I looked everywhere for another place to land my gaze. I mean, he was standing right in front of me, staring at me, eating the pancake and jam that I had brought, waiting for a response that I was sure he knew I would not be able to give. It infuriated me. We had come to the house for a simple visit with a nice old lady and her daughter and as soon as we entered the dirt floor kitchen, even before we could exchange social niceties with the host and explain the gifts we brought, this short man, shirt unbuttoned, cap sliding to one side, looked at us with eyes wide as half dollar pieces and shouted at me,
¨Have you heard the news! They are paying! They are paying! They are paying families who have lost children in the war! I’ve lost three!¨
To fully understand the complexity of such a statement, (beyond the horrible fact that someone lost 3 children to state violence) one has to be in on a few backstories. First, the payment the man is referring to is a sort of reparations that the Colombian Government is supposedly starting to pay for the several years in which it, in the name of stopping a guerilla insurgency in the Colombian countryside, blatantly allowed militias to kill farmers on the simple assumption that one can never know for sure who is a guerilla.
Second, after many years of death, violence and impunity at the hands of the Colombian State, the community decided that a massacre in 2005 was the last straw and they broke ties officially with all entities of the state. What’s more, since the community´s past is riddled with instances where military has made a list of people labeled as anti government, and therefore targets, there is intense skepticism and fear whenever the military asks for names and personal data. Thus, no member of the community can register for, nor accept, any assistance, monetary or otherwise, from any state agency; a significant commitment for people who barely have the money for diapers and even a bigger deal for this man who is diabetic and requires an operation he can neither afford nor get for free for being elderly.
To make this situation even more uncomfortable for me, my role in the community is a bit difficult to manage. Technically, I am a strictly neutral human rights observer, meaning that I am by no means a member of the community nor am I allowed to take part in any internal policy or action of the community. Moreover, my organization maintains relations with the all branches of the government. Needless to say, my comments and actions within the community are restricted. Nevertheless, I live here, I interact daily with the people, I bring them homemade pancakes and jam and I kiss their kids regardless of how much cow manure they played in earlier. My ¨technical¨ position in the community is often tossed aside and replaced with an attitude that screams ¨sure, you’re a foreigner and a part of a political organization, but c´mon…you see how things are! Commiserate! Bash the unfair rules! Tell me it is O.K. to bend them!
It was with this attitude that the man stood and stared at me munching on his pancake with a look that demanded a response. I hoped in vain that if I just didn’t accept his stare, then the story, and the expectations of some kind of response, would stop. But the room was thick with tension as everyone, recognizing how uncomfortable the situation was, was quiet with their eyes lowered to the floor. I began to panic look for an officially approved response I could dish out
The man was oblivious of the awkward silence he had created, an oblivion that is understandable knowing that he calls himself the frog Singer because he claims to be able to sing wit the voice of a frog he swallowed live. He paused for a good bite of pancake, and then, without finishing chewing, continued on about how badly he needed his surgery and how fortunate it was that the government was finally paying people for their passed losses, and how a soldier promised him that if he only gave him his personal data he could be registered with the health care system and get the operation for free. The entire time, I could only think about what I was going to say that would simultaneously commiserate, but not cross the line into suggesting he bend the rules.
Realizing I was not going to avoid the conversation, I stopped avoiding his stare, started tolerating the masticated food visible in his mouth, and started to listen. I quickly learned that, like many Colombian conversations, he actually needed me to say very little. Frog Singer happened to be a very sexist pig, I just happen to be the only man in the room and he just wanted to vent to someone he thought mattered. I let the man talk, nodded my head, grunted and old Frog Singer was content. So content, in fact, that he flowed right into another story, this one 45 minutes long, about the time he fell off a Cliff and survived.
That night I did not give any good advice nor did I gracefully escape long winded story forced my coworker to miss the news. I did, however, get yet another chance to chastise myself for getting missing the majority of a good story because I was so wrapped up in my own insecurities. People, especially Colombians, often are faced with situations much harder than I could ever understand. I clearly can not commiserate, nor should I every think I’m expected to. My role, rather, is to listen to the story, take it seriously and try to understand the depths of the dilemma discussed. If the person walks away feeling like someone truly heard their story, I´d consider my job ¨well-done.