The Power in Being A Witness

Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed below are mine and mine alone (except for the quote by AJ, he said that).

On Thursday, we learned about the twenty years of violence in Ayacucho. For those who do not know, almost 70,000 Peruvians were killed between 1980 and 2000 as the result of actions by the fundamentalist leftist groups Partido Comunista de Peru Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Movimiento Revolucionista Tupac Amaru, and equally violent responses from the Peruvian government.

All sides of the conflict used senseless violence to meet their goals.The founder of Sendero Lumniso, Abimael Guzman, openly stated that the deaths of thousands were worth the new regime. Likewise, the Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori Fujimori sanctioned a “dirty war” involving the killing of entire groups when just one was identified as a possible terrorist. As members of Sendero Luminoso hid among indigenous communities this resulted in two Quechua speakers dying for every three deaths. We learned a great deal about the motivations and ideology of each group, but I will not attempt to act as an authority on the specifics of the conflict.

Honestly, no one knows exactly what happened throughout the conflict. As a result, the government initiated a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (CTR) in 2003 to uncover the facts and provide reparations for the families of disappeared persons and those who died. We visited a CTR photo exhibit with images and information about different major tragedies during the 20 years. Most information contained the same phrase: “still under mysterious circumstances.” The years of violence were highly unstable, so I am not surprised that so many stories were lost.

I’m more interested in a reflection offered by fellow YAV, AJ Newcombe. As he put it, “There is a power in being a witness to this [tragedy].” There is power in knowing what happened, why it happened, and what tragedies like this look like early on. 

Movements like the CTR helps shed light on the seeds of violence, so that we can make sure they are not spread in the future. Likewise, this exhibit reminded me of the price of fundamentalism and allowing the ends to justify the means. These are bad motives, but it is easy to grow passive in a comfortable life, in which I avoid tragedy.

There is also a power in identifying abuses of power. This power goes beyond observing an exhibit, but is something you can do in your daily life.This is the only way we can honor those lost to the tragedy and identify those responsible. We cannot offer anything close to final judgment or true justice, but we can ensure that the perpetrators can never act similarly in the future.

That requires documentation, a form of power that each of us can take on in the present day. I was moved by the photos throughout the exhibit and shocked that they even existed. One set of photos showed the last shots taken by a journalist before he and his group were killed by the members of indigenous town, under mysterious circumstances. Another series showed two students taken away by the police before they were identified as dead in prison the next day.

To me, this exhibit offered a message for the present day beyond the seeds of senseless violence. That message was: document uses and abuses of power. Even now in the United States, there are constant examples of police brutality of people of color. Videos have captured many of these instances, but there are many more that likely go undocumented. The power of being a witness is an active one, not just a passive one.

I hesitate to make a stance like this. It offers a direct suggestion: “Document the police or those in power.” I am usually not 100 percent in favor of any seemingly radical measure, yet I think this is not such a radical notion. Yet in Rialto, CA use of force by police dropped 60 percent and citizen complaints dropped 88 percent in the first-year after police started wearing cameras. That’s just correlation, but it is a notable one all the same. Documentation seems to be a win-win, so documentation may not be such a radical notion after all.

I’m trying not to forget the importance of being a witness to tragedy and violence. It helps me interpret exhibits like the CTR and motivates me to push for transparent uses of power. The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation is an inspiring and powerful response to the years of violence in Peru and chooses to recognize instead of deny the arguably darkest part of this country’s history.

Ecotheology: A New Interest

Jed mentioned the other day that he had heard Ephraim, a professor at the seminary where we have learned a few lessons give talks on ecotheology. As Jed explains it, this branches out of liberation theology into a discussion of how human beings as part of creation are more than stewards. It brings us into solidarity with the environment and aligns better with the Andean cosmovision concerning nature.

I’m eager to learn more about this idea during the upcoming year, because it may help me reconcile my environmentalist values with my education in economics. I’ll write a post about this soon, but I truly hope to be able to take more solidified stances on hot button issues like environmentalism.

With ecotheology, I’m really interested in the notion of humans as part of creation. If we are just stewards then we remove ourselves from the whole picture. As part of creation, it reminds us that we are united to the Earth and creation.

