Days six to ten of the Ciriboya UNAH nurse/med student brigade

On January 12th, day six of our solidarity brigade, it rained in the morning.

The students ate breakfast, waited just a bit for the rain to slow down, and then set out on their first day of blood collection for their study on the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia in Ciriboya.

Some of them shared their videos with me. Here, a nursing student and a med student talk about their work, and their excitement to be beginning their study that day:

In this one they demonstrate the importance of having the proper footgear get to the homes of community members (though to be sure, many community members lack such gear themselves):

Drawing blood for the joint UNAH-Garifuna Hospital sickle cell anemia prevalence study:


While the students were in the community, I had to go buy gas and supplies with Dr. Valcárcel and some of the Cubans. We ran into the man who'd been at the Cubans' house days earlier profusely bleeding from a cut tendon. They'd operated on him at the hospital that same morning (after coffee) and now, just days later, he was already well on his way to being healed. Dr. Valcárcel fixed him a sling with a cloth he had handy while the others bought food inside.

We gave a ride to a few young women from Iriona, to the "desert"; a place for prayer, fasting and reflection. I asked my friend who was driving if he'd ever been there. "They've invited me," he said, "but I tell them I need to eat." He added, laughing, "God hears my prayers whether I'm hungry or full. But some people like to pray that way."

I spent some time with the women who were working so hard to cook all of our food in the back (wood-fire) kitchen. In the first picture the woman shown is squeezing coconut for the milk.




The next day I was under the weather again. The doctors had insisted that we needed to make diplomas for all the students and members of the community who had helped out, and somehow I ended up with the task. I am not good at being culturally relative about the Honduran fetish for documentation in general and diplomas in particular, and as I spent that and the following day designing, individualizing, finding paper and printer, printing, and collecting signatures, I was simultaneously complaining, cursing and mocking everyone I could think of who could possibly be to blame for wasting my time in such a ridiculous fashion.

It turned out I was wrong, as is usually the case when I lose my patience with Honduran culture (or my mis/understandings of it). When we had the "ceremony" to hand them out, I realized it had been completely worth it to spend those two days on Photoshop making 50 individualized diplomas. It was as if they were all being awarded Nobel prizes or something. And I'm only exaggerating a little. There was something much more than a piece of paper in those diplomas for the people who received them. The one poor student whose diploma was misplaced somewhere along the line looked devastated (I apologized profusely and arranged for a replacement, which I delivered). I don't have pictures of the event because I was busy posing with each student and their diploma, doing the politician handshake smile. It was worth every lost moment of more evidently meaningful brigade work to see them so proud of their accomplishments.

I only took one picture on the 13th, when I was on my way to do a trial print run of the diplomas near the hospital in the dark and came upon two students, just coming back from a full day of treating patients and collecting blood samples. They took the work seriously.

On the final work day, the students were under great pressure to meet their blood-sample quotas to ensure they'd have a representative sample for their study. Since we also had a meeting planned with the mayor in the afternoon and the diploma ceremony and dancing in the evening, we were all prepared for a full day. I think I was the only one who thought it odd that our breakfast centerpiece was drying blood samples that students had taken from neighbors on their way to eat.

Close-up:

Throughout the week, whenever I unthinkingly stepped on one of these ant parades crossing the roads, I felt bad. They are amazing critters.

Meanwhile, fabulous Norita, the Cuban lab technician at the hospital, was hard at work processing and analyzing the blood samples for the studies.


Throughout the day, this group was making stops around town. I was too busy with diplomas to solicit a proper explanation of this event (which I've seen played out elsewhere, but on which I've not taken appropriate fieldnotes). Words cannot describe how awesome this is, so just watch. And notice the abundant use of hospital gowns, looking better than you've ever seen them before.

I had lunch before the student got there—late from their work collecting samples. And we were met there by a different kind of performer: the indio bárbaro. As an anthropologist trying to get this very late blog post out in a hurry, I really don't even know how to begin. Nutshell: The "barbarian Indian" (their term-ironies upon ironies, none of them naive) is a comic, aggressive, hyper-sexualized gender-bending figure who makes people laugh and sometimes mildly frightened and gets money from them.

Posing for a picture:

Arguing over appropriate compensation.

The smallest change I had was a 20 lempira bill, so of course he ended up with it. And since it was higher than the average take, I was rewarded by a particularly lewd, enthusiastic dance.

Here is a video of the indio bárbaro with students:

From there, we all went to Iriona to visit with Mayor Aníbal Duarte, who had generously provided the funds for brigade member housing, and who has been a staunch ally of the hospital and its mission from the start. After signing all the students' diplomas for me in his office, he gave a speech, thanking the students for their solidarity, and took questions from the students. He told them about the municipality, made clear that he believed in the necessity of doing government in a radically different way than it has been in Honduras until now (using code terms that made clear an ideological affiliation with the ongoing resistance to coup-installed leadership), and discussed his administration's efforts to find permanent funding for the hospital that would not compromise its commitment to free care.

