My role and training as an ICW specialist
by Steve Mann
Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 18:16-22
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.
Roles in ICW
During our first field term, my wife and I were assigned to do literacy and CD work among one specific ethnic group, the Amahuaca. Therefore, most of our village time in those days was spent in the role of language and culture learners. The Amahuaca are a small group undergoing gradual assimilation into the dominant Spanish culture. Living in scattered family groups along several rivers, they are losing their ethnic identity as the older generation dies off and intermarriage with non-Amahuaca becomes common.
Despite our official role of learners, we were forced into other roles by the national authorities as well as by the Amahuaca themselves. Soon after beginning our assignment, a request came from the capitol to have a write-up on the current socio-politico-economic status of the Amahuaca group. This work was to include suggested solutions to the problems they faced. Thus, we were put into the role of problem analyzer and advocate. Not knowing the language or people well made this of necessity a superficial analysis with many assumptions about the true needs of these people.
The Amahuaca themselves, after 25 years of contact with SIL, had a well-defined category for who we were and how we should act among them. One thing they expected of us was to provide simple medical help. This assistance we gladly gave, since the nearest health post was two days away by motorized dugout canoe. They also expected us to be the providers of trade goods. This we did not refuse to do, but we strongly discouraged it, since it was not a role we saw as conducive to seeing the people eventually establishing their own system for obtaining goods. Our presence was temporary and intermittent, but we did not blame them for wanting to take advantage of our easy access to goods via our radio communications, buyers, and planes.
We accepted an advocate role early on in helping the Amahuaca to have an officially recognized school. The first large structure built in one new community was the school building, made out of local materials of split palm trunks and palm thatch. The community had even chosen two young men as candidates to be the teachers. Since the functioning of a school seemed an obvious felt need of the people, we interceded with the state education office and teacher training school that was 200 miles away and inaccessible in various ways to the small Indian groups. It was actually several years before all the bureaucratic requirements and paperwork were completed and the teachers were receiving salaries in an officially recognized school. Our role as go-between was important in getting this school well established with teachers who were actual speakers of the language.
About two years into our assignment we also became heavily involved in paperwork and government relations for obtaining a land title for one village. This assistance again was a strong felt need of that particular group, and it would have been impossible for them alone to obtain the title in the short time allowed. Quechuas from the overpopulated mountain regions were already clearing land across the river from the main Amahuaca village. Without a title to preserve at least part of their traditional territory and hunting grounds, the people would have been forced to either move or suffer a big reduction in the amount of protein in their diet due to the loss of wild game and fish. Their cultural norms resist raising any domesticated animals except chickens that are used mainly for barter. They also dislike the taste of beans that might have served as a protein substitute.
As learners in the early years, we did a lot of listening. This practice was not only to understand the words so that we could communicate in the Amahuaca language ourselves, but also to understand the everyday concerns of the people. As we lived among them, we came to see the way they lived and how they related to each other. We learned early, for example, that individual independence and generalization of labor were important. Group cooperation and sacrifice for common goals of the village were not high values. Yet, there were problems or needs that many shared in common.
One of their common needs was health care. This need led us into the role of teacher and general health promoters. We advised the main village of an opportunity for one of their number to be trained in a course at the SIL center. The man chosen was literate but at a very low level in basic math skills, so I became his math tutor for a time. Eventually he became a very good health promoter, but his downfall came when he could not get his own fellow villagers to pay for the medicines. When he started to sell to outsiders who would pay, the community pushed him out of his job.
Between village stays and in our second term, I was asked to fill several roles that fell within the more traditional SIL definition of CD. On several occasions, I managed the branch's 600+ acre cattle ranch while the regular manager was away. My own upbringing on a dairy farm, plus previous experience with farms in Colombia and Brazil, equipped me well for that job. The farm served as a source of high grade calves for Indian communities and local ranchers. It was also of value for branch public relations, just as a similar farm has been for the Colombia branch.
Another role I had was that of shop manager. This role involved some mechanical and experimental work too as another member and I tried to prepare PVC plastic well pumps and drilling equipment for village wells. This might be called an appropriate technology activity as we attempted to design and install well pumps that were inexpensive, simple, easily transportable, easily installed, and easily repaired. We succeeded in one goal of turning the entire project over to a local Peruvian. He continues today in the well business, but unfortunately the indigenous communities no longer benefit since, outside of SIL, there is no easy way for him to communicate or travel to distant jungle areas. As the originally installed well pumps in villages break down, there is no infrastructure to see to their repair. Thus, they have become another monument to outside CD efforts.
A source of information for the other branch village workers was another common role I filled. A few times, the branch administration asked me to evaluate village situations in which the language teams were facing special challenges with the people's social and economic needs. In most instances, however, I was asked for specific technical information related to some economic, agricultural, or political problem. It ranged from finding a remedy for an infestation of a chicken disease to explaining the process for obtaining military and voter ID cards for the Indians. I helped the branch acquire the Appropriate Technology Library on microfiche to aid those seeking technical answers. Knowledge of how the bureaucratic system works for getting documents only came after years of working with the system, relating to government offices, and personally taking individuals, usually Indian teacher candidates, through the various procedures. It was valuable to acquire this experience, but I eventually hired a local man to do this type of document work.
Finally, on a few occasions, I actually acted as a Community Development consultant when the process of community-based activity was discussed. This was more often with native community leaders seeking advice on how to address problems where they lived. In the Peruvian context, with the rise of political activism among the indigenous ethnic groups in the last 20 years, attitudes of self help are rare in Indian leaders. The call is constantly for the government and other sources to address past injustices by giving to the Indians all kinds of free help and preferences. The government itself, using donated foreign funds, gave outright grants of cash to registered villages in 1986 and 1987. Such giveaways certainly were a help to the villages for a short time, but they acted to destroy initiative and self-help attitudes.