Friday, July 20, 2012

Gaza Field Visits

Terry comes home tonight! So I'm going to post another of his e-mail reports. This is a really long one (although Terry described it as a "quick note") but I found his descriptions of visiting farmers and WV projects in Gaza really fascinating, a little glimpse into another world. I wish I'd sent the camera along with him! 


Overall, it was a fun day – not least because I got to go out of the hotel grounds, but also because I like hanging with farmers and chatting over coffee or tea.

So in the morning, I was picked up and after a quick office stop, we went out to visit some projects.  The security situation here is a little amped up so before I pop out to visits, the Office Security officer has to vet the area I am going to visit and see if there’s been any “activity” (usually Israeli incursions or bombing).  I was told that this morning on the east side of Gaza, there had been an incursion with tanks and a micro-bus was shot at – a Palestinian was killed and two were injured.  It was sort of treated by the staff as “just another day at the office” – although the one M&E officer (the woman) was a little upset about a Palestinian being killed (again).  Anyway, the areas we were going to visit were evidently okay, so we set off.

More protocol is that any outsiders (me) have to be accompanied by a driver and a security officer and only travel in a WV dedicated vehicle.  So in addition to my guide (the M&E officer for the ADP – a woman named Hajar who is really good), I had the driver and a security officer.  They were kind of bored with the site visits – they aren’t really into programming stuff – so it was funny to see them kind of lolling around complaining about the heat and the farms and stuff.

So this cavalcade set off.  The first visit was to a farmer who had had his greenhouse repaired by WV after it had been bombed by an Israeli incursion during the war.  The farmers here are pretty good.  The issues in Gaza aren’t like campesinos from the highlands settling in the selva or trying to do some micro-enterprise by getting people who’ve never gardened to do good gardening.  Rather, their approach is that the technical knowledge is present in the people, but the infrastructure keeps getting trashed by the bombing and war.  Replace the infrastructure and people will be okay.

So, for example, the first farmer we visited was part of a family of 5 brothers who managed 14 greenhouses of the nylon plastic and steel pipe variety.  They grew melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, and legumes in a rotating cycle.  Their grandfather had started the greenhouses, was passed on to their father, and now they were running it.  So it wasn’t like they were starting new.  It was interesting talking to the farmer.  He talked about how he experiments a bit each year by taking a single row of plants in his greenhouse and planting something new – to see how the production is.  If it works well in a single row, then he may expand it to his whole greenhouse in the cycle of plants they do.

Across the street his uncle had a potato farm and their big storehouse reminded me of the Phelps farm (except not cold).

We drank some Turkish coffee strongly flavored with cloves – really good.

The farms here are interesting because they are not really “rural” in the sense that we might think of farms – 1.5 million people live in Gaza strip.  The farms are more like 1-3 acre plots mixed around inside the city.  So in our first visit, it looked like we were in a neighborhood, turn a corner, and there are a bunch of greenhouses tucked away on a back alley.

The second visit was a farming family that was doing citrus trees.  Again, they had been farmers for a long while back, had had a greenhouse, but it was an old style greenhouse, not as efficient, so they converted to Citrus about 7 years ago.  WV helped them with some pruning and cleaning processes after the war when the trees had been sprinkled with phosphorus or something.  Their little farm was located in a rather nice neighborhood, shady with modestly nice houses.  I had asked about whether this was a nicer section of town and they said that this neighborhood was comprised of people who had used to work in Israel before all the blockade and war and they had earned pretty good salaries as workers.  The houses date from that time.  I think the family we visited was one of those that had had a worker in Israel who was forced back.  So the farm which had been a supplemental source of income became the primary source – causing a pinch.

The house was a pretty big villa type, but there were four families living in it now – the grandfather couple, their four children (married families) and the grandchildren.  They Gazans are interesting because they look working class, but there’s all this education rolling around in the background.  So for example, the lead farmer we were talking to had gotten degrees at the university in Economics and Political Science and three of the grandchildren were enrolled in university.

The impression I get is that this is an area that really goes against the archetype of “development” as progress from the noble savage to modern man, etc.  In reality, it’s a place that had a strong professional core, a solid foundation of farmers, a good university system, and a highly educated populace who have all been affected by the various wars and incursions and subsequent infrastructure destruction.  In one sense, what this means is that there’s a much better chance than in many places that “development” might actually work – meaning development as articulated through the Marshall Plan foundation.

