Monday, April 28, 2008

we're going to be here forever

Today I read a crazy story about the qom people, Anglicanism and the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.

Gastón Gordillo has worked for several decades amongst members of the qom group (also known as toba). His anthropological research focuses on the qom living in western Formosa along the River Pilcomayo, whose shifting path has long caused territorial angst for the Argentine and Paraguayan governments.

In his book, Nosotros vamos a estar aca para siempre: historias tobas (We're going to be here forever: Toba histories), Gordillo collects and shares the memories of the qom people, interviewing numerous community members.

The qom were able to resist Spanish, and later Argentine, control due to their impenetrable home deep in the Chaco. They fought an Argentine army in 1917, having been warned of their approach by a shaman know as Yogodíñik. In the collective memory, this battle was a proud moment of struggle against the criollo people. However, the outcome was that many qom abandoned their land for a number of years. Difficult living conditions led to them taking up work at sugar mills, notably San Martín del Tabacal in Salta, often migrating seasonally for the work. They also worked on the construction of the railway. Both sugar mills and the railway were linked to British investors (more on that another time).

In 1928 the qom of the Pilcomayo region asked a local Anglican missionary (from the South American Missionary Society) to visit them. The missionary, Alfred Leake (whose son David Leake later became Bishop of Argentina), had a huge impact on the life of the qom. He was welcomed by many who felt they needed support in a fast changing context, facing conflict with recent criollo arrivals to the area. In 1938, the missionaries helped prevent a massacre of the people by the army. Toribio Sánches, one of the qom interviewed commented:
Era muy jodido antes cuando no había misionero. Todos querían matar al aborigen. It was damn awkward before when there were no missionaries. Everyone wanted to kill the indigenous people. (Toribio Sánchez, en Vaca Perdida, 1996)
But the mission also weakened qom traditions and methods of survival and resistance. Leake tried to stop converts drinking aloja, dancing, singing and consulting the pioGonáq (witch doctors or shamans). Not everyone was willing to turn their back on their culture, nor relinquish the guidance and healing offered by the shamans.

By the 1970s local lay workers had replaced the English missionaries but the qom community of Pilcomayo retained its Anglican identity, distinguishing it from other toba or qom groups that were predominantly Pentecostal. And this is where the trouble kicked in when Argentina came into conflict with Britain over the Falklands/ Malvinas in 1982. Argentine soldiers beat up local men and searched for weapons in their villages. The soldiers suspected the community of being loyal to the anglos/ anglicanos who had lived amongst them. They even claimed the qom were hiding an atomic bomb left by the English, to which one of the interviewees commented, 'The only bomb they left us was the Bible' (nicely ambiguous, I think).

Again, the qom survived and in 1985, after years of struggle, they finally gained official recognition of their ancestral lands.

This story is also a small fragment of my own, an encounter of English and Argentine, Argentine and qom. It warns me that good intentions can be marred by cultural arrogance. It alerts me to the easy excuses of those in power, searching for another justification for their violence. Most of all, the story of the qom encourages me to trust that holding onto the things that heal and nourish us will help us resist and remain, believing that, no matter what lies ahead, 'We're going to be here forever.'

Gordillo, Gastón (2005) Nosotros vamos a estar acá para siempre. Historias Tobas Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

on not giving to the temple

So I've finally emailed off my paper on postcolonialism. I read a lot for this essay but the one thing that sticks in my head is something I read back one dark December day sitting in Queen's library.

That same evening, I remember driving down Windmill Hill with Dad (hello Dad!) I was gabbling away as usual:
- "Do you ever have one of those moments when you see things completely differently?" I asked, and before he could reply, I carried on, "Today I read this book by this man whose working in Birmingham and he was talkin 'bout the widow's mite. Do you remember the story?"
- "Yeph, yeph.. um.."
- "It's the one when the poor widow puts her money in the temple collection and Jesus sees her and comments how even though she has only given a tiny amount, it's worth more that what the rich people are giving coz it's all she had. Anyhow, the point is that I always thought, well, it's always said, that Jesus was saying how the gifts of the poor are worth more. Like if you give all you can, it's a good thing to do."

We get to the end of the traffic jam and turn into the main road. I pause for breath, briefly:
- "BUT that's not it. And I was like why didn't I see that before?! Because this person who I was reading today says that Jesus isn't saying the widow did a good thing giving her money to church. He was criticizing her. Or, well, he was sayin that she shouldn't put her money in the temple box. She should use it for herself. Because she needs it. But also, coz Jesus is saying, well he says in the part next to this story, that he is going to destroy the temple. And all the time he is challenging the religious authorities, so why would he encourage people to support them?"

Dad gets a word in. He thinks it's good if people without much money don't feel they have to give it to church. We get to where were going. Dad switches off the engine and gives a sigh of relief.
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12:41-44)

R. S. Sugirtharajah suggests Jesus is arguing that the widow has been duped or coerced into giving all she has to the Temple, which he goes on to say will soon be destroyed. Furthermore, in the verses immediately before the story of the widow's mite, Jesus specifically criticizes those who take money from widows (Sugirtharajah 1998a: 22-3).

Last night, my head still busy with my essay, I though about the widow's mite. I wondered for how long we should continue to support the institutional church with all its committees and creeds and 'this is how we have to do it' and 'my hands are tied' and 'Gene isn't invited.' It's 'let's be nice and not cause a fuss or get into trouble.' And it's mindnumbing dullness.

