Volunteering In HondurasWritten by Charu Vijayakumar
December 4, 2007
As a Global Ministries volunteer, this summer I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Honduras with one of Global Ministries' partners, the Christian Commission for Development. This has been a great learning and enriching experience for me in many ways. Meeting and getting to know new people, witnessing the struggles and living conditions of people, especially of poor and rural disadvantaged communities, and participating in the work of the Church and mission partners have all greatly helped me gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in and the need to share God's love, particularly with the poor and the needy.
I was based primarily in Tegucigalpa and was working mainly with the Theological Community of Honduras (CTEH- Comunidad Teologica de Honduras) which is a part of the Christian Commission for Development (CCD). In addition to the theological classes at CTEH, there are also several other programs at the community there such as technical programs ranging from computer training to beauty school, basic middle and high school level education classes, and a health clinic. For the most part, I worked in the library and the clinic. The library is currently in the process of organizing all its books into a catalog system that will eventually allow the community to access information online and also readily find books in the library. During my time there, I helped start this process and started organizing books by category and numbers. Additionally, I also helped set up CTEH's new bookstore. This is a place where the students who attend the programs there and also the larger community can purchase basic stationary and also theological books at reduced prices.
While I was there, I stayed with our missionaries Bruce and Linda Hanson in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. The Hansons have been serving as Global Ministries missionaries in Honduras for four years now. Both Linda and Bruce work at the Theological Community of Honduras (CTEH), Linda teaching at the Seminary there and Bruce running the health Clinic. Also living with the Hansons are their two children, Seth and Kesia, ages 11 and 13. Upon my arrival, I realized that I needed to work on my Spanish fluency level and with the help of the Hansons and general conversations, it slowly but steadily improved.
During my first five weeks in Honduras, I had the opportunity to visit numerous rural communities both in the north and west of Honduras. Those were my most rewarding experiences, particularly as we traveled to those communities and talked to the local people there about their problems and needs. One such visit was to a place in the state of Choluteca named Saladita. In order to get to this community, after several hours in a car, we had to travel the last part of the trip on foot due to the state of the roads. In fact, there were no roads per se; it was more a path with large cobble stones and rocks making it impossible to drive any vehicles through the area. The transportation in the area was mainly confined to horses and mules. Yet, the same could be said for many of the roads in most rural areas. After spending quite some time with the people of the community, we learned that the road was their main concern. Despite their poverty and lack of most resources, they said that they first needed to build a passable road as this would solve many of their problems, because with a road, they would be able to transport their goods, and hence sell them at the market and make an income. Additionally, their only other request was for a community center where they could meet. This was in response to the fact that this particular community was vastly spread out. Although we had met with many of the community members, we were still only on the fringes of the community itself which expanded back many miles into the mountains and hence were more difficult to reach.
Another place that we visited on behalf of CTEH and CCD was La Moskitia. Most of the far eastern part of Honduras is known as La Moskitia. It is an area of Honduras that is very remote and difficult to get to. The trip for us involved an eight hour van ride, three hours on the back of a truck, and another several hours on a boat, known as a lancha. The people of this area are a mix of several ethnicities. Most of the people speak at least two if not three or four languages. These include Garifuna, which is spoken along the coasts, Moskitia, the language of the entire region, Spanish, and also often English. There are many communities of people of African descent along the coasts and more of a mixture of African as well as Indian descent further into the area. The two particular communities that we visited were Pueblo Nuevo and Brus Laguna. Pueblo Nuevo, where we spent two nights, is a community that has neither electricity nor running water. Their houses are generally one room wooden structures that are raised on stilts with hammocks hung underneath. When we asked about the reason for the stilts, we were given two answers, one that it was a precaution against floods, and the other that it was better for the breeze.
These communities, especially in Pueblo Nuevo, are made up mostly of single mothers and their children. This is mainly due to the nature of the work the men undertake. Most of them go diving for seafood which is their only means of livelihood. This though is a highly dangerous occupation mostly because of the details involved in resurfacing after diving. Many men are injured due to improper procedures and many also lose their lives. Although, the men are well aware of the dangers, they go diving anyway because they have no other choice. These injuries and dangers are surprising mainly because they are easily preventable with the right equipment. But due to the poverty of the communities and their lack of resources, the men are forced to face these dangers in order to earn their income and support their families. I was most struck by the danger of their occupation when we were talking to the leader of the community. In describing his daily duties, he said that he doesn't dive because he is the only male child. Although I was confused at first by this statement, he explained that as an only male child of his family, it was his sole responsibility to support his own family, mother, and sisters. Therefore, he could not afford to risk his life diving, and hence he helped with the packing of the seafood after the diving was done.
The women of these communities therefore, unlike in most other communities also do most of the fieldwork in addition to their daily household chores and the responsibility of bringing up the children. Many of them are widowed at an early age, and have to care for their families without the support of a male member. Hence their lives become even more challenging in juggling all their duties. The area that we stayed in had about three houses. And during our entire two days and two nights there, we saw only one adult male resident. And he himself was injured from a previous diving accident that left him with a limp and mostly deaf.
Although Pueblo Nuevo hopes to get electricity next year, the routines of daily life are already embedded around the hours of sunlight. Yet it is absolutely fascinating how much the people in the area are able to do even during the hours of darkness. The young men and boys for instance wake up around three o'clock in the morning to go fishing for the day before they have to head off to school at seven a.m. During the hours of sunlight everyone is constantly busy either working inside their houses, tending to the livestock, cooking, or taking care of the children. At night, the families gather under the raised houses where there are hammocks suspended from the wooden planks and relax for a little bit. The night skies, untainted by pollution are the clearest I have ever seen, with the stars shining more brilliantly than anywhere else.
