Counting our Blessings

Univ. of Caldas, Manizales, Colombia, faculty position.

I was asked by the head of the Dept. of Home Economics at the University of Caldas to teach a course on the Social Problems of Colombia.  I agreed to do so.   The class met two times a week for three hours each time.   The first problem I had was to find a textbook that was not based on Roman Catholic theology.  I wanted a book that dealt with social systems and social organizations without being loaded with social doctrines of the church…  Finally, I found such a work which was not really what I wanted but I made it do.

The norm for teaching was that the instructor handed out extensive notes on his daily lectures, literally read his notes to the class during the class time which the students took home and memorized.  The exam had to be limited to what was included in the notes and if more than half of the students failed the class they could petition to have the grades erased.  I did not like that system.  What I did was to plan a field trip each Tuesday afternoon to the men’s prison, to the insane asylum, to a slum, to the local orphanage, etc.  Then the student had to write a short paper discussing the visit using concepts presented in the assigned chapter of the text.  On Thursday the students would read their papers aloud and have their colleagues add their observations and suggestions to it.  At the end of the class, papers had to be turned in for my critique.
I was attempting to get the students to begin with a definition of the problem and then ascertain what understanding could be derived from the concepts, paradigms, and propositions derived from sociology.  Rather than beginning with theory or concepts, I began with existential reality.  I wanted to get these young women emotionally involved in the situation and not merely intellectually involved.  My feeling was that they would be more interested in the theories and concepts if such could help them address their emotional concerns.
Before we visited one of the worst slums in the city as a class I went to the barrio and walked down the trail that ran from the main road of the city down the hillside to the highway at the bottom of the path.  To each woman that I could see who lived in one of the shacks along the path I gave a small sum of money and told them that some students of mine from the upper social classes would be visiting the barrio the next day and I wanted them to help me show those girls how folks in this tugurio (slum) lived.  “Show them where you sleep, where you prepare food, where you wash, where you take care of sanitary needs.  Tell them how many children you have had, how many died, at what ages.  What is your income?  From what source?  Where do you get water, etc, etc, etc”.  I also cautioned them that these young women would be frightened as none of them had ever visited a poor neighborhood such as this.  “Please help me educate these young women on how persons in social situations such as yours survive,” I asked.
The next day the university bus let the girls off at the top of the path down through Barrio Galan.  I had the students walking two by two so they could have more interviews with the dwellers.  The university bus was at the bottom of the slope.  The students took many notes and it was about two hours later that they got to the bus.  Most of them were in tears.  They had never envisioned that

Counting our Blessings
At a meeting of some of the poorest citizens of the city of Manizales, Colombia perched 7,000 ft. above sea level, high in the Andes I noticed a woman trying to read a newspaper. I say ‘trying’ because she was holding it upside down and only on seeing a photograph did she turn it around. I asked her for permission to visit her residence as I was studying how folks such as she lived. “Oh, mister, my dwelling is very humble. I don’t think you would be interested in visiting me.” “On the contrary,” I responded, “I want to visit persons in all social situations.” She gave me the number of her dwelling in Barrio Galan and suggested that I call at 2 p.m. the next day. The health department numbers all shacks in these slum neighborhoods.
The next day at 2 p.m. I knocked at the door frame of the indicated shack. Looking inside the open door I noticed a large bed frame. One family lived above the bed frame and another lived underneath it. The dwelling was less than three meters by four meters in size. I informed the occupant that I was looking for Sra. Fulana de tal (Mrs. so and so). I was informed that she lived “en los bajos.” (in the basement.) The shack was built on a steep hillside so I went around back and looked into a small space cut under the floorboards of the shack above. Every time someone walked in the unit above dirt would fall down on the residents of this poor space. A single light bulb of about 20 watts illuminated the darkness even though it was two in the afternoon. The electricity was stolen as someone had tapped into the city power line.

The woman I had met the evening before was there and apologized for her humble circumstances. With her was her husband, lying on a litter in the limited space that they occupied. I was informed that he had a broken back and could not work. An infant was crying. The woman gave the baby a bottle that had colored water in it. I inquired what she was feeding the baby and was informed that she had put a bit of panella (sugar from sugar cane) in the water as that was all that she had to feed the child. She explained that they had another child about 10 years old who was mentally retarded but one day he went out and never came back. She thinks he was probably kidnapped to work on a farm as slave labor. But she has never heard of him again.
To begin the interview I asked her where she had come from before she lived in this barrio and was told that she and her family had fled from the countryside as the violence there threatened their lives. [this was the time of the civil war called “La Violencia en Colombia.”] I followed up this question by asking “How do you like living in this barrio?” and I will never forget her response. “God has given us such wonderful neighbors, we are blessed. When we arrived a neighbor nearby came with a small cup of soup to welcome us to the neighborhood. Yesterday another neighbor brought us several bananas. We truly feel lucky and count our blessings to live in such a wonderful neighborhood.”
Ah, yes, let us count our blessings.