Reflecting on my 2016 Honduras trip, I am pleased to report that we examined hundreds of patients via the IHS medical brigade and performed 136 successful lip/palate surgeries with Operation Smile. Again, more than one child underwent surgery in each operating room, two in each of three rooms. Last year, we had only two rooms, three kids in one, two in the other.
I had some thought after posting the photos to leave it at that, but some folks have asked me for a narrative, so I will try to be brief.
First, when I got to the Teguc home of my hosts of the last few years, Martin and Tonya, their daughter Lucy was there, their long-time servant Maria and her young daughter Suyapa undergoing chemo for skin cancer and wearing a cap, but no small adoptive daughter, Noemy. Her little desk was still there, but she was not. Martin said the agency had taken her back. Of course, I had been worried about her then, as it seemed Tonya had been very harsh with her, pushing her beyond her abilities to do first-grade homework in English when, at age 5, she had never been exposed to English before, as had her classmates. The older girl was also very dismissive of and cold with the child, very jealous, her mother said. She smirked when referring to Noemy. The new child was expected to be like their high-achieving, relentlessly pushed older daughter whose command of English was really pretty good and who was said to be an excellent student, though I did not see much physical expression toward her either, unusual as most Hondurans are huggers. I had urged the couple to move the little one back to kindergarten (she was only 5 and her background was unknown) and to consult a psychologist. I had also noticed that the little girl gravitated toward Martin and toward me, seeking some warmth. She would sit with me on the same chair watching TV.
Well, in a private moment on this last visit, Tonya told me that the psychologist had told her to hug and kiss Noemy a lot, but, she asked, how could she do that when the girl did not obey? Martin had blamed her for the failure with Noemy, but he was never around—I did observe last year that Tonya was constantly critical and cold, so, in a way, it was her fault, but I could see that she could not change her nature or her expectations. “I am not an emotionally demonstrative person,” she admitted. Adoption is more challenging than having a birth child and there is little support for adoption in Honduras, though I had also urged the couple to seek out other adoptive families. Apparently, the agency was no help.
I could see in retrospect that, as I had feared, this had been a hopeless case. Tonya said further that when they were discussing an upcoming trip to Rio to celebrate the older girl’s important 15th birthday, they could not bring Noemy with them because the adoption was not final and the child was aware of that. At one point, Tonya told me the girl said, “I am lonely here; I feel all alone. I’d like to be with other children.” That’s when they took her back to the agency and she was put into an orphanage, where Tonya planned to visit her, as the only family she would ever have. I thought that was a good idea and encouraged Tonya to visit, since the agency did not plan to try Noemy with another family. So, that’s the sad story, which I saw coming and had tried to head off unsuccessfully.
I did go to work with Tonya one day to her public kindergarten class. The school had been fumigated the day before. She was very strict and differentiated between boys and girls, who sat at separate tables and did different gender appropriate tasks at play time—boys with trucks and cars, girls with dolls and dress-up. I thought the teaching was very rote, but that’s the system there. Outside at recess, I saw pre-k kids, so am glad there is a public pre-k. At snack time, some kids brought their own, but those unable to do so got a fried plantain.
After class, I went to a cybercafé, as the laptop I had given the family no longer works. Later, I went to Mass at a Catholic church with the family, a big contrast with the small evangelical service would attend with Luis’s family in La Esperanza. Perhaps 1000 people took communion, which, instead of having them all go up to the altar, was passed along the rows by several assistants to the priest, which I considered a more efficient process than usual.
Now there are 4 main political parties in Honduras, when there were 2 before. One of the new parties is headed by controversial former president Manuel Zelaya, now a member of the legislature.
Traveling by bus around the country, I was amused by the usual vendors and preachers, as well as the kids selling stuff—they seemed to feel proud they were doing an important job. So much for critiques of child labor. In one bus, we were given plastic bags for throwing up in case we felt queasy going around curves.
I’ve noticed a few people in Honduras with blue eyes and black hair, maybe like some Irish, but it is a contrast with the majority who have black or dark brown hair and brown eyes. You have to wonder if the blue eyes are a genetic fluke or whether, as used to be conjectured when I was in Peace Corps, if some American male volunteers had gotten their DNA into the gene pool?