Students presented him with one of the diplomas I'd made (the only one that didn't carry his signature):

Back at Mirna's, we came upon Omer (here with cardboard face and amplified rear). The kids were incredulous that we immediately knew it was him.

After going out for one more round of sample collection and cleaning up, the students went to Germán's place to join community members for the diploma/award ceremony and another film. As mentioned above, I don't have the photos of the diplomas being handed out but here we are, the award committee:

After the ceremony, students went to one of the community's halls, where community members had organized a dance to send them off. Various elements of this particular dance in this photo can also be seen in the below video:

  1. cloth with money by the feet of the woman who is dancing in the foreground. This is placed there at the start of the individual dances, and anyone who wants to dance in the circle puts a lempira or two on it.
  2. woman dancing in the middle, having paid her fee
  3. percussion section (men)
  4. women in their special occasion dresses dancing in a circle to make space for individual dancers and singing (background)

Video showing the process and a few individual dancers:

One of our generous hosts dancing:

There were also couples dancing in the circle. Garifuna dancing is fun to watch- when done well (i.e., just about always) it has a fantastic tension to it.

Once again, my students got their courage up and braved the circle together. I think they danced wonderfully. Better than I would have, needless to say.

The brigadistas, happy at the end of their long last day of work and night of dancing:

The following morning we got on the road later than planned, once again. I went to the Hospital one last time to drop off the community diplomas that hadn't been claimed the previous night. While there I snapped a picture of this pro-breastfeeding poster showing more skin than I've seen in US BF campaign posters:

The slogan is a little problematic: "In Honduras all we mothers support breastfeeding: The best milk in the world is mothers milk because [she] gives it with love!" I don't take issue with the spirit of the promotion. But in Honduras, it's not a lack of love that leads many mothers (bio and adoptive) to not breastfeed, but rather a complex mix of structural violences and vulnerabilities (in particular discriminatory employers and/or employment laws) and biological impediments to breastfeeding. Still, I love the fact that you can see areola, and it actually is an honest depiction of breastfeeding in Honduras—so far from the additional impediments of the idiotic puritanical regime, historical racist breastfeeding violence and other cultural barriers faced by mothers wanting to breastfeed in the US.

While at the hospital that morning I also took some pictures of the ongoing construction. I need to clarify some of the labels, but in any case, click on the following image to see a full photo essay its progress. More funds are needed to finish, and CHIMES' PayPal donation link is finally up and running! Please donate whatever you can.

On the way back to Ceiba we crossed that same unpassable bridge at Planes from a little over a week earlier. I wasn't willing to believe that it had already been fixed until I saw it with my own eyes. But I saw it. And then drove over it.

Close up.

The students spent the night in Ceiba, and made it back to Tegucigalpa by noon the following day in great spirits. We have been back for a few weeks now, and they continue analyzing their data at the UNAH's lab, and preparing for report-backs and other events this month. The other day I was asked by Carole Harper, founder of El Porvenir: Clean Water for Nicaragua, tireless solidarity worker and one of the many generous supporters of this brigade, to write a brief summary of our brigade and its accomplishments for the newsletter of SALA (formerly Central America Action Committee). I'll end with that:

From January 7-16, 24 nursing and medical students from the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) took part in a solidarity brigade to the First Garifuna Hospital of Honduras in Ciriboya. In Ciriboya, they worked alongside and took seminars from local Cuban-trained Garifuna doctors and nurses and from members of the permanent Cuban medical mission, including the Vice-Chancellor of the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), Dr. Eladio Valcárcel. Students were warmly welcomed by the community. In addition to treating patients, they went door-to-door carrying out family health history interviews for the hospital, and collecting blood samples for a scientific study on the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia. In their written and group reflections, students emphasized the transformative nature of the experience of working in a long-excluded indigenous community dedicated to free, high-quality healthcare as a tool for social change. Now back in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, students have begun to organize events to speak about their experience and advocate for changes in the Honduran healthcare system as a whole.

The brigade was organized by students who were inspired by the film about the First Garífuna Hospital of Honduras titled "Revolutionary Medicine," by Beth Geglia and Jesse Freeston. It was entirely free to participants, many of whom would not have been able to go otherwise. This was possible thanks to the UNAH, which donated the use of a university bus; to Aníbal Duarte, the mayor of Iriona (the municipality that encompasses Ciriboya), who paid the housing costs of participants; and to roughly a dozen generous individuals in the United Stated who donated a combined sum of over $3,000 through CHIMES (California Honduras Institute for Medical and Education Support) to cover the remaining expenses.