For 19 years from 1989-2008, I served on the board of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S., the last nine years as the chair. I thoroughly enjoyed my years on the board of an agency I highly respect. As a board member, I had the opportunity to travel a number of times to some of the countries around the world where MCC works. I was able to observe first-hand the effective work MCC does to “share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” Here are some excerpts from stories I wrote from my travels, in chronological order (more to come tomorrow):
Bolivia and Brazil, 1991: I traveled with a study group of about 12 people to learn about MCC’s work in Bolivia and Brazil and to understand some of the systemic and practical economic and political issues facing people living in these countries. While our group was in Bolivia, several of us went about 120 miles out of Santa Cruz, where MCC is headquartered in Bolivia, to the small remote town of El Carmen. The trip itself was memorable because of the road conditions caused by recent heavy rain. Our Land Rover had to negotiate muddy roads, and finally we had to get out and walk the last eight miles (well, I got lucky and was offered a motorcycle ride by a villager for the last few miles!).
The next morning three of us rode bicycles out to a village about six miles away to visit a women’s cooperative where the women managed their own fields of rice and beans. We enjoyed a meal of rice, bean burgers, a bean salad and a bean-based drink all made from the harvest of those fields. As I visited with these women, I passed around pictures of my family I had brought with me; one grandmother spent a long time studying and caressing a formal wallet-size portrait of my (then) 18-year-old daughter.
There was such a contrast between their lives and mine. Comparing my access to food, clothing, housing and health care with theirs, it seemed clear that my life is much better. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that these women had a strength of character I don’t have. When we left, they thanked us profusely for coming, but I wanted to thank them for opening themselves to me and allowing me to share their lives, however briefly. Another six-mile bike ride over sandy roads took us back to town, and the next morning we returned to Santa Cruz, this time bouncing over headache-producing washboard roads. But even the rough ride couldn’t erase the memory of those women who seemed strengthened rather than diminished by the hard work they do and the harsh conditions under which they live.
Zambia, 1992: This was my first trip back to Zambia since I had left as a 13-year-old in 1961, so I felt a lot of nostalgia revisiting the places I had lived and gone to school. Driving onto the grounds of the boarding hostel in Choma where I spent three years, I was surprised that I had a recurrence of that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach I had at the beginning of every term when my parents brought me back to school. Lots of memories came flooding back.
The reason for my trip to Zambia, however, was not to walk down memory lane but to accompany and assist a videographer hired by MCC. Zambia and other areas in southern Africa were experiencing the effects of a severe drought in 1992, and MCC had sent food and seeds to help Zambians survive the drought until the rains started again and be able to plant new crops. The videographer and I were there to document how the Zambian church was coping with the drought. I learned a lot about the making of a video and thought about various related issues:
- The clash between technology and underdeveloped countries. I felt a clear sense of incongruity between the high level of technology represented by the video camera and the cattle-drawn or human-driven plows which prepared Zambia fields for planting by hand.
- The need for lots and lots of footage for one short video. We filmed many interviews – with farmers, pastors, church officials, doctors, nurses, organization officials; we filmed food and seed distribution, plowing and planting, women going about their daily chores, church services, eating, socializing. Plus we filmed context-setting footage, including a gorgeous complete double rainbow arching the evening sky that seemed like a symbol of hope in the midst of desperate conditions. All told, the videographer used up 12 hours of video tape in order to put together a 16-minute finished product (and yes, it was video tape – this was before digital video recorders!).
- The tension between getting pictures that tell the whole story and exploiting people’s pain in the process. I asked myself various questions: How do you adequately convey the truth about people’s lives in a situation of drought without showing pictures of that truth? On the other hand, is it right to invade their privacy as human beings in order to tell the story we want to tell? Most of the time, the tension wasn’t too severe because our assignment was to tell a story of hope, and it was easy enough to find the hope and resiliency in the Zambia people we met, photographed and interviewed.
Cuba, 1998: I traveled to Cuba with a delegation from MCC to learn about the reality of life in Cuba and to advocate for an end to the United States’ embargo against that country. In addition to visiting Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches in Cuba and being encouraged by their faithfulness in difficult circumstances, our delegation met with people from social service and religious agencies, government representatives, and an official from the United States Interests Section (the U.S. has no embassy since we don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba).
It was very difficult to sort out the different perspectives we heard and to make sense of all the contradictions. When we met with the head of the Cuban Council of Churches, he commented, “The United States ideology needs an enemy,” and then went on to note that right then Cuba was the necessary enemy. We also met with an official at the U.S. Interests Section who told us he had to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant it would be difficult for him to do his job if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. That struck me as an interesting and somewhat disturbing tactic, whatever the reason. Our last appointment before leaving the island was with two government officials. They told us, “We have no secrets; you can ask us anything.” Then they proceeded with a monologue for half an hour. At the end, they spoke of their desire for normal relations with the U.S. and said, “The only condition for dialogue and negotiations with the U.S. is that there be no conditions, but that we be able to speak together as equals.” I couldn’t help wishing we could all do that.
More stories to come from my travels to Southeast Asia, Zimbabwe, Palestine and Egypt, and Indonesia.