In southern Honduras, in Choluteca and El Triunfo, the temperature would rise to over 100F daily. There was also a very loud, fierce, hot wind, a sirocco, constantly blowing around dust and sand—at night, you could hear it howling and sand and dirt came into through the screened windows at judge Gustavo’s house (he is in my Honduras book), a huge mansion he designed himself, with high ceilings and lots of fans, but A/C only in the living room and master bedroom. He and his much younger 4th wife have a full-time servant and two guard dogs. Gustavo, who is almost 30 years older than his wife, must retire in 2 years at age 65 and is worried that guys he may have condemned to prison may get out and try to harm him. In addition to being a judge, he teaches night law classes. His very attractive wife works at a bank and is lonely and has not been able to conceive. Gustavo has a daughter with each of his other 3 wives, one adopted as an infant at birth—actually he and his then-wife just put their names on the birth certificate and took her from the hospital, legal adoption being too difficult in Honduras. The couple’s servant has studied cosmetology and did the wife’s hair in the evening.
In Choluteca, I visited the family of Dr. Lesly Castro, the young doctor now living with her American husband and two children in NH.
In El Triunfo, I rode around in a mototaxi, visiting the people shown in the posted photos, including Pedro Joaquin, still interested in starting the library, having kept all the books we collected. I gave out some money to certain people whom I felt needed it and gave medical supplies to the newly built health center. One of the nurses says she’s still using the forceps I gave her years ago, which is a little scary as forceps can do damage if misused, though she assured me was adept.
In La Esperanza, wife Wendy’s mother and sister were also staying with her, so it was crowded. The children are growing, Alexandra looks to be overtaking her mother in height. Luis was rarely to be found, traveling around the country distributing bed nets and repellent to pregnant women on behalf of his employer, World Vision. There were too many fierce dogs guarding the place—they didn’t like me. As in Teguc, I felt the family, especially the kids, spent too much time watching mindless TV. I did see Chunga in a new market area that she doesn’t like at all—few sales—and also attended an evangelical service with Luis’s family. I was able to give the walker I had brought to a 60-year-old man with post-polio syndrome and the wheelchair to a boy paralyzed after a fever, though he fought against it at first. These recipients lived in very remote areas with no amenities. I also visited and gave money to a single mother in Jesus de Otoro caring for 2 boys with spina bifida. The older one, age 14, had the same pressure sore he had 2 years ago and I urged him to return to Teguc to have it treated, but he said he refused to go. (It could be fatal.)
I spent a week with the International Health Service medical brigade in Semane, outside Yarmanaguila, where our volunteer crew included people from as far away as Manitoba and even South Africa. We had to take up a collection to send 2 patients to hospitals in Tegucigalpa, one with a mouth tumor, the other with a tumor on her lower chest that looked like another breast. Semane had no electricity, except for a solar panel at the health center. The local elementary school was evacuated temporarily for our use. Residents from different surrounding villages, notified by radio, came on each day.
Later, I participated in Operation Smile at San Felipe hospital in the capital, as well as visiting the blind school and the OT and ortho departments there (as per my photos).
Zika is a big concern in Honduras, as I wrote about for the Honduras Peace Corps newsletter. I’ll repeat my short article here:
Honduras in the time of Zika
By Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-2003) and author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peach Corps in Honduras
At the end of February, I returned from my annual humanitarian and medical brigade volunteer visit to Honduras, the 12th since I left the Peace Corps there 12 years ago. Our International Health Services brigade (ihsmn.org) gave out medications, medical advice, and medical and dental treatment to hundreds of patients in villages near Yarmanaguila and La Esperanza in Intibucá province. At Operation Smile in the San Felipe public hospital in Teguc, 136 lip/palate surgeries were performed during a busy week, 2 surgeries at a time in each of 3 operating rooms.
Aware of the high murder and crime rate in Honduras, my children and friends have always expressed concern about my travels there. However, tiny mosquitoes are now proving to be the greatest risk. Since my previous visit in Feb. 2015, Hondurans have been introduced to chikingunya, yet another mosquito-borne illness to accompany malaria and dengue’s 4 variations, with chikingunya sufferers reporting lingering joint aches after the acute illness has passed. However, chikingunya is not the last or least of new mosquito-borne scourges. The most feared now is Zika, first detected 6 months ago in Honduras, not long enough yet to know if unborn babies have been affected, but long enough to bring paralysis and even death from Guillian-Barre. In early February, local papers reported there were more than 14,000 confirmed cases of Zika in Honduras and by month’s end, the total was 27,000. Most transmission occurs via mosquitoes, though there have also been some cases of sexual transmission.
