Sandor Elias Blum
In Hebrew, Tikun Olom means: Repair the World. When I first heard the expression in a Bible Study group, I reflected: Had I done anything in my life to help repair the world? The ancient injunction led me to think of an old sailing ship whose deck was crumbling, the hull encrusted with barnacles, its compass pointed in the wrong direction. Yes I had given to charities, but that was not direct intervention. I had also worked with youth and gangs in an inner-city housing project. Three years later, the kids I predicted would go to jail went to jail. The kids who didn't thrived because they wanted to and not because I showed them how to throw a cross body block on the football field. I had helped to de-institutionalize State Mental Hospitals and get patients into community homes. That turned out to be a mixed bag when the funding for community residences proved inadequate. No points for me!! I hadn't even pushed a thumb tack with a notice of my good work, on the ship of the world's bulletin board.
Then, in the 1990's a large international development agency put out a search for someone to lead a project staffed by field officers from Third-World Countries, charged with conducting a six-month study of current causes of Poverty in those Countries. The World population was changing. Urbanization in rural, agrarian countries was on the rise. The agency wanted to understand the impact of those changes on their programs.
I was surprised when I was selected to lead the team. Resistance to an American team leader was intense. The Trustees, all Europeans, thought I could do the job. I was skeptical. Non -profit boards had often invited me to serve as a consultant. I ended up feeling that I had been invited for lunch only to discover that I was to become the lunch.
The team arrived one by one at Headquarters, a mansion on the shores of Connecticut. The makeup of the group was an African, Emmanuel from Nairobi, a Swiss woman, Heidi, field officer from Ghana, a Frenchman named Marcel who covered the Pacific Islands and Paul, a Dutchman, Central America. The first week was a devoted to team building with a predictable swapping of good humored, national insults, a reflection of the annoyance the Field Officers felt for having been mandated to leave their assigned countries for what was perceived as a nebulous, academic project dreamed up by a Headquarters staff who had little experience in the field. As team leader I had to abstain from the banter. As a result, I was good naturedly labeled a typically controlling American, as evidenced by my conspiratorial silence, as well as their derision for the location of the Headquarters.
One night, at a Mexican Restaurant, everyone, including me, got sloshed on Marguerites. We sang the Marseillaise and after that, the team settled down.
I asked Paul if I could go to his field office in El Salvador and see what the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere was like, firsthand. The Civil War in El Salvador, as well as the death squad killings had come to an end. At first, Paul thought me to be an academic with no experience getting my hands dirty. So, he re-read my resume which described my marginally dangerous work mediating between street gangs in Boston. He thought that was dirty enough, and agreed that a visit would be a good idea. With permission from the Director, we traveled to his home in San Salvador. After a dinner served by his Salvadoran wife, we laid out a game plan. I requested a visit to the poorest village served by Agency Resources. He arranged it for the next day.
As we drove up a steep rocky mountain road in his Rover, he mentioned the name Dona Maria as a powerful community leader. Her casa was in the steep hills above the northern fringe of San Salvador. It had two rooms, open to the street, a mud floor and a corrugated roof, sloped to drive rain water into a galvanized barrel. A supporting wall had settled after an earthquake. The entrance had no door; chickens scrambled in and out of the opening, running in chaos across the mud floor. Dona flailed at them with a broom. She was a woman in her forties who looked sixty. Once inside her home, she pointed to a battered sofa, missing its legs. Abruptly, she ordered us not to speak. Paul informed me that one of Dona's speeches was in the making.
She stood over us, holding her broom like a weapon.
"This fresh water thing of yours Hah! What a joke! The donors (referring to the wealthy patrons of the agency) should live here!! Bah!! they wouldn't come! If they did, they would get straight heads about this place."
She paused to take a swat at a loose chicken who had wandered in to watch the show.
"The men on the council, you give them money to finish the water pipeline. Now, I, Dona Maria, Dona with a keen eye for bullshit, will tell you to guess--guess if you can--what they do with the funds? I will wait until you answer! If you are thirsty, I have pulque--from Mexico if you wish."
On the way up the mountain, I had noticed ceramic water pipes strewn on the roadside, not as yet connected, gathering road dirt and residue from the eroding hill.
"Why don't you guess Paulo," she asked provocatively, glaring at Paul with piercing, accusatory eyes. "Bah, you don't even know! The men--they are lice--not men!"
"I have met them," Paul said. "I don't think you are being fair."
"Paulo, you are so gullible, like your missionaries where you come from. Farming, water, seeds! Stupid. Spend a week up here Paulo. Not a showboat visits for your Gringo!"
I asked Paul to ask Dona Maria why it was bullshit.
'He doesn't get it," she said looking at me. "You are not from the Agency. Donna can tell. You are Gringo. Where you from?"
"Good! Very Good! John F, Kennedy, Brother Ted, Massachusetts. Not Texas. Texas stinks. You Gringo! You I will tell. . .the men, they sell the vouchers for cash to buy drugs. or Putas! Teen aged whores! I deal with the funds my own way. The people who give this money say we need water. You foolish missionaries with your water and planting seeds. You should put more women on the council. The men are liars, pimps and drunks!!"
Paul interrupted. "Dona Maria, the people here need fresh water so infants won't die of dysentery."
She folded her arms defiantly.
"Foolish!! Stupid!! We catch the rain water in barrels. No babies die! We are not Africa! Open your eyes. The big City invades us more and more, every day! It is right here! My friends--they clean toilets in Lomas Verdes where the rich live. You are dreaming about water and farms."
She took the broom and flailed again at two chickens that had wandered in searching for food.
Paul had explained that Dona had a discretionary fund.
"You need to come with me now!" she said. "Get up!! I will show you where my funds go. The Money I spend. IT is MY project not your foolish one!! Come!"
At the top of the mountain we entered a small hamlet with a bodega, a church, a little school. Wild dogs milled about searching the trash for food. Dona led us down an alley to a courtyard. We heard the chatter of girls. Inside a room off of a dark hallway, we saw a woman in a chair having her hair put up in rollers. Five or six giggling teen-age girls wearing pink aprons were watching the hairdresser closely.
"This is my Esquela! my School." Dona said. "Our beautiful young girls from the village We are saving them from the life on the streets. It is too late for my daughter. Too late! My poor girl!! Listen to me! Listen! Speak nothing! I have heard all I can take about your Mission. It is wrong! When these pretty girls graduate they will go to the city and get a license. Even poor women will pay to look good in church."
She faced us, hands on her hips.
"Now, Mister Visitor from America! Go back! Tell your people what you saw! Forget the water! Give the women the power!! It is the little women we need to save!! We are no longer farm people. We have become the City."
I was the first to speak at the Board Meeting. I showed a photo of Dona and told her story. That night, the Board, supported by the compelling research presented by the Field Officers, voted to change the mission and allocate more funding for Women. For that purpose, two hundred million dollars was earmarked for radical changes related to the role of women in the combatting of urban sprawl, drugs, gangs, prostitution and poverty.
I came home and felt that, with Dona's inspiration, I had nailed a few planks onto the worn deck of the Ship of the world.
Sandor Blum is an international consultant, life coach, psychotherapist and graduate educator. He is the author of a novel The Pundit of Coolidge Corner and a volume of poetry The Road. He will soon be publishing a novel The Redemption.