Like Ancient Mariner, these people must tell their tale

First published:
Feb. 12, 2003

Faced with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, it can be difficult to see how one person can make a difference in the world. Problems in developing countries are so massive, it seems. But for Linda Seppanen, a local psychologist, an insightful trip she took last month to El Salvador opened her eyes to the power an individual wield.

As part of International Development Week, last Friday at the Cobourg YMCA, Seppanen described her experience during an exposure tour organized by Horizons of Friendship.  She was one of 19 people from Ontario who were able to see a wide variety of community projects.

“It was a profoundly moving experience. I knew very little,” she told a small gathering of about 20 people, consisting mostly of Horizons staff and people from the trip.

The life of El Salvadorans is very tough. After 12 years of civil war, it has been a long road, she described. About 65 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. To compound problems, the country is susceptible to earthquakes and mudslides. Hurricane Mitch also devastated the country two years ago.

As a psychologist, she noted many of the people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. She also met with women who had been jailed, raped, tortured and brutalized.

However, the picture was not all so bleak. Through a non-government organization in El Salvador, she witnessed 1,500 homes being built with the support from aid agencies and Horizons and Friendship. Since the national government provides little support for such projects, Seppanen saw first-hand the importance of this kind of work.

“We were able to see how an NGOs (non-government organization) can be more effective,” she said. “Money is important. But what is as important is the support – the solidarity.”

She said the psychological value of this kind of assistance is very signficiant. Many people are traumatized by all the day-to-day hardship they face. This is compounded when the national government fails to make any effort to provide aid.

”The sense of abandonment and betrayal added to the trauma,” she said.

There were three critical realizations Seppanen came to from her experience. First, the reality of what the conditions are like in El Salvador. It was not the glossy tourist brochures she had seen. Second, aid is not charity. The support for these people, along with the ability of the local people to use resources on hand, makes a huge difference. Finally, to realize how important government can be. She finds herself watching a lot more closely to see what the Canadian government is doing or not doing when it comes to things like water, education and health care. What she saw in El Salvador makes her worry about what is happening here.

Seppanen is hoping to approach her professional association of psychologists to provide support for colleagues in El Salvador.

“I was amazed how much one person could do,” she said.

She could make a difference.

For Horizons of Frienship, Seppanen’s experience is vital. Not to promote the work of the organization in Central America for the past 30 years. But on a much more personal level.

“You change yourself,” said Executive Director Patricia Rebolledo. “You ask your own questions and come to your own answers.”

The impact of such travel is transforming.

Two students and a journalism professor from Loyalist College returned on Jan. 29 after spending 10 days in Cameroon, West Africa, covering the National Immunization Days. The students assisted 39 Rotarians from Canada, the United States and Australia as they administered thousands of polio inoculations to children. The Cobourg Rotary Club, along with further assistance from the Belleville Sunrise Club and the Brighton Rotary Club, sponsored the trip.

Like Seppanen, these students returned anxious to tell everyone about their experiences. All three shared one thing, the insights gathered through their trip were moving.

Unlike professional aid workers, these people are able to tell their stories in far manner that is far more profound for the average individual. And it is important for the community to hear the experiences. To share is essential both for them and us.

It is like the aging sailor from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.”

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