No me llamo Mary-Jane

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

Today was a good day, most especially because it was one of the few days here that I spoke in my native tongue (English) au lieu de my regularly scheduled attempts at mastering/butchering the Spanish language. The reason why I spoke English was because I travelled with my host sister to the beautiful city of Bouquete; a town apparently full of “gringos,” (Americans) but breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless: high in the mountains with houses worthy of being featured on the O.C. We went with two of her friends from the city of David in the province of Chiriqui, both of whom had spent a year abroad in the United States to learn English. We began to speak, slowly but surely, about how different North America was from Panama—the climate, the people, the food. When they asked where in North America I was from, I responded with pride, “Canada.” In response, I saw them exchange glances, and watched curiously as huge grins suddenly appeared on their faces. I wondered why—was it because they loved our democratic system, our ties to the Monarch, or Quebec’s low drinking age? Or was it because they just really, really liked poutine? So I asked them to tell me the one thing that came to mind when they thought of Canada. The older one responded, without hesitation,

“Yo man, you Canadians are always so high!”

WHATTTT? Was he really linking Canada, land of the true north strong and free, to the sticky icky? He went on to say that he absolutely loves Canada, because, of course everyone just gets high all of the time, as marijuana is, of course legal. At this point, I regrettably burst his hemp-fashioned bubble and told him the truth; that marijuana, as in most other nations, is illegal (and if he came to Canada to not try any “funny business”– a comment that aged me in ways that I can’t begin to explain). I started wondering, is this really what people, or at least people my age think of my country? I mean, it’s a tad more savvy than our usual synonymity with igloos for houses and polar bears for cars, but not by much. With that, I proceeded to launch into a 30 minute discussion on the merits of our political system, our rich history of cultural diversity, and of course, the advent of the beavertail. Pretty sure he lost interest at the stage where a bill becomes a law. Can’t win ‘em all.

Now onto more important matters, the reason why we all decided to travel abroad: not play, but work. As stated in my previous entry, I work for an NGO called Nutre Hogar, which helps feed and administer medicines to children (many indigenous) that are malnourished. Although all the children at Nutre Hogar still have families, they remain at Nutre Hogar 24/7, until they have fully regained their health Some children leave after 6 months, whereas others have remained for over 6 years. Coming into this, I could say that I liked children as much as the next female 20-something, hopeless romantic. I knew that having a child was hard work—but I didn’t realize how much work.. Multiply that by 30, and you have Nutre Hogar. Up to 50 children have stayed at this particular Nutre Hogar in Santiago, with a daily staff (including administration) of less than ten. Add to that the occasional volunteer, and you have a most difficult endeavour.

So far, well within my first month here, work has been really interesting. Trying and tiring, yes, but interesting. My day begins at 7 am and involves much feeding, coddling, teaching, and playing with kids that range from 3 months to 6 years. I also have began to dabble a bit more on the medicinal side—thankfully for my sake and the health of the kids, nothing too Grey’s Anatomy– mostly just administering pills and liquids, coupled with the occasional visit to the Doctor. At first, I found it weird to not be involved at all with the administrative side of an organization, but (as we have already covered my unintended slaughter of Spanish), it is probably for the best.

Working for an NGO is nothing like I had imagined. Although at this level in our studies, we are all well aware of the consequences that come with international internships, no amount of education or training can accurately or fully prepare someone to embark in an experience like this. This is not to say that I was under or ill-prepared…just that reality is so much different from what we imagine our internships to be. I saw many of the things we are taught about in University at Nutre Hogar: fundraising attempts, connections to other NGOs, a system of administrative bureaucracy . But I also saw things you can’t read about in polisci textbooks; things that you need to experience to believe: the dedication it takes to work with deprived youth day after day, the amount of time and effort that some of the staff put in (for relatively little pay), and especially, the feeling of utter elation when a child leaves Nutre Hogar– for although it means having to say goodbye, it also means that s/he has gotten better.

Academics will also not be able to prepare you for the relationships you are certain to form after working abroad for three months. In some cases, as in mine, relationships form not just with the staff of Nutre Hogar, but with the children, and the families of the children. At first, (as ashamed I am to admit it), I couldn’t help but feeling a sense of resentment towards the families of the kids—after all, it was their fault that their children were in this precarious position. But as I began to observe and learn more, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong and narrow-minded. I just didn’t understand the history and social customs well enough to make a well-informed opinion. Generally, the children and their families are indigenous to Panama, and have a completely distinct culture and lifestyle than the rest of Panamanians. Their way of life isn’t wrong—it’s different. That being said, because they choose to lead different lifestyles (eating off the land, not participating in the local economy), they are sometimes unable to provide everything their children need and deserve. This is not for lack of love—they clearly love their children and families enough to admit that they need a little help, not only to nourish their child, but to learn alternative feeding/medicinal practices. These families can then become their own nutre hogar to their communities, and to future generations.

Ah, just the first of many revelations to come, I’m sure…

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