It was Friday night, young guys and students were drinking beer outside the barrio entrance, next to the main road. We met one member of the Milagrosa barrio, and walked past the drinkers, up a steep path until we reached a blue house.
A woman, almost 40, greeted us, and called up into the houses, until 4 more women came down to join the meeting. Two were housewives, two were social workers, another was a worker and another a pensioner. One woman was so shy she refused to sit in the circle, while another two women had a lot to say, were angry, and frustrated.
‘We' were myself, helping to organise an upcoming conference for women in October, a woman from the Merida Women's Institute (IMMFA) and a woman from the Women's House.
The IMMFA woman told the group of women that the point of the meeting was to talk about setting up a women's defence committee, which would make the law against violence (which recognises about 19 types of violence against women) known, raise awareness of women's rights, and could organise a range of other activities. "We don't just exist to have kids," she said.
"We've been receiving a lot of denunciations, a tonne, and most of them are by young women," she said.
One of the barrio women said, "I've been living here for 37 years and the truth is the people are very apathetic and we've tried to unite the community and we haven't been able to."
The others were equally negative, saying, but we've done this and tried that and had this problem, and this person behaved like this, and the bureaucracy….etc. Their pessimism was understandable, and it's a common feeling in many communities, or for anyone, which would be all of us, who tries to get through the bureaucracy and achieve something.
The IMMFA woman replied, "I understand, yes, but capitalism has many vices, we're changing them slowly, I wish we could change everything by tomorrow, but there's so much."
She also gave the group a lot of information- about when the people with disabilities meet, how to get help, equipment etc for people with disabilities, the documents needed to get an elderly person's pension, and so on.
Then suddenly one woman laughed, "And this is why we need to organise, to collect this information and hep each other and the others." Then she started complaining about problems with bureaucracy again.
The IMMFA woman agreed, "But why does this happen? Because there are a few people in charge of everything, that's why we have to organise ourselves." Then she gave out a range of pamphlets about the law, women's rights etc, for the information to be "socialised" and suggested, "Why don't we organise a cinema forum?"
When I got home that night, at about 9.30, it was pouring rain. There was no running water, and there was a blackout that lasted until early the next morning, part of the daily blackouts we've been having in Merida for the last few weeks.
Myself and a friend also attended a neighbouring community council meeting yesterday to promote the women's committees and the upcoming conference. This community council is mostly just three men who regularly meet, and after 2 years, have finally been granted some funding to implement a lighting and security project. These men were also frustrated and demotivated, and one man kept saying how he wished they had "young people like you (us)" in the council, as they are tired. He said ages ago Chavez had promised funding for communal councils, and they had put together a bunch of projects, but never received any funding so feel disillusioned.
It's interesting though, because these guys are opposition. They are "anti-Chavez" but see the usefulness of the community organising itself to solve its own problems.
And last Saturday we had a meeting of reading promoters, or members of "reading squadrons" where we talked about what the point of such reading circles is, about participatory education and the role of the teacher. We read a story together which really moved me, about a boy whose family was quite poor, his mother was quite negative and assured the teacher he would fail when she enrolled him into school, and from then on the boy was always treated as a failure, and had little motivation to study. It was loosely based on a true story, the boy ended up in prison and was shot at a young age just after getting out of prison.
Talking to one friend who lives in one of the barrios and who's being trying to promote culture there, he said few of the kids there read. You can understand why- poverty is a shitty life experience, it makes people negative, the teachers and schools are under-resourced and a lot of people and institutions judge you as a failure from the start.
And that's why the communal councils and this "Bolivarian Revolution" aren't just about material things- new roofing on houses, health, better rubbish systems etc, which, while being very important, is somewhat meaningless without food for the spirit as well- culture, music, personal growth, etc. Reading stimulates the mind, the ability to criticise and think autonomously, it makes our world bigger, puts us in the shoes of others, improves our creativity, awakens interest and curiosity.
And so promoting reading, both to children, their parents, and adults in general, is important, and it's important we do it in a positive, fun, participatory and dynamic way.
We had our first reading circle last Saturday, where we discussed the new education law, each person reading a part to themselves then summarising it to the group. The law is so interesting that we all had a lot to say, and ended up talking together, constantly interrupting each other for 2 hours, instead of the forty minutes I had planned for, leaving us no time to plan our promotion of reading activities in the community. We'll do that this Saturday.