And that is not to say there is not also joy and true friendship, insight and courage, fresh flowers and cups of tea. That is not to say the church cannot be saved.

Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1998a) Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism. Contesting the Interpretations Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Monday, April 21, 2008

you don't know what you've got til it's gone

Blue sky!
Green and gold leaves.
Fresh air.

Friday, April 18, 2008

smoked out

The third day of smoke here in Buenos Aires. First rumored to be the work of malevolent mayor Macri, burning the city's rubbish having been banned from dumping it in the province; it now turns out to be the fault of farmers in the Paraná region. They are burning scrubland to improve the land for...wait for it...  cattle grazing! Great.

The smoke is covering the provinces of Entre Rios, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, as well as parts of Uruguay.

Flights grounded, a further increase in traffic accidents, asthmatics being admitted to hospitals, washing having to be rewashed (my own personal annoyance), thick white smoke blanketing the city. And for what? More meat. 

Photo and more from BBC .   

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

time's up

From today's Independent
How does eating meat cause hunger?

Because it is a very inefficient way of producing food. It takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, and large tracts of forest have been cleared for grazing land that might have been used to grow crops. Chicken is more efficient to produce – it takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat. To maximise food production it is best to be vegan.

According to Simon Fairlie, in his magazine The Land, it would take just 3 million hectares of arable land to meet Britain's food needs, half the current total, if the population were vegan.

Come on people! Get it together!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

walk like an egyptian, talk like an argentine

From Diccionario del Habla de los Argentinos (3rd edition, 1995):

chamullo (Lunfardo) conversation, usually in a confidential tone (first recorded use 1957)
pibe, piba boy, girl, kid (1910)
cartonero person who reclaims and selects, from amongst the rubbish, cardboard boxes and other materials to sell (1998)
fideo wheat pasta of various shapes (1882)
guagua (from the Quechan word, wáwa) baby (1910)
balconear to look or observe with curiosity from a balcony or from any elevated location (1910)
yaguareté (from Guaraní) jaguar (1890)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

under the southern cross

I don't know how young I was when I first read Tschiffely's Ride but I remember searching for it years later to read once again. It was both the stars and the horses that enthralled me. I wondered about this Southern Cross. What it must be like to be guided by a different set of stars, a new arrangement.

So it was with contentment that I stood in the night air, the dog sitting on my feet, bare earth below and the Southern Cross bright above. And it was with delight that, earlier that day in Mendoza, I forged rivers and climbed hills, carried by Martina, a beautiful criollo pony just like Mancha and Gato, the two horses that carried Aimé Tschiffely from Buenos Aires to New York eighty years before.

But our adventures are not without stain (mancha). Postcolonial criticism has problematized the colonial travel-writing genre, finding in such tales of adventure a desire to name, map and exert control over foreign terrain. And feminists have made evident the symbolic connection between the conquering of land and the subjugation of women, particularly "native" or foreign women.

Furthermore, reading Ania Loomba's Colonialism/ Postcolonialism prompted me to pause at criollo. Criollo indicates the Spanish racial stratification of Latin American society. A criollo was someone born in the colonies but of 'pure blood' (limpieza de sangre). Criollo horses originated from Andalusian stock "gone native" on the pampas and plains of Latin America. To recover their pure state, seventy percent were slaughtered in the 1930s as part of a new breeding programme. My criollo pony was a survivor, her features deemed acceptable, and her blood pure.

Amongst postcolonial writers, however, it is mestizaje or hybrid identities that are celebrated, as colonial hierarchies of race and colour are broken down. Cuban-American theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz urges Hispanic/ Latina communities to choose 'mestizaje as a way of understanding and interpreting ourselves’ (Isasi-Díaz 2004: 195). She goes on to point out that, ‘…in rejecting differences as substantive categories and attributes, what we are doing is welcoming our diversity as relational.’ (Isasi-Díaz 2004: 200). Our manchas or impurities are to be celebrated. The differences within and between us are our fresh blood, our energy for change.

Isasi-Díaz, Ada María (2004) En la Lucha/ In the Struggle Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Loomba, Ania (2005) Colonialism/Postcolonialism London/New York: Routledge, 2nd ed.
Tschiffely, Aimé Félix (1933) Tschiffely's Ride: Southern Cross to Pole Star London, William Heinemann

Saturday, April 05, 2008


In the quiet back streets of Santiago, women are called to resist. 
The verb, resistir can mean to endure as well as to challenge. Gloria Anzaldúa observes:
Wailing is the Indian, Mexican and Chicana woman's feeble protest when she has no other recourse. These collective wailing rites may have been a sign of resistance in a society which glorified the warrior and war and for whom the women of the conquered tribes were booty (1987: 33).

How do we resist dominant (damaging) cultures and what they demands of us? How do we speak out, for example, in our churches; interrupting denial and the silencing of change? How do we suggest that being Christian does not require accepting the myth of life-giving death, does not prohibit abortion, does not equal family values, does not mean being better or right?

We may only be able to wail. We may only be able to stencil the city walls. We may only be able to refuse to go along with what is expected. We may be able to do more or less. It may take all we have simply to endure. But we must resist.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/ La frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Books.