The Importance of Cultural Identity to Empower People: The Example of Barlovento

By Didi Ananda Sadhana, Director, Centro Madre, Barlovento, Venezuela
Translation of her presentation at the First Global Prout Conference in Venezuela, “Building a Solidarity Economy based on Ethics and Ecology”, July 7-9, 2011, Caracas. Translated by Eugenio Mendoza and Dada Maheshvarananda.

Good morning. I would like to share with you my experience with a community project in Barlovento (in the state of Miranda). In Barlovento, we have a project called Centro Madre (“Mother Center”). I came to Barlovento with a small international team of AMURT volunteers due to the tragedy of landslides in 1999. Not only was the state Vargas affected (where an estimated 50,000 people died), but also in Barlovento there was terrible flooding. We went there to do temporary relief work, and after six months there was an opportunity to start a long-term project. This is how Centro Madre began.

Centro Madre’s vision is to offer the local people, particularly the population of the five nearest rural villages, a variety of activities, projects and opportunities for personal growth, economic development, and social and spiritual growth so they can better defend themselves against economic exploitation, racism, etc.

During the 11 years I’ve worked there, I sometimes feel that they are the poorest people. They have the least to defend themselves against the materialist attack, against exploitation. For me it is very rewarding to be there, to help and contribute, to be together with them, to see in whatever way I can help them to better defend themselves, to strengthen both themselves and their communities

The personal growth vision, personal and community transformation through various projects: education, social and, most important, cultural. Culture is the strength of the people, their language, their way to express themselves through art. They way they come to realize who they are today is their culture. If we do not respect or strengthen the culture of the people, they become weak, and do not have the opportunity to resist exploitation and pseudo-culture imposed from outside. So strengthening the culture is very important. This is the job we do.

The beneficiaries we work with are mainly the people from the villages, not so much the people from the bigger towns like San José or Rio Chico. This is the area where we are. The village people have less access to better education, to better economic opportunities.

We began with educational and cultural projects. This allowed us a way to contact the people. I could come with an idea, saying, “Look, this is a good idea I think!” But if they think otherwise…. First we had to make contact, to be with them developing different projects related to education and culture, to see what we find, who we connect with.

Then we carried out different projects. We started celebrating Children’s Day and Christmas in three, four or five villages. We managed to do something and create a link with the community. The people know now that we are there to do things with the kids: dance, theater, clowns, etc.

We started self-sustainable economic projects. At the end of the day what people see first is their daily bread – isn’t that true? How to survive? How do I buy food, clothes, or my child’s notebook and pencils? So we also looked for ways to generate income from projects. For example, we developed a sewing project that later became a cooperative.

Educational programs: We invited young people to Centro Madre to learn to use computers and other things. We encouraged children, teenagers and adults to develop self-esteem. Most people in Barlovento are of African descent. Afro-Venezuelans know very well what racism is. Racism continues even today there, here and worldwide. It’s a world issue we still are facing.

From within, the people need to rediscover their self-esteem, the value of who they are, and to value themselves. For example, we took a photo of each child, printed them out from the computer, and then they each made a frame for their photo. We heard the kids say, “Wow! This is the first time I’ve had my photo taken!”

Education, elementary and junior high school: most kids graduate from elementary school and start junior high school. But within a few months or a year, many drop out. We see that children who come from villages located far away from the main roads, they very quickly drop out. There is very little support from home, but there is also a lot of inner racism. So we have financially supported teenage mothers and given them a chance to finish high school.

As we carry out different projects, we are also trying to find what the people want. We do activities with all our energy and we see they like them. But when we leave, if they don’t invest their own energy, then we’re not doing something that is interesting enough for them. From that perspective, we discovered some things that they do like, such as reading stories. Reading stories can be a very powerful tool for personal growth. Through short stories, children become interested in reading. They learn values and many other important lessons. Of course it is very important to carefully select children’s books, not give just any stories, but a selection that conveys certain characteristics and are educational. We have discovered this is something they all like. We started children’s libraries in the villages, and mothers do read the books to their kids. If the mother doesn’t, then an older brother or sister reads to their younger siblings. This was very interesting to observe. We have continued with these reading projects. We’ve done skits about the stories in the villages on Children’s Day and at other times as well.

Barlovento culture is drums, music and dance! With financial support from the PDVSA petroleum company, we did a project so the people could learn how to build their own drums. Of course many people know how to make drums, but in the villages where we work, nobody knew. So we offered them the experience to make their own drums with music, dance and everything.

While we carried out these projects, we also looked for a sustainable project to make it financially stable for the long term with its own financing. We have three and a half hectares of land. From the beginning we started to cultivate and began to experience what many farmers there know: it’s not easy to make money, it’s really hard! We experienced it by doing it. It is difficult for various reasons: the climate, the weather, there is not enough equipment to work the land, or once you manage to harvest well, the problem is selling your produce. We take our lemons to the local vegetable stores and ask if they want to buy them. “No, I already bought some in Caracas.” So I have to go to Caracas to sell my lemons so he can buy them and bring them back to Barlovento to sell! These are illogical situations, due to a lack of organization, which in the end makes producers unable to earn an acceptable income. We learn all these through experience by sharing with the people.

At this moment we have a farm in process. Our vision is to make it all organic. It’s not easy to do this overnight, but this is our goal. We have a successful vegetable garden. We also have Creole egg-laying hens. Our vision is to be as natural as possible. We also invite schools to bring their children to see the farm so they learn about growing, worms, and all that. We have bee hives. The agricultural ministry foundation CIARA has supported us, too.

Two years ago CIARA started to send agronomers to advise us on our farm. Now we have a guava tree nursery project. After Barlovento was flooded for the second time during these 11 years, we know that guava trees are resistant to water. So we are now doing a project together with CIARA and especially with the Cuban agronomers who come once a week. It has been a very pleasant experience, a very positive and good support.

Our board of directors are five women. This project receives the help of volunteers who come from different countries, including Venezuela. Here is a young woman, a former volunteer, who graduated from university with Centro Madre’s financial support.

So here we are in this project. It is very important to ask oneself: What is my vision? What is my intention? Why am I doing this with the people? In the afternoon workshop, I will explain what we call Neohumanism, which is the spirit behind PROUT. Neohumanism is also the spirit behind Centro Madre, the job we do. So I invite you to participate in this workshop. Thank you.

Questions asked by the audience

What are the results and major findings from Centro Madre and how does Prout manifest there?
Didi Ananda Sadhana: Well it sounds strange, but one of the outcomes or achievements that we have made is that after two floods, one in 2005 and another in 2010, an armed robbery, snake bites, and many other things, we’re still there. It seems, although it may sound strange, that to be there with the people, through the good and the bad, is an achievement. We are still there and we keep going. The farm is increasingly taking shape and we hope to be a support for the people, to create a network of producers. The children’s libraries are also an achievement, as is the network of people we know. We have good relationships with more and more people in the area.

What is the selection criteria for the stories that are read to children?
Didi Ananda Sadhana: Well, racism. There should be children of color represented in the stories so that children can identify with the characters in the stories. It is not easy to find good stories with children of color or adults. This is a sign of the racism in the world in which we live. We also look for characters with different roles that avoid sexism, that are not in stereotypical roles, that represent different roles models. And we look for ecological values, values by which the heroes live, that they do not live from the exploitation of others. Fairy tales today are changing, they are not like before.

Anyone who is interested to volunteer at Centro Madre, please contact me about community service there. Thank you.

Copyright The author 2011

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