I’ve often thought that much of the anti-climate change work is about us trying to make sure the Earth stays livable for humans and most other animals. Earth is highly resilient and some form of life would survive even if we were to make it inhabitable for ourselves. Environmental activism is then a form of self-interest. I am curious to see how this self-interest view fits or does not fit within the scope of ecotheology, which puts us in solidarity with the environment.

As I head into a line of work that is a microsolution to climate change, this will be very important in the year to come. If you know of good resources for this, let me know!

Ayacucho: A History of Violence

In the last few days, I’ve been trying to soak up all I can about Ayacucho. And I’ve gleaned a fairly sad picture. Violence has left the city and surrounding province reserved and with a marked sadness. Violence runs deep in the history of the community, well before the 20 years of terrorism centered at the city. I’ll start from the beginning and move forward.

Ayacucho is very close to the starting point for the first ethnic group to unite much of the Andes, the Wari. The Wari spread from the center of Peru and created the network of roads throughout the west coast of South America, known as the Incan trails. The Wari confederation was the leader of the area, until the Incan empire conquered the area and took control, likely violently. Violence started early in this area.

It later continued with the entrance of the Spanish conquistadors. I will not go in depth here, but state that colonization did not go well for any part of South American and Ayacucho is no exception to that rule.

Later, Simon Bolivar succeeded in ousting the Spanish and declaring independence for Peru and several other South American countries during the Battle of Ayacucho in 1825. This final battle marks a source of pride for those of Ayacucho, but again the memory is one centered on violence.

And still later, the area was the epicenter of the 20 years of violence in Peru. Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, came out of Ayacucho to push their radical leftist agenda for communism. Their leader Abimael Guzman taught at a university in the area as part of a push for popular education. From 1980 to 2000, Sendero Luminoso, the Movimiento Revolucionista de Tupac Amaru, and the authoritarian government engaged in violent conflicts leaving nearly 70,000 dead in the country. Two out of every three were Quechua speakers from this area, which is a testament to the wider world’s tendency to oppress indigenous groups.

This all gives me pause. Not out of any fear. I’m quite confident that the area is safe and a sense of peace does pervade the country. Instead, I worry about how this has affected the people I will interact with. A speaker we met voiced my worries openly, saying that violence has marked the people of Ayacucho as more sad and quiet.

This affects the best way to interact, he said. Instead of asking lots of questions, it is best to just have a conversation and glean information via small talk. Also, avoid pressing on most matters as they could be linked to sensitive areas. It is an area in which I may need to watch myself and ensure that my desire to know more and be empathetic does not push others out of their necessary comfort zones. These people have gone through real, tragic losses, the likes of which I have never known.

This will add a layer of challenges to my experience that I am not sure how I will face yet. So far it seems I should tread on the respectful side, but it makes me nervous that some of the Silly Little Things may turn out to be a much bigger deal. This may be part of the growing experience, but I don’t want that to be at the expense of others feelings and healing from years of tragedy and loss.

A few photos

I’ve got a text problem on this blog. So here’s a few photos!

Be careful lending your phone out!
Be careful lending your cameras out to Joe!
The Kiva Kidz! Okay, so we didn't have a cool name, but she was an amazing leader for an amazing, thoughtful group.
The Kiva Kidz! Okay, so we didn’t have a cool name, but she was an amazing leader for an amazing, thoughtful group.
Hey I met Grace, a mutual friend of Joel Mandella at YAV Orientation! :)
Hey I met Grace, a mutual friend of Joel Mandella at YAV Orientation! 🙂
A beautiful display outside the Peruvian National Museum.
A beautiful display outside the Peruvian National Museum. Inside the museum is a photo display from the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, which was ordered to unpack and shed light on the 20 years of violence.
AJ looks at a few photos about the 20 years of violence.
AJ contemplates a few photos about the 20 years of violence. As he put it, “There is a power in being able to be a witness to this.” (I’m here with some smart cookies.)
A Peace Pole in honor of the the 20 years of violence.
A Peace Pole at El Ojo que Llora, a labyrinth in memoriam of those who died during the 20 years of violence.
A Classic.
A classic of Jed capturing the moment.
A Labyrinth for the 20 years
The labyrinth in El Ojo que Llorra (The Eye that Cries), is made of thousands of individual stones. Many stones have a name for someone who died between 1980-2000. Those who are still seeking answers about their lost family are standing around the monument in honor of the 11th anniversary of the formation of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.

