LETTERS FROM ALFONSO by Earl Kessler (Colombia)
“The story of how the poor are the victims of the environment — floods, windstorms, tremors, drought — is rarely told as beautifully as by Alfonso, the community’s leader, to Earl, his Peace Corps friend and supporter.”
— Pablo Gutman
Senior Director Environmental Economics
World Wildlife Fund
‘The lessons of Letters from Alfonso are important for anyone interested in understanding the process of development, especially those who want to get deeply and meaningfully involved in the good work of helping real people who are trying to better their lives.”
— Bimal Patel
Earl Kessler has been engaged in the design and development of shelter and urban programs since 1965 when he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Colombia.
He earned a Master of Architecture degree in the Planning for Developing Countries Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He has worked on urban strategies for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and USAID; and with the USAIDShelter Team in Haiti, as well as inclusive urban development work in India with the ADB.
An excerpt from Letters From Alfonso —
I was fortunate. I learned to listen to people I considered partners at the beginning of what became my career in urban development and disaster risk management in developing countries. Important lessons came from the effort to rebuild Cao Salado from the flooded mangrove swamp it occupied along the Canal del Dique onto higher ground that the community had decided to invade. A few months into the effort, I was presenting the new site plan to the community that I, the recently graduated architecture student, had prepared. It was great: neat, efficient, and eminently do-able. All self-help and village-y (to me anyway).
After the presentation, there was a respectful silence really a terrible silence broken only by me when I said OK. Que pas? What happened? My Spanish by this time, going into the third year in Colombia, was good, even able to communicate in the very-difficult-to-follow coastal Spanish spoken in Cartagena with its overlay of a seventeenth-century Spanish-Portuguese dialect and African words still spoken in the villages surrounding Puerto Badel. The issue was not the language.
Alfonso stood and doffed his hat to say something to the effect of Pues, Carlos, this might be very nice in your country for people who live in the city. In fact, we are sure it is [seemingly said just to make me feel better]. However, it is really not appropriate for us here since we are farmers and rural people who have different needs and uses for our ranchos and land. And so Alfonso, with the other men and women at the meeting, proceeded to lay out a program for development of the new town with dimensions and lot sizes and uses that I could only applaud. So I said, When I was asking, why didn’t you tell me this before? And the answer set me straight on what development, especially community development, is all about.
Alfonso replied: “We didn’t think you’d listen.”
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Ah, Earl, I’ve followed you since we were both saddle partners in Huila, and then afterwards in your long professional career. It is one that simple just keeps on giving. What you have tapped into is perhaps one of the most valuable tools that any of us could employ when working in communities of very limited means: an ability–nay, an absolute requirement to listen to those we are trying to help and thus learn from them what is really needed to affect their every day lives.
I recall an educational session on the concepts of ‘cooperatives’ that I had given to a group of campesinos. When finishing, one of them commented: “you speak funny Spanish”. But then another said: “that’s o.k., he’s from Chicago”. What impressed me was that since my Spanish was poor–they had listened. And that subsequently led to the formation of a ‘cooperative’ that remains in operation today after 60 years.
Well done, Earl, that a well-deserved bow.