianna was so attached to joy that she didn’t need them.

In the end, I had stumbled into a truth I wish would spread through all of education. Taking young people from the United States outside of the walls of our privilege will make an indelible impression on their awareness. It’s one thing to read about another part of the world in a history book or a periodical – or even watch a video of it. It’s another thing entirely to go and walk, sleep and eat among the poorest of any nation.