Contradictions at Huaca Pucllana?: Ruins in Lima

On Wednesday, we went to ruins in the center of Huaca Pucllana as part of our introduction into the cultures of Peru. The day included an Anthropological museum and a lecture on the Andean cosmovision, but I’d like to instead focus on the Huaca Pucllana and several ironies or contradictions that appeared to stick out to me.

  1. The ever-present city in the background: If you’re standing on Huaca Pucllana and you take a photo, you will have the ultimate cover photo for a textbook on 21st century global politics. This isn’t a unique observation, but one that helps contextualize where the ruins are. Urbanization also led to the destruction of a few of the ruins, as well. They are located in Miraflores, the wealthy district that reminds me of Times Square and is affectionately referred to as “Gringolandia.” There’s no value judgment to make about this, I just mean to point it out.
  1. Crops for show, not use: In the ruins, they had a gardens for show and not use. There were all kinds of plants and animals that they were raising to give a picture of how the land was once used, however, my tour guide did not know what happened to the food. In fact, it seemed like the first time she’d ever been asked the question. To me, that is a very important question as food is meant for more than show. I did not get a chance to investigate further though, so hopefully the food does get used in some capacity.
  1. First a watchtower, then a playground: When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they chose to use the temple as a watchtower, as it is essentially a human-made mountain. As a result, a place of worship and cultural pride, was converted into a tool for the conquering empire. And years later, during the 20th century, many chose to bicycle and motorbike on the site, which our tour guide characterized as disrespectful. She did so with good reason, as this is a site of cultural significance. Still, it makes sense that the status as a watchtower would take away much of this significance. Without that significance, it’s just a giant, brick hill with plenty of ramps to enjoy.

Overall though, I enjoyed the space and appreciated an opportunity to see something behind the traditional Incan empire picture of historic Andean culture. As I attempt to better understand and participate in the communities here, it is just imperative not to oversimplify or essentialize the culture to one group. Peru today is a product of its complex history.

Those Silly Little Mistakes: They Never Go Away

During our first full day, Tuesday, Jed and Jenny took us to a Metro supermarket to buy some bottles of water. On the way in, I saw a few lockers for bags and remembered that bags were not allowed in supermarkets in Bolivia. I asked Jed and Jenny and we got a locker to lace our bag in.

The open locker was high up and Jed being the taller of the two went to pay. I’m unsure of the exact details or workings of one of these lockers, but Jed began to struggle with closing the locker, locking it, and removing the key. First he closed it without taking out the key. Then he tried to take out the key in close it. Basically, it was taking him a second to figure out the mechanics. Before he could figure it out, a friendly Peruvian swooped in and showed him to get the key out without issue. Jed laughed and thanked the man.

Later on, Jenny took us on a bus to head down a street only to discover after a few stops that this was the one bus that did turned to soon and took us completely off-course. It’s a tricky bus system to navigate, but she handled it quite well. She moved us off the bus and found us a replacement to take us the rest of the way in minutes. If Jed hadn’t given us a play-by-play, I doubt I would have worked out that anything had gone wrong.

I tell these vignettes not to embarrass Jed or Jenny, but to highlight that these silly little moments that happen when you’re living in a new culture never really go away. That extends beyond other parts of the world to other parts of your own country. While they do disappear, they do not completely vanish.

Jed has been living in Peru for five years now and yet he still had one of these moments. Jenny is Peruvian, though she has not always lived in Lima. They both have silly little moments and mistakes. They are not perfect. Their saving grace is through their conduct around these mistakes.

Neither panicked nor felt a notable sense of shame. They found the quickest way to solve the problem and moved on. This example has been very helpful to me already.

For example, I cannot for the life of me get my key to work in the door of my temporary host family. You have to jiggle it as you turn it and I’ve got a 25 percent success rate. Luckily, Jed has been there to help me the last two mornings as I struggle with the door. Another time, another member of the apartment complex opened the door and let me out. I mostly laugh and am continuing to practice to get the process down before I leave.

