letters-alfonso-120Letters From Alfonso:
Learning to Listen
By Earl Kessler (Colombia 1965-68)
Terra Nova Books, Santa Fe, New Mexico
$13.04 (paperback), $4.99 (Kindle)
245 pages
October, 2013

Reviewed by Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66)

Earl was a third year Peace Corps Volunteer, with energy to make changes in the world and in his life. A basic Community Development Volunteer, he was first assigned to the Colombian Department of Huila were the Violencia was in full swing. Letters from Alfonso does not cover much about his first two years, though the experience comes with him when he is assigned to a new community near Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia. He tells us that as a Community Development Volunteer he knew better to wait and get to know the community, to listen. He makes a point that most NGO’s (Non-Governmental  Organizations) and Multi National agencies fail to see and understand…listen to the community!

Though we are given 43 letters from Alfonso, these letters are more than messages between friends…they represent a clear Community Development mandate, learning to listen! And Alfonso tells his Carlos (that is the name they gave Earl, easier to pronounce) “you have good ideas señor, but let me explain what we want to do.” Having been around CARE, he knows that Peace Corps does not have “drive-by” handouts. No USAID or UNDP effort here. The community of Caño Salado where he was assigned told Carlos that they were farmers and rural people who knew best what they needed. When Carlos asked why they had not told him of their plans…Alfonso said, “we didn’t think you’d listen.” Most Development agencies do not have the time to listen…their budgets require that they spend every penny or see their budgets cut.

The farmers of Caño Salado wanted a better and safer community, away from the annual floods caused by the rains where their homes where washed away whenever the Canal del Dique overflowed. As they told Earl…Carlos, we want to move our community and start fresh. As Carlos said, “the need to be safe and secure was the issue.” And the vote to invade the property of a wealthy land owner was decided.  Of course the farmers had the cooperation of the Governor and the National Agrarian agency, INCORA.

Naming the new community after the Governor was brilliant, and as Carlos says…the campesinos are talented! Puerto Badel was born, knowing that it was not going to be easy but better than Caño Salado…it was January 2, 1967 when the first boat loaded with twenty people landed.

Carlos talks about using a CINVARAM to make bricks…which allows you to use less cement and more sand under pressure. Brings back memories for me as a Rural Community Development Volunteer with CARE/Peace Corps. Bruised knuckles to prove it too.  But just what the campesinos needed to begin building their new community, Puerto Badel.

Earl clearly loves and respects his new community, you can see and feel how proud he is of their achievements, even if they take several years. The use of black and white photos adds to the depth of this effort. The letters from Alfonso are Earl’s link to Puerto Badel and the people, even when he moves to Asia or other countries in Latin America. Alfonso stops writing him after letter #43, but by then Carlos and Alfonso have been replaced by others in the community, and that’s normal. What they both learn is that the community is secondary, listening to one another is what Community Development is all about. Pay attention Multi National agencies, learn to listen as Earl/Carlos did from Alfonso.

Earl Kessler’s book is more about what we do when we arrive to work in a community…the letters tell us that. And Carlos has put to use what he learned from Alfonso and Puerto Badel in his many assignments worldwide. I would recommend Letters from Alfonso be made a reading requirement for new USAID employees, newly recruited Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff…and anyone working in basic Community Development anywhere. As Alfonso said…”we didn”t think you’d listen.” Earl is better at what he does because he did listen.

Bob Arias is currently a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (formerly known as the Crisis Corps,) serving in Panamá 2009-10: Paraguay 2010-11; Colombia 2011-13; and Panamá 2013-14. He was a PCV in Sevilla, Valle, Colombia 1964-66. Later he was on the Training Staff in Puerto Rico 1966-68, then an APCD Colombia 1968-73, and Country Director for Uruguay and Argentina 1993-95. He retired from Los Angeles County as the Compliance Officer, and was on the staff of the Peace Corps Director after 9/11 to create the Safety and Security Office for the agency.