27th September 23
Sr Bride Counihan is an Irish Little Sister of the Assumption, living in Cork. She spent 17 years working in the semi-desert region of Brazil before returning to Ireland to take up the role of fund-raiser for overseas missions in four countries – Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Madagascar. She makes no secret of the fact that she is seeking new donors to support 10 projects in these countries. This letter from Colombia, where she visited projects in September of this year, gives us an idea of the country ahead of our online event on October 25.
Greetings from Colombia!
It has been an amazing time at many levels, moving from exhaustion, to tears, to inspiration, to laughter, to deep gratitude. I travelled from Peru to Colombia. In Cali we had a three-day workshop with Misean Cara and worked in temp of 37 degrees with six project teams. There was a lot of energy in sharing of experiences together, as some of these groups had not met each other previously.
The overall impact of our work in recent years has been the empowerment of the local teams to develop projects in some very disadvantaged places, with limited resources and limited leadership. There is a great emphasis on localisation. Significant progress is evident in some places, along with significant challenges. One of the greatest is the fluctuating exchange rate. Some projects have had significant losses due to a very big fall in the value of their local currency. This naturally has adverse effects on the projects’ planned activities.
After the workshop I visited the projects to see at first hand the work being done. The EDUCAR project is a skills training programme for women heads-of-households and unemployed youth. They receive a six-month skills training course followed by a two-month placement in a work situation. Over 50% gain employment where they did their work experience. The courses are I.T., beauty care, culinary arts, bar attendant and waitressing. Last Christmas, thanks to PAL, a new initiative was undertaken in which women learnt to make Christmas decorations and Christmas baking. The sales of their products at Christmas enabled some to have seed capital for new ventures. I interviewed three past students, now in their mid-20s, and it was impressive to see the impact their training has had on their lives. All are now studying at third level.
The CORFAGE, CODO, and CESOLES projects all offer a range of socio-educational after-school activities to children/youth. These projects are located in very disadvantaged areas, often areas of high risk with street violence, drugs etc.. It is great to see that the projects are offering an alternative life-style and values to young people. I interviewed some parents with their children, to hear what difference these projects are making. The parents said that without the help of homework support in the project, their children would not be able to keep up with school. The lives they described of their families, some with children with disabilities, was stark, and the struggle for survival ongoing and surely exhausting. They find good local support in these projects.
After the projects in Cali, I visited the two projects in Bogota, which is 5,000 ft above sea level in the Andes, so it was cooler. The SERCOLDES project in which Sr Hilda LSA is involved, works with women human rights advocates in five cities throughout Colombia.
I met some of those who did the self-care workshops. They often work in difficult situations where their very lives are threatened because of their work in teaching people about their rights. The self-care training helps them to take care of their own inner lives so they are better able to reach out to others. The CODO project took nearly two hours to reach, as it is far out in the suburbs of Bogota, built on the side of a hill, and which has no running water, and only dirt roads. However it was well worth the journey. Over 100 children participate every Saturday on the side of the mountain, in sports, music, and body movement. The leaders are mostly local youth who themselves were participants in the activities when they were children.
Over the years the project has developed an orchestra, with a great range of musical instruments, thanks to support from Misean Cara. They played for us and two young people sang. They truly are budding professional singers. It was beautiful music, so moving.
The next stop could be described as ‘the journey to the end of the earth’. The visit to FUNDECOS project took us four hours down the Andes in a mini-bus. No air con! There must have been a 1000 hairpin bends along the way and many huge lorries of all sorts, going up and down. Then having reached the plains, we got another car that took us up another of the Andes range for a further two hours. On these journeys you are on a two-lane road with steep drops down to the valleys far below. The views are spectacular – hard to describe the rolling Andes, with three mountain ranges one behind another getting higher and higher, and villages in between. Little houses are built right on the edge of a precipice, and they were dotted everywhere.
The FUNDECOS project is located in the town of Samana in this very mountainous region that has been the centre of a lot of violence during the years before the Accords of Peace made between the guerrilla groups and the Government of Colombia in 2016. They have been supporting many families who have been campaigning for years about the disappearance of their husbands, wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
It was and is a place of terrible suffering for the people.
Finally with the signing of the Peace Accords a Commission of Truth was established and agreement to return the bodies of those killed both by paramilitaries and guerrillas. I visited the FUNDECOS museum where the walls are lined with photos of the disappeared, people of all ages including children and teenagers. The staff pointed out to me the photos of those whose remains had been returned to their families. Just two weeks ago the mortal remains of two teenagers were brought in solemn procession through the town to the FUNDECOS Centre where a ritual was held during which two black boxes tied with ribbons were handed over to their families.
This surely is the stuff of heartbreak. Such moments are of profound significance. They give recognition and dignity to their loved ones and enable them to bring some closure to the long years of grief and searching.
During my visit I also met a women’s group who had travelled two hours on terrible roads to tell me about their income-generating project supported through FUNDECOS/Misean Cara. Some of these families suffered from the disappearance of a loved one. They presented a range of natural medicinal plants they have been cultivating, and also a range of fruits and vegetables. Also they work with recycled paper, making notebooks and other small gift items, all beautifully painted.
An hour up the mountains from Samana, we visited the village of Peking. Here the FUNDECOS project works with people in an agro-ecological project. The families develop market gardens and ‘bio-fabricas’ for the making of eco-friendly fertilizer. They have received training through FUNDECOS and have a great sense of solidarity and self-help. Many families fled during the worst times of the violence. Some have now returned and this project is helping to re-create the community.
It is hard to put into words what this whole experience has been. I have felt the depth of the horror of war and violence that has destroyed the lives of so many. The wounds left by loss and grief are being slowly healed for some – what a mission this is, for those who have been given the necessary gifts! The simplicity of life in these places struck me. People are able to find meaningful lives and some happiness just by being able to cultivate and be creative for survival. A barter system operates, where those who have one product exchange it with someone who has another product which he/she needs, and so it seems that no one is left in want.
My deepest sense is one of profound gratitude to have been given a mission that enables me to share in even a tiny way, in the richness of the life that is there. In our consumer-oriented world, we surely have something to learn.
Love and blessings from Bride Counihan