Another example might be a very similar situation to Jenny’s bus faux pas. Jenny and Jed informed me that any bus on Avenida Brasil past their apartment will bring in a straight line to my house. Well, I hopped on one and found that we turned after one stop. I sighed, hopped off a block away and moved back. I found another bus and was able to get where I needed after a five minute wait. It was an honest mistake and one that a little keen observation and coolness under pressure can help solve.

So my point is, I’m embracing the silly little mistakes, laughing about them when they are funny, and fixing them they happen. I’m keeping in mind the joy that I can experience these mistakes by being welcomed into a culture quite apart from my own.

La Manta: Our Invitation

I think I have neglected to mention one fact in particular about my trip. We were invited by each organization to come work. I did not quite realize this until a welcoming service with the Joining Hands Network on Tuesday.

During the service, the members of Joining Hands presented us with a manta, or very colorful blanket as a gift of welcome. The manta is orange with purple, blue, brown, and black patterns sewn throughout it. It’s beautiful craft. It was made by one of the member organizations of Joining Hands, which is itself an umbrella organization for NGOs throughout Peru.

It was presented to us by the head of Joining Hands, Conrado, who stated that the many colors and patterns represents each one of us coming from a different place to work towards a larger more beautiful purpose. At least, that was my takeaway.

I appreciated the metaphor and it started to dawn on me that I have a strong support network here in Peru just as among the YAV program in the United States. Later during lunch, we ate our first official Peruvian meal outside of the house. As we ate, the various members of Joining Hands laughed and joked together. They helped us where our Spanish or cultural knowledge failed and made us feel welcome. It was clear that they wanted us here to help and appreciated our presence first and foremost.

Presbyterian Mission emphasizes that we are better together when working in partnership. That’s how the Albany-Mam Presbytery Partnership works and while I’ve long supported that partnership, I’ve just been less involved in the nitty-gritty to really see that this was anything more than a rebranding of historical examples of mission.

Jed and Jenny are both mission co-workers with the PC(USA) that means they work in tandem with Joining Hands and the YAV program in Peru to maintain partnerships. Jenny works to secure the YAVs invitations from various organizations. This year, no YAVs are serving in Lima because the invitations did not line up with any of our skills and abilities. Instead of us just giving an organization a random YAV, Jenny matches abilities based on needs to the best of her abilities.

When we received the manta, I realized that the organizations here valued her work and our presence. We feel that together we can accomplish greater acts and benefit mutually in a way that would not be possible in more paternalistic or hands-off approaches to mission and/or humanitarian work. I’m proud to be a part of it.


This is a short cutesy idea I had following a viewing of the Amazing Spiderman 2 on the airplane. It involves a comparison between Spiderman and us YAVs cause how is that not fantastic!

It comes out of the fact that Spiderman loves doing his job. He loves to fight crime and exercise great responsibility with his great power. He’s also a little self-indulgent. He uses his position to offer silly witticisms to those who support him and despite using means to solve a problem that are not universally supported by everyone. After all, he’s just offering immediate solutions to crime without necessarily cutting off the systemic process that leads to said crime.

YAVs are headed to areas to be involved in being present with those struggling in rough situations. There’s arguments that programs like this create gentrification, involve a white savior dynamic, and do little to alleviate the systemic problem. Working in a soup kitchen or in sustainable agriculture won’t end poverty, but it is a means to help with the problem.

Peter Parker’s statement: “I like to think he gives people hope” during a conversation with Harry Osborn runs parallel with the YAV message. Spiderman’s presence is what really matters to Peter.

And Spiderman acts on that. He saves a kid who is being bullied for being a nerd. They had destroyed a school project, a mini-windmill. After saving the kid, he repairs the windmill and commends him for the amazing project. And then he walks him home, just offering his presence to bring the kid joy and hope. It’s an amazing moment and spoke to me as a YAV.

At the end of the movie, that kid steps up and feels empowered to face crime directly. It’s an over-the-top, comic-bookishly, do-not-try-this-at-home moment, but it shows that Spiderman’s presence empowers the boy, one of the least of these.