At this second family, we drank a mint tea that was super strong and super sweet.  Tasted great.

The third site visit was a children’s center that had been started by 23 university grads who were trained in social work or children’s education and had gotten tired of working for NGOs or who weren’t happy with the lack of a children’s center.  So about three years ago, this cohort all chipped in on volunteer basis and started their own children’s center.  Everyone is a volunteer there and they have about 600 kids that come to the center – spread out into various shifts since they don’t have much space.  It was interesting just how empowered the kids acted though.  We sat down with about 6-8 kids who were excited, talked directly to Hajar and made direct eye contact.  You could see they were feeling their rights.  It was pretty cool.  I don’t know how long the center can last on purely volunteer basis, but it’s rather inspiring to see these young people put the time into the center.  They all work elsewhere and this is their volunteer time.  For example, the manager of the center is a young guy about 28 who works at the Italian embassy or consulate.  He was going to go to work at 3:00 after spending the morning at the center.  We were only given water to drink.

One side note about the women here – Gaza is a conservative Muslim context and all of the women wear the headscarves and the flowing long sleeved robes – usually black.  It’s also not that unusual to see the total burka look.  But what has struck me is how even with this conservative dress, the women aren’t particularly subservient or submissive.  Maybe it’s just the group I have interacted with, but the women will speak up, don’t act subservient around the men and will sort of hang out and chat casually with the men.  The ones I met are also highly educated – university degrees and such.  So that may be part of it, but still – it feels different from the horror stories about gender relationships you hear out of places like Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Maybe the key difference is that this is a population that had all been educated – including the women.  I don’t know.  Maybe more will emerge over the next few days.

The last visit was to a CBO that is a sports club for deaf young people.  It was started in 2005 after the Athens Special Olympics and has about 250 deaf members who come to the center to play different sports – including soccer.  This club just started a beachside café to help generate income for the club but to also give the deaf youth some opportunities for employment and training.  So we sat in the shade on the beach watching the waves do wavey things and chatted with the youth and the board members of the club.  I had asked about the profitability of the café and they admitted that it wasn’t really generating much profit, but it has gotten a LOT of publicity and it’s been great for the deaf youth to be able to run the café and learn business skills.  They said a lot of families with disabled members will come to this particular beachside café because they now consider it “theirs” – even the ones who aren’t members in the club.

It sort of looks like Gazans do the beach scene.  There are all these kiosks of bamboo and thatch up and down the beach with beach umbrellas and food and so forth.  My host told me that there used to be actual resorts and hotels along the beach, but during the war, these were all bombed and bulldozed by the Israelis to prevent them being used as bases for incursions – so now people just built everything from bamboo and thatch with netting because it’s easier to rebuild after a bombing.

One twist is that there are these little cubicles set up along the beach about 3 meters on a side, made of burlap and open to the sky.  I was told that families will come to the beach – usually in the cool of the day after noon - and rent one of these cubicles.  The purpose of the cubicles is so that the women of the family can have privacy and can take off their robes and headscarves and eat at the beach.  The young people hang out in the public area together, but these cubicles are the for the families and especially the married women.  We saw a family come down and rent one of those.  There were about 12 people or so ranging from grandfather to uncles to aunts to little kids.  They’d brought their own food in big baskets and they set up shop around one of the cubicles.  The men sort of lounged around outside while the women hung around inside and the kids ran back and forth.  There was one little kid about Gabriel’s age toddling around with his 7 or 8 year old sister and it made me go “awwww”.

We were there longer than I expected because they offered to get us some lunch – cooked by the deaf youth – “it will only take a half-hour, very fast” – ha ha – 2 hours later we were served.  It was great food though – the chicken was grilled and blackened with cloves making a really interesting flavor.  Then there were the usual suspects – humus and pita bread, tarator, and other dipping sauces.  If we ever move to Gaza, you’d better love humus.  The beginning of every meal is a bowl of humus and a pile of pita bread which is ripped and dipped in the humus.
By the time I got back to the hotel, it was about 3:30 or so.  By this time, I was pretty hot and salty from sitting at the beach for two hours (under a shade, but still) and so took a shower, and then tried to slog through the rest of the dark teatime of the soul.

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