Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hasta Luego Michael

In times of parting, I dedicate this space to Michael's last blog post from Colombia:

03/06/09
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Posted by Michael John Burgess, 1184 words English (UK)

Hasta Luego (Until Later)

And so we come to the end of our show. Its been an extremely intense experience, a combination of hard graft and an unfamiliar environment but one that carves an indelible mark into your being and is often referred to as life changing (though only time will tell). Thanks to the unyielding support of Joni and Gerardo, I have exceeded even my wildest expectations in terms of exposure to real life conditions in Aguablanca and quantity of data collected. I am extremely grateful to them both.

When you visit a unfamiliar country you want to understand what makes the place tick, what are principle symbols that unite the nation. In terms of providing a context for a scientific investigation, this level of understanding becomes even more significant. Armando (in Medellin) felt that Colombia represented a particularly difficult case as they are a disparate race (Indigenous, Spanish, Afro Caribbean, Mestiza, Coastal, Urban, Rural, Rich, Poor) and each province has a unique character. The issue of nationality is further undermined by the absence of a defining myth i.e royality in the UK. The myth that most Colombians identify with is that of South American hero Simon Bolivar who liberated the continent from the Spanish at the beginning of the 19th century. Unfortunately for us, Bolivar was Venezuelan and his heroine lover Manuela was Equadorean, squeezed between the two Colombia has the unedifying role of the conjugal bed, hardly an epic symbol of national unity. As the foundations of the Colombian psyche are obscure, all you can do sit back, observe life as it passes by and draw some general conclusions.

Firstly and most obviously, life in Colombia is defined by violence or at the very least, the fear of violence. Everywhere you go from the slums of Aguablanca to the smarter suburbs of the north, the doors and windows are barred. Even the gated communities, surrounded by high fencing and private security dont escape the collective neurosis. Statistically speaking this condition is not without foundation, in Aguablanca you are 10 times more likely to be killed than the global average. However most people dont live in the slum, instead they drive their cars to one of the numerous smart shopping centres and enjoy the abundance of products available to any western consumer and here in lies the clue to the second symbol of Colombia; inequality. This country has an abundance of natural wealth but it seems the rich and the powerful are unwilling to share in the good fortune. Colombians have been dogged by conflict, slavery and exploitation throughout history and this is reflected in the daily life of Aguablanca, dominated as it is by displaced decendants of African slaves forced from their homes by right wing paramilitaries or left wing guerilla movements who fight for control over the lucrative narco-trafficking business. As the latest group of migrants descend on the slum, conflict arises with those that resent the intrusion. The irony of course is that Aguablanca didnt even exist 25 years ago, so all but the youngest of its residents understand the trauma of displacement. In the absence of any political will to truly address these issues, the poor and the displaced are left to fight amongst themselves. The wealthy meanwhile enjoy their swanky spaces and imported luxuries though most dare not walks the streets after nightfall.

If there is indeed any truth to this existential state of suspended animation, it became no more apparent to me than when I visited Medellin. The locals (paisas) are known for their diligence, their hard work and their regional pride, they have also built for themselves an attractive, organised and relaxed city albeit compressed on all sides by large slum districts (similar to the favellas in Rio de Janiero). By comparison Cali is clammy, chaotic, loud and ugly but unlike Las Paises, Los Calenos are cosmopolitan and exude an honest warmth and friendliness that is very compelling. I was less than impressed with Cali when I arrived but steadily the place has grown on me and I'm gonna miss it.

On the lighter side, there are a number of other behavioural patterns I have noted regarding life in Cali. The sun rises early here and it seems most people are up well before 6am with school starting an hour later. Whilst the defining Colombian myth may be related to the bed, they dont appear to spend too much time enjoying it.

Colombians also have an obsession with asthetic appearance, the popularity of cosmetic surgery seeming to be the manifestation of a deeper physical insecurity. This is deeply puzzling to me as Colombian women must be amongst the most attractive you will ever see, a characteristic probably related to the diversity of races that live here. Whilst I have already referenced the bizarre phenomena of bottom implants for the women, the men have also succumbed to their inner narcissus as many take time out to have manicures and facials. For a short while, the metrosexual raised his head in Britain but having had it slapped, it seems he emigrated to Colombia.

Finally impotence, not something a macho latino is gonna admit to readily. Whilst we all feel a degree of fear and helplessness in front of powers (natural and manmade) over which we have no control or influence, we all have different ways of dealing with the resultant angst or frustration. For many Colombians it seems, one of the best ways to reassert your masculine authority is to get behind the wheel. I've been driving for 20 years both home and abroad but only on rare occasions (Indonesia being one of them) would I decline the invitation to take to the roads. Cali fits into this category. Road discipline simply doesn't exist here, attention to signs and road markings is arbitrary and if you're on 2 wheels you'll be lucky to get home at all. If driving says anything about the local psyche, a shrink would have a field day in this city.

Having established some kind of basic context the results of the research acquire a greater significance. A superficial glance at the results suggests a number of principle concerns regarding state education: (1) public schools appear to be less secure, attracting problems associated with drugs and violence (2) public schools lack discipline and too much time is wasted (3) public schools lack resources. Violence, Chaos, Inequality. To paraphrase some clever dick (whose name escapes me), it would indeed appear that conditions within society are reflected and perpetuated within parts of the school environment.

Before I sign off, I would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Calenos and in particularly the Directors, Teachers and Parents that took part in the study. We covered 18 schools in total, visiting each on numerous occasions and at no time were we greeted with anything less than courtesy, kindness and enthusiasm. I go home having had the privilege to meet and work with many dedicated and selfless people who have not only helped me with my research but have also granted me one of the most profound experiences of my life. To all I am be eternally grateful.


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