In health centers and hospitals—and at medical brigades where I volunteer annually as an interpreter and helper—I met many anxious pregnant women. Most health centers lack ultrasound to determine how a fetus is developing. Meanwhile, the government has undertaken a massive fumigation effort, while international agencies have been passing out bed nets and repellant. There is even talk of reviving the use of DDT. Mosquitoes do not live in high-altitude La Esperanza, one of the areas where I volunteer, but cases were arriving there from lower elevations. Although I wore long sleeves and slacks while traveling even in the scorching south and socks with my sandals, I did get a mosquito bite on one hand while in Tegucigalpa, but no illness followed.
Needless-to-say, with all its other problems, Honduras does not need Zika. Water pilas have a big potential for mosquito breeding and efforts are being made to make them less hospitable while maintaining the quality of water for daily use. Some critics of eradication point to the fact that mosquitoes are food for birds, lizards, and other creatures, but most agree human life has precedence.
So now, in addition to gangs and crime, Zika is another risk in Honduras, meaning that the Peace Corps is not likely to return there any time soon. Neighboring El Salvador has now also suspended the Corps, a real loss in such needy countries. Hondurans ask me when Peace Corps will return there. I have to admit, not any time soon, but I do hope to live to see the day.
Honduras newspapers did report on the Dominican citizenship issue that I have been working on with Amnesty International, saying that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission had denounced the policy on Haitian descendants, a statement that the Dominican government described as “unacceptable” and an interference in Dominican internal affairs.
Teresa Calix, a member of the Honduran legislature, was one of many denouncing fellow member Salvador Naralla, who had apparently brought another female legislator to tears with his insults. In La Tribuna (Feb. 12, 2016), under her smiling photo, Calix was quoted as describing Naralla as a “worthless castrated ox” who, when a man like him mistreats a woman as he did, in her region, “he is castrated and is left without balls.” She further characterized him as “only an animal.” Donald Trump’s insults are nothing compared to those of Honduran politicians.
Right after I left Honduras, environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in La Esperanza. I never met her during the time I lived there nor on subsequent visits. She was said to have been a Lenca tribe member, but she had curly brown hair, not straight black hair, and apparently did not wear indigenous garb, as did Rigoberta Menchu in neighboring Guatemala (a chain smoker whom I met in the early 1980s when she visited the DC area). Maybe Caceres was mestizo. My Mexican human rights lawyer friend and neighbor, Priscila, knew the Mexican witness shot in the same event.
The Nation and other left-leaning publications were quick to try to link Caceres’ murder to the failed so-called “coup” against Melvin Zelaya in 2009 and to blame Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at that time. I considered that a ridiculous accusation, as there was no consensus in Honduras, the US, or the world about the “coup” then or since. (Current Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez of the conservative National Party also wants to extend his term, as Zelaya did—would preventing him from doing so be called a “coup”? What about the several leftist Latin American presidents who have tried or wanted to do the same?)
In any case, I wrote a rebuttal to the Nation’s article, but was not allowed to post it, as I am not a subscriber (though I once was). Here it is:
La Esperanza is one of my former Peace Corps sites, where I have returned yearly, including just days ago, ever since leaving Peace Corps in Honduras 12 years ago. It's not the most dangerous place in Honduras, but dangerous enough. Once a robber crashed in through my roof there while I was sleeping. With so many robberies and murders daily in Honduras, it's often hard to distinguish targeted from random. One of my friends, a nurse in La Esperanza, was recently almost killed in knife attack connected with a purse-snatching. Nearly everyone has a friend or relative who has been robbed or killed.
Berta Cáceres' murder does show every sign that it was a targeted assassination, with the U.S. now assisting in the investigation. Someone wounded in the attack was a witness and one person has already reportedly been arrested. However, it's a complete fiction to blame "the Clinton-backed Honduran regime” for this tragedy, as was done in the Nation and other left-leaning publications. Mel Zelaya, victim of the so-called coup that took place two presidential elections ago, has never been a wildly popular figure and, after he was deposed in 2009, came back to Honduras, mounted his wife as a presidential candidate in a new party in a contest she did not win, and went on himself to win a seat in the legislature under that same party, where he is now a thorn in the side of his colleagues. While he does have fervent supporters in his own district, he is also seen as a somewhat clownish figure, with his signature cowboy hat, black mustache, and extremist rhetoric. Often, the Nation gets it right, but not in this case. To connect Zelaya's ouster with this murder and to blame Clinton is a huge stretch. It was much more likely due to Caceres’ own vociferous opposition to a local dam project.
Meanwhile, the civil war in South Sudan continues, really heart-breaking and so unnecessary.