What We Offer
Santa Ines, Honduras
Here’s a memory:
Step off the air-conditioned bus into an eddy of barefoot children; try to say hola to every pair of eyes; feel the tiny hands take our bags and carry them away in a dusty stream.
Quick impressions ambush me in Santa Ines, a small village in the northwest of Honduras, the poorest country in our hemisphere after Haiti. First, and most oppressive, is the heat: an itchy blanket at the sun’s birth and death, a cauldron at midday. Second, even before the sweep of poverty hits, is the extensive variety of smiles. Whether euphoric or tranquil, with modestly closed lips or toothy grins: there is always a happy face to welcome mine.
Last - and here is where I first have trouble imagining what I know to be true - comes the sight of a child lost amongst the others who resembles, more than anything, a skeleton.
But he’s quickly absorbed into the crowd while I’m caught up in the rush of kids bringing me to my new home. They shout mas! a plea to carry more of our baggage, and how odd it is, I think, that they would ask for a greater burden.
I went to Santa Ines with a charity group to help build a community center. Memories of Honduras keep returning to me shattered in bits and pieces, but taken together they crystallize a certain condition that resurfaces every time I learn of our world’s latest tragedy - whether a tsunami, a car bombing or a famine.
I suspect that others have felt it too: a resistance to believe in what we do not wish to allow in our world.
But I don’t want to dwell on horror. This is a story about how we imagine one another, and how we imagine our world. If there is a lesson learned, it is this: to cherish the good that survives this world, it may be necessary to acknowledge the scars that bind us as well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in Santa Ines, we’re falling asleep on our first night and in the dark we hear the town choir singing from the ramshackle church. They’re calling praises to Heaven that we’ve come to help them. It helps them to believe.
Here’s the nitty-gritty: we had two weeks to turn a dilapidated structure into a center fit for literacy classes, weddings, funerals, and town meetings. At first sight, it didn’t seem possible. While the town had built the basic structure five years ago, they soon ran out of money and watched as nature took over.
The ground was chocked with weeds, the ceiling beams eaten by rust. The concrete block walls crumbled from the slightest touch.
Our tasks were laid out. Nail quivering metal sheets to the roof beams. Dig out the roots and flatten the earth floor to pour concrete. Clear away the rubble from the building walls. Install windows. Paint the new building a beautiful blue.
Between ourselves, we discussed what was possible. Slowly we realized that we were surrounded by dozens of kids. They wanted to help.
For the first few days, I shoveled dirt from a human-sized pile into wheelbarrows pockmarked with holes. The kids, some as young as 5, none older than 12, wheeled away the dirt, spilling a thin trail behind them.
They were tough. They lugged away rocks half their size and stomped shovels into the rocky ground with unprotected feet. No one was happy until their wheelbarrow was filled with a wobbling mountain of dirt.
They were always upset when the day ended and scolded us when we rested on our shovels. When work was done they would challenge us to a soccer match and without going easy on them, they always won.
And they never asked for much. Their only requests were that we call them by their names (if you forgot a face, you were quizzed until you remembered) and that we take their pictures at all times.
It was if they were testing to see if we believed they existed.
But there was one girl who never talked and always slinked out of the picture frame. I didn’t understand why until I saw her scars.
The scars were feathered across the wings of her back. I ran through her possible tragedies in my mind. Maybe a burn, possibly a parasite wormed under her skin, or perhaps simply no known cause. In truth, the reason didn’t matter. What was clear was that she had been brought pain and she could not imagine why.
As the days passed we began to notice progress. Completed sections of the roof offered us shade. Inside, we had torn up the earth’s dead roots and covered them with new dirt. We invited the kids to dance until the dirt was pounded flat. The cement mixer arrived and soon we were throwing into its belly all the ingredients of a new floor.
Junk fires burned throughout the town, thickening the air.
I began to notice another group of kids. The town’s teenagers would stand on the perimeter and stare silently as we worked. Some smoked dope and made crude jokes. They picked on the more enthusiastic kids for being suckered into false hopes.
I wonder what happens to the children of Santa Ines, and I assume to the children of all towns like it, when they pass a certain age. I suspect they come to the conclusion that the world has no use for them. They begin to believe that this is it.
It was hard to communicate with these kids and not simply because of the language barrier. Rather, there was a belief barrier. For us, we simply could not fully understand that people lived their lives this way. We could not understand the simple sights of village life like the children who played with a moldy rat on a string or the mother who bathed her baby ten feet downstream from where a cow was defecating.
The teenagers of Santa Ines knew all too well that this was real. And what made this knowledge unbearable was that they could not imagine what else there might be.
I urged the children to ignore their stares and focus on how things were coming together. We sectioned off the floor into a checkerboard and began to pour concrete. Above, the roof was nearing completion just in time to protect us from a spat of afternoon rain showers. Windows were bolted into the walls.
A new volunteer arrived. I had glimpsed him on the first day but since then I had convinced myself that he wasn’t real. Now I had to believe.
He was tough to look at. His skin seemed shrink-wrapped around his ribs and his hands - please forgive me for saying this - triggered a memory of a bird’s claws.
But he was smiling. He held a shovel taller than himself. I brought him to a dirt pile where a few other kids were working and through sign language indicated that he should copy what they were doing. But the other kids snickered at him and ran away.
I didn’t know what to do with him. He kept staring at me with an enormous grin. I couldn’t imagine where he might belong.
More and more people came to watch the new creation. Several women, roly-poly with shiny cheeks, brought us glasses of cold juice and sweet bread. They clapped and cheered each time we finished another square of the floor.
People asked us to pose for pictures with them in front of the building. We threw our arms around each other. I promised to mail them the pictures and they smiled, happy to have proof that there once came a day when two worlds touched.
Their enthusiasm lifted me and soon I began to believe that completing the center might be possible after all. What’s more, it seemed that the older kids were beginning to believe as well.
A handful of the teenagers had drifted closer until one gathered the courage to approach. He asked what he could do to help. He was given a bucket of cement to spread on the cracked walls. I watched as he worked, turning the wall’s shattered surface into something smooth and new.
The last days passed in a frenzied blur. With the help of a few more of the older kids, we finished the floor. We stood with them and marveled at the transformation. It was so perfect I could barely remember how uneven and treacherous the earth had once been, now simply a past world sunken beneath a smooth sea of concrete.
The team building the roof finished and joined us on the ground. They felt the floor’s evenness with their palms and complimented us on our accomplishment. We looked up to the metal heaven and told them that their work was good, too.
We decided to paint the building sky-blue.
I looked around for the kid I believed was near starving, for so many things. I wanted him to see that he had helped imagine something quite wonderful to life.
When people ask about Honduras, the story I tell goes something like this: Two worlds that couldn’t quite believe in one another created something, so that when they parted they were a little more real to one another.
I tell them about leaving in a sputtering taxicab and passing the children lining the dusty main street. I watched them hold out their hands, with hope for more of what they believed my world offered.
What I never mention is that sometimes I question whether offering the kids a vision of a new world - one they would probably never again realize - wasn’t, in some ways, a little cruel.
I have one last memory.
When I was packing my bags to return home, the boy who resembled a skeleton tapped me on the back. I turned and jumped. He was grinning again and pointing at my suitcase. I was used to the children pointing at what I had - my shoes with reflector edges, my sunglasses that turned the whole world red - and so I grinned, too.
He repeated a few Spanish words over and over and kept pointing at my suitcase. I nodded and led him back to the rest of the children.
Later, when I had returned home, I asked a friend who spoke Spanish what the boy had said. My friend translated the boy’s words to mean, more or less:
Take me with you.