Stories from Honduras: Mariela

Mariela is from a rural village.  Three years ago, she graduated from the highest level of education in her village (6th grade). Shortly thereafter, some North Americans visited her town one day with a local NGO and offered to pay for her sign-up fees, uniforms, books, school supplies, etc. in order for her to continue on to 7th grade.  For 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, she has received this educational sponsorship from a North American sponsor. This sponsorship has allowed her to attend high school in a community 25 minutes away (by car). Her family only had one basic requirement: transportation costs to and from the school. This is a very good thing; her family participated, valued, and gave toward this education that would benefit their entire family.  They fulfilled this requirement for the entire first year of the scholarship without fail.

Following her first year, it was reported to her North American sponsors that Mariela had passed the year with excellent grades. They happily responded that they would like to reward her by paying her transportation the coming year (8th grade). Of course, she and her family were thrilled with this news. At first glance, this is an excellent idea. Reward a good student. Certainly makes a good story about the US sponsor save her from a life of poverty, etc. However, this simple decision to increase support instead of increasing local collaboration is one that makes us very uncomfortable, especially in the context of Honduras. Anytime that one human secretly believes that he/she is saving another, they begin to believe that they are the savior, and the one rescued begins to see themselves as in need of saving; saving by another person.

Here is where the story takes a sad, but common turn. Now, the organization began to give Mariela’s family $3/day provided by the North American sponsor in order to pay for her transportation. This amount is sufficient to pay a private mototaxi to take her to and from school from her front door, no walking, no bus.  Thinking that all was in order, the year continued, and the sponsors continued to sponsor. Very early in the school year, Mariela’s family realized that the organization would just be handing them the cash.  So they came up with their own plan. 

Three dollars a day is a serious amount of money in rural Honduras, half a day’s wage in the case of Mariela’s town. (Think of getting an extra $50/day if you’re earning $100/day in the States). The family soon came up with other ways for the girl to be able to get to school every day without having to pay.  They would find rides with unknown passersby, or they would make her walk 30 minutes down an isolated back road, dangerous for anyone, let alone a 15-year old girl in Honduras. After a time, someone else realized they could probably benefit from the situation. Local stud Carlos was soon offering to Mariela’s family to give a cheap ride to pretty, young Mariela. So they began to give a fraction of the $3 to Carlos for him to leave her in the next town on his motorcycle, and they kept the rest. Carlos is not a responsible man of faith or even a mildly-responsible one. He’s a 17-year old ladies man (boy?) that has been with every girl in town that has given him a second of their time, and he has left at least one pregnant and alone without any thought of providing for either of them. To save you the entire story… Mariela and Carlos are now boyfriend and girlfriend. They started secretly, but people eventually found out. The girl who was the most faithful and promising member of the local church is now dating someone who is quite the opposite.

Mariela has one of the most difficult home lives we have seen. She lives with her young mom (whom she calls aunt), her grandma (whom she calls mom), and several other aunts who sell alcohol illegally and have quite the reputation as wild, violent women. Various forms of abuse occur in the household on a daily basis. To share about her home life would be a whole other story. School has been very hard for her. Trying to keep up is difficult when you have an unsupportive home life. Mariela has continued in school, even as her abusive family takes advantage of the money meant for her benefit. 

Thankfully, this one girl is furthering her education, but her family continues to be poor in many ways. As people that care deeply about our brothers and sisters in need, we must find a way to reach deep-seated holistic needs, not just the ones perceived by the eyes of an outsider (in this case educational).  We must be careful when we preach “success stories” stateside about how we are “saving” kids when we have no idea what is really going on day-to-day. I have seen her sponsor come and visit several times. It is all smiles, nods, and “everything is good” from Mariela and her family. Then I walk by their house moments later only to hear/see abuse once the sponsor is gone. I see her come crying to me after her mom has hit her because the stress and business of her school workload and travel is not leaving enough time to do household chores.

We are not saying we have all the answers, but we are sharing this story to share how important it is that we work towards holistic development, not just a quick, simple fix.  Also, how important it is to be sure you have ALL the information.  Stateside, it is easy to dream up how beautiful of a job we are doing by “giving,” but what does it really look like?  Holistic development involves the entire family or the entire community, not just providing one teenager a sponsorship to go to school.  Holistic development helps a family learn to manage and steward finances. It considers the systemic issues of lack of transportation, lack of quality local education, or lack of hope and seeks guidance from community leaders. It opens the door, steps out of the driver’s seat, takes a big step backwards, and hops in the back.

True, lasting development takes time, involvement, and patience. It’s hard. It’s not quick and easy. It’s a gaping wound that we can’t just put a band-aid on. Development considers the powerful capacity of local people. Instead of trying to constantly reduce the “load” on beneficiaries, it considers how to truly empower them to tackle the issues at the local level with what their Savior has given them. Development listens to stories of local suffering and success and is slow to respond. It does not quickly provide answers or programs, but instead provides a steady commitment to slow growth.

Our main concern in situations like this one is that there is no one locally invested in Mariela’s education.  If only the NA sponsor is investing then theirs is the only investment that can be lost.  Not Mariela’s family, nor church, or community has any time, money, or efforts invested. Yes, the family loses a bit of Mariela’s help around the house because of her being away or doing homework, but we are witnesses to the fact this this only seems to make them bitter and angry.  We are convinced that in situations such as these that Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a very effective intervention. In ABCD, donors come alongside the local church or community in collaboration or support, not as the movers and shakers, but as the support, encouragement, and complement.  This guarantees beneficiary buy-in.  When there is no investment, as in Mariela’s case, development often falters or struggles as oppression fights to overwhelm the hope much as wind assaults a match in the moment of its lighting.

Mariela is a remarkable young woman. She is committed to finishing high school despite her circumstances. The scholarship is a key component of her educational development; we do not want to discourage people from getting involved and giving towards a better life for those in need, but we do ask you to consider how and where you give. Always ask specifics about how funds are administered. Research an organization’s development philosophy. Consider if your giving is empowering the affected individuals or contributing to a “can’t do” attitude. Development can be done right, and hundreds of organizations across the world work hard every day to thoughtfully engage those in their area of influence. Let’s be serious with our giving. Let’s not just be sponsors or donors for short term fixes. Let’s be partners in the lives of our fellow man for the long term.

1 comment:

  1. Thankful for wisdom and insight God has given you and praying we all learn how to help without hurting - wherever God gives us the opportunity. Love you guys!