I’m not saying that I’m about to put on a mask and fight bad guys at night, but the moment speaks to our year. Even more so, we have our own origin phrase, a parallel to immortal words of Uncle Ben: “Being, not doing.”

Okay, so that last bit is a stretch. Richard didn’t say it from his death bed, but it still matters. Maybe a better parallel might be “With great privilege comes great responsibiliy.” Happy slinging, SpiderYAVs!

Second take: 

So in the last 24 hours, I realized that I had an unexpected and undesired takeaway message above: YAVs are superheros, the people we help are like children. I do not like that message and am struggling to find a way to save this metaphor.

Let me explain why I don’t like it first and perhaps that will shed light on how to save it. First, it implies that our presence is what empowers people. That may be true, but it is not the only thing that empowers them. That is a silly idea.

Second, we are complicit in the problems facing these folks. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that about Spiderman, though I could see the argument for that.

Third, we are not superheroes. We are just people trying to help and making lots of mistakes.

I guess I made the post because it caught my attention and was a lighter idea to share. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it all the way through and that led to what you have above.

I suppose if we scale the metaphor down it may still work. We are not superheroes and the people we are helping are not helpless like the citizens of New York were to Electro or Rhino.

Still, we come from different forms of privilege, a power we were given. Spiderman’s powers are privilege over the citizens of New York just like ours. So the “great privilege” line still works. I’d like to think this year is using that privilege responsibly.

There is one important other difference: While Spiderman’s victory is to beat various criminals and provide hope, our goal is to end the systematic processes that offer us the privilege over others and provide our superpowers. I doubt Spiderman wanted to make everyone share his same powers. In fact, there several times where that exact occurrence goes wrong.

So I don’t know if I can save this metaphor and given it’s goofy nature perhaps it is best to let rest. So perhaps I ought to do just that. Still, I felt the need to reclarify and root out a message that could support the “white savior” forms of mission work of the history.

I’m going to expand on “white savior” mission work later because I want to clearly state how I think my YAV year differs. It’s an important exercise to do.

Other than one giant hiccup, things are good!

So I’m writing this from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Lima. I ate a “Carita Dulce” donut. It was blue. I loved it. Also, I may develop a coffee problem here. The wifi here is amazing. I was able to Skype a bunch of family back in the states. By the way Aunt Ellen, no black raspberry sorry!

Otherwise, let me tell you a bit about the journey first. I realized on the bus over to Newark Airport that I was wearing pants that lacked a button. This makes the belt removal process tricky at security and unfortunately frisking was necessary oops.

But then we got to the flight and what a flight it was! The movies available included Amazing Spiderman 2, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and The Grand Budapest Hotel all of which I had been meaning to see! So I watched all of them and had a blast. The lady next to me was very kind and it was a surprisingly pleasant flight despite my reservations about United Airlines from past not-so-pleasant experiences.

Then we got to Lima, took some photos with Jed and Jenny and were dropped off with our temporary host families. My family is wonderful and lives right on the edge of the Pacific. Yes! My “mother,” Ara, works in a local government office processing applications for funds. One of my host brothers is a musician who records Andean music at his own studio. We had lengthy conversations about the differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism, the challenges of studying economics and being Christian, and the importance of uniting pop, traditional, and academic musical interests. My brain was stretched, my Spanish vocabulary served me well enough, and I had a blast.

So what’s the hiccup? Well, it would appear that in the process of loading photos from my camera onto my laptop I left it out in the Common Room of the building I stayed in at Stony Point Center. Oops. Not proud of that one.

Thankfully, I have an amazing support network and Jed and Jenny, the site coordinators here offered to lend me one for the time-being. In October, a YAV Alumni, Jason, will be visiting and he has agreed to bring my camera to me if I have Stony Point Center mail it to him before that date. Everything is going to work out okay and relatively cheaply, which is important considering one core value of the program: Simple Living.

Cheapness does not equal Simple Living, but there is something to be said for finding an easier solution involving a degree of patience. Though it does involve relying on others. I’d love thoughts on the connection between this and Simple Living actually, please share!

My pride was a little hurt, but I managed to keep my stress about the camera to a dull roar while figuring out the best way to have it sent to me. I’m pleased to be here and am finding my second time round in Lima to be quite a blast.