During the second week of my stay in Honduras, I had the opportunity to join a medical mission group that came there from a church in Lancaster, PA. The group consisted of several doctors and their children. Also traveling with us were several translators and a Honduran doctor and his two children. We broke up into several medical teams and visited three rural communities where we set up clinics in local churches and treated patients all day. The patients would line up early in the morning outside the churches before we even reached there, and would continue coming well into the afternoon and stand in line for hours even if only to get vitamins. The medications that were most often given out were common ones such as ibuprofen and cough medicine and also single parasite pills for most of the children. Vitamins were given out to all adults and children for the simple reason that all three of the communities that we visited had severe malnutrition problems. Such malnutrition problems are common in rural communities all over Honduras where their main staple food is tortillas and beans and even then in small quantities.
Although life in the rural areas was fascinating, life in urban Honduras and the heart of the city of Tegucigalpa was also very interesting. One of the first things that struck me was the amount of security personnel. By this I mean that there are fully armed guards located at all stores and buildings including fast food restaurants such as Burger King and McDonalds. These security measures are taken in response to the gang problems in Honduras. One of the biggest problems facing Honduras is the rise of gangs and consequent crimes. One of the other aspects of Tegus that struck me was the landscape and subsequently adapted architecture. Being very mountainous terrain, most of the houses are built on slopes. But the most fascinating parts were the areas of poor housing. These were shacks built out of planks of wood, or sheets of tin that were literally stacked on top of each other coming out of the valleys and on the sides of the mountains. It was frightening just to see the stairs that led up to some of these houses.
While in Tegus, I also had the chance to visit a women's shelter. This is a place where abused women can come to find a safe refugee. Although there are only a few women there, it used to be a much bigger operation in the past before Hurricane Mitch destroyed the building that was originally used. Now, confined to a much smaller building, the few women there run a candle making business that sustains them. These women spend all day making candles from scratch, going through each step of the process from melting the wax to putting glitter on the almost finished products and then ship them off to different parts of the world that sell them. One such place that buys from them is Ten Thousand Villages. I had the opportunity to watch them work on an order from Ten Thousand Villages for Christmas candles. What I took for granted earlier were the ridges on finished products which were in fact hand carved by these women with a simple plastic knifes. I left the shelter that day with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the art and the artisans and their hard work behind it.
During my time in Honduras, I attended several different worship services in many different forms. Some were held in firmly established church buildings, whereas the others were not. One was in a church whose foundation had just been laid with some of the walls barely up, yet with an enthusiastic and involved congregation. Some services were out in the open where no structure was necessary, and one service was in a make-shift tent that was put up solely for that purpose. Many of the times I couldn't understand exactly what was being said, either because it was in a completely different language or because the Spanish was just too fast for my level of comprehension. Yet, it did not matter because I realized that the emotions and gestures of the speaker more or less conveyed the message across. And likewise, I realized that language poses no boundaries in music. The enthusiasm and passion with which the beautiful melodies were sung were enough to understand the praise being conveyed. Although these services were very different than the ones I was used to at home, the experience of the presence of God and the sense of community were equally effective. And the willingness of the Honduran people to make me feel a part of their faith family was immediate and done in a very supporting manner.
Although I went to Honduras on a six weeks assignment, unfortunately I was only able to do active volunteer work for the first five weeks. During my last week there, I became sick with both dengue fever and malaria. Dengue, of which there are four forms, is currently an epidemic in the Tegucigalpa region. Many people have already died due to lack of treatment because of poverty, and many more are sick because of it. It is an illness that is contracted from mosquitoes. These mosquitoes breed in any body of stagnant water and unfortunately there is plenty of this is Tegus. Most if not all houses and buildings have little cement structures that are known as "pilas" in which they store water to do all their washing and cleaning. This body of water is one of the most common breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying dengue. Unlike many, I was very fortunate to be able to be admitted to a very good private hospital where I was promptly treated for dengue which was followed by malaria. Malaria though is not common in Tegus, and hence I most likely contracted it while in Moskitia. This too though was promptly treated. Although being ill was not part of my plan, during that week I came to know the true extent of Honduran hospitality and also the love and support of Global Ministries and the entire church family here and in Honduras.
A couple weeks after returning home, with my experiences still fresh in my mind, I was extremely sad to hear the news about Hurricane Felix. In particular, I was very anxious about the damages it caused to the La Moskitia region. I could easily visualize the plight of those people whom I have visited. I knew that total evacuation was their only chance for survival. In particular, I was very worried about Pueblo Nuevo knowing that the entire town had only one telephone and that relief is not easy to reach there either. As is true for a lot of the La Moskitia region, the only form of transportation in and out of towns such as Pueblo Nuevo and Brus Laguna are waterways in small motorized boats. I have been praying for them and was told by Linda Hanson that the government arranged for the evacuation of those people before the hurricane hit, but the survival of their homes is highly unlikely. I continue to pray for the people of La Moskitia, and also all the re-building efforts all over Honduras and also all the other places that were affected by Hurricane Felix.
During my time in Honduras, I gained a wealth of knowledge about the Honduran culture and people. Additionally, I was also able to see the mission of Global Ministries put into action. As God's children, all people have the right to live life to the fullest. But unfortunately, as reality would have it, too many people lack the opportunity and access to resources to do so. It is in working with people with such needs that volunteers like me enrich our own lives. It is with sincere thanks to God and to Global Ministries that I say that I have not only grown spiritually and mentally, but also now I have a second family and friends in Honduras, and invaluable experience to tie it all together.
Charu Vijayakumar served as a Short-term Volunteer with the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) in Honduras. She worked in the social programs of the CCD.
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