Monday, August 27, 2012

The Healing Power of Television

A few years ago, after hosting dozens of groups in Nicaragua, Kathleen decided to stop listening in on our delgations’ evening reflections.  She explained her decision to me by saying, “If I hear one more person ask, ‘If they’re so poor, why do they have a television?’ I’m afraid I may do someone bodily harm.” 

Kathleen has enough experience to know that TV is a top priority for the poor, and she understands something that never occurs to those of us who’ve always had enough: poverty is boring.  Really boring.  And if you are worried about where your next meal is coming from, or whether or not gang members will break into your house tonight, or how you will come up with bus fare to get to a medical appointment, it’s hard to stop the compulsive worry about things you can’t fix.  That’s why patients at our clinic so commonly suffer from hypertension, acid reflux, insomnia…when you’re stresses are literally matters of life and death, a little distraction goes a long way, and those that can turn to the healing power of television.

My husband and I have chosen not to have a television in the house.  Like many others of our age and middle class background, we strive to spend our family time at home reading and playing with our kids instead.  Let’s be clear though, we’re not that virtuous.  If it weren’t for the miracle of downloadable TV and movies, we’d definitely have a TV. Frankly, our access to internet and computers gives us the luxury of pretending to be holier-than-thou, when in effect we’re just getting all the good TV without the distraction of ads.  And sometimes, even a little bit of not-so-good TV is exactly what the doctor ordered.

My friend Martha is dying of cancer. It’s a hard thing to watch when it happens to anyone, but it’s especially hard because Martha is so young, because she has a beautiful and talented 10-year-old daughter, because she’s still so full of life, and because she’s suffering so much.  In the middle of a chat, Martha will frequently be taken over by a pain spell that makes giving birth look like a walk in the park, yet she refuses morphine because she says that’s for dead people. I come home after a visit with Martha and my mind is racing, worrying about things that it does absolutely no good to worry about because there’s so little to be done. I’m distracted, I’m having trouble sleeping, and my jaw feels like I spent the night gnawing on a hunk of old Hubba Bubba. If I feel this way as a friend watching from the fringes, what must Martha and her family be going through? 

I rarely find myself with time alone at home, and when I do, I am usually washing clothes or desperately trying to rescue my garden from whatever has tried to eat it since I glanced at it last week.  Yesterday I found myself with a few hours alone and I started off by trying to get lots of things done.  But I was mulling and stewing and imagining conversations with people I’d really like to give a good talking to.  It was clearly unhealthy to be left to my own devices.  So I turned on “Modern Family,” a show that my TV snob of an Irish husband claims is unbelievable melodramatic fluff about rich people.  He’s absolutely right…and it was wonderful. I watched not one episode, but many, many episodes in a row.  I thought not once about things beyond my control, but allowed myself to get caught up in the story, shake my head, laugh out loud.  I desperately needed a distraction, and the TV gave me some relief.

Martha didn’t grow up with a TV.  Her family was too poor to afford a television and she tells stories of standing outside the neighbor’s house watching their TV through the window.  She bounced from house to house during childhood and survived in situations that would have torn a weaker woman apart.  She’s worked hard to give her daughter a better life, and last week Martha bought her a television. In a household where sometimes they scramble to buy food, where I bring them gifts of q-tips and gauze to clean her kidney drain, Martha bought her daughter a television.

Looking in from the outside, we might ask the question Kathleen dreads the most: If she’s so poor, why did she buy a television?  But I have the privilege to see a little ways into Martha’s life with her daughter, and for me, the picture changes: When a 10 year old’s world is falling apart, when all of her stability has been pulled right out from under her and there’s not a damn thing she can do about it and there’s not a damn thing any one of us can do to stop it from happening, she needs a little distraction.  Maybe she needs to laugh at idiotic cartoons.  Maybe she needs to lose herself for a little while in the fantasy worlds created in that black box.  Maybe losing herself for a little while will give her the strength she needs to face what’s surely ahead of her.  If I were one to judge, I would say that Martha’s given her daughter a very valuable gift indeed.  I would say that Martha is a very good mother.  Becca

Monday, August 20, 2012

Media Circus in the Cotton Fields

It’s planting time in Nicaragua and the organic farmers are doing LOTS of planting!  There is the usual acreage of sesame (our farmers are the No. 1 exporters of sesame – conventional or organic! – in the country!), more than 1,000 acres of organic peanuts being planted for our project with Once Again Nut Butter, and more than 400 acres of organic cotton.   

Last week we took a potential cotton buyer out into the field to see cotton seed being put in the ground, and boy did we get a show!  We’ve taken buyers out to cotton fields before – most notably Bená Burda of Maggie’s Organics when she was getting footage for the filming the video “Fabric of Humanity.”  So I’m used to overwhelming farmers in the fields with cameras rolling and interview requests while they’re trying to plow with oxen under a hot sun, and last week the tables were turned on us!

We arrived in the Malpaisillo area, where we work with 4 different co-ops – 3 of which are women’s co-ops – to meet with a co-op of organic farmers who are growing cotton for the first time this year.  The minute we stepped out of the truck, the co-op’s president was greeting us in his ratty straw hat and smiling for the cameras – his cameras!  The co-op had videographer and photographer team on-site to capture our visit for their own propaganda (much to our surprise), and for the next two hours proceeded to march us from one site to another in a well-choreographed media moment. 

We saw new cotton plants coming up in the field, chatted under a tree about the importance of organics for the co-op – they told the story of how when agronomist Raúl first began working with them they were burning their cow manure which is now their most valuable fertilizer.  Mike and our client talked on camera with many people: the most-experienced member of the co-op, the oldest member of the co-op, and definitely the most media savvy member of the co-op.  Meanwhile, I stayed in the background taking pictures of them taking pictures and chuckling, delighted to find myself on the other side of the fence as their videographer, photographer and two co-op members with cell phone cameras recorded the day’s activities.

The pièce de resistance came at the end of the visit when they brought us out to a field to see them planting cotton with a mechanized planting contraption that they had invented themselves.  To say that the farmers were proud of this contrivance would be putting it mildly – they were bursting by the time we got out to the field! Because our organic cotton seed has a lot of fiber left on it, it sticks together in clumps, making it impossible to plant using a mechanized planter pulled behind a tractor.  

While most of our co-ops plow with oxen and all the others plant cotton seed by hand, this co-op has several tractors and wanted to make use of their resources.  So they attached four metal wheels behind a tractor with a bench.  Four men sit on the bench and drop the cotton seed by hand into the ground, then the wheel rolls it under the dirt.  Simple, effective, faster…a truly appropriate technology!

And next time I go out to the fields, I must remember to fix my hair in case they bring out the cameras!  – Becca