Saturday, August 28, 2010
2 weeks down!
Hola todos y todas :) Well I have officially done it: a little over 2 weeks in-country! It feels like its been months since I left - mostly because so much has happened. My language skills have gone up 150 % since I got here. I can have conversations about real things with my host family! Actually, the coolest moment was this Tuesday when I responded to something for the first time without translating it into English before in my head! Yay for me!
San Bartolome already feels like home. I recognize a lot of the same people each day, I feel pretty into the swing of things with my family, and we have a really tight-knit group of PCTs in my town. I have to say I have never felt so close to people that I just met nearly 3 weeks ago in my life. Thanks guys, you rock :)
We have started planting los huertos communidades (community gardens, picture below) right near my house, on a plot of land that belongs to my family. We have an American RPCV (returned Peace Corps vollunteer, who served in Ecuador and Haiti), named Dale, who is an incredible teacher, expert in the field of international agricultural development and soil conservation, and wonderful motivator, and Martha, a Guatemalteca who also has tremendous experience with organic agriculture, exporting, organic certification, and is also a fantastic teacher. We’ve started to learn the basics behind plot selection, planning and organic methods. In our communities, we are required to start and maintain 5 family gardens and 2 school gardens in the community we will live in, and the satellite communities we are attached to.
A bit about the Peace Corps methodology: we are not experts. No vollunteer, with the exception of a few programs, ever is. The Peace Corps is a grass-roots, ideas-based organization. We are trained to implement sustainable ideas so that the community, not the vollunteer, can continue with the work we have facilitated. Facilitating is the most important thing we do, and I suppose thats why its in my title, “Food Security Facilitator.” I have already learned so much philisophically about this role in the past 3 weeks. When you really think about and attempt to grasp this idea, you realize that the Peace Corps really does some of the most meaningful work in the world of international development. An analogy for you: say a non-profit organization comes into a town with a food security problem and builds tilapia pond with enough fish to feed the entire village, and then the company leaves. After the first harvest of fish, no one in the community knows how to maintain or replenish the fish. The non-profit invested money for an essentially futile excersize. I saw a similar situation when I was in Ecuador last summer: the American Red Cross had come to a small town outside of Tena, in the tropical region of Ecuador, built a hospital, and left. They did not train or equip Ecuadoreans how to run or restock a hospital, and when I saw it, it was 90% vacant, struggling to even keep one ward open.
In the Peace Corps, we emphasize sustainability. We are not the experts, the people are. The principle behind sustainable development is ownership - the ideas and new programs that propel a community forward must be owned by the people themselves, or otherwise they will not see the need, utility or vision of a great idea. Yes, I could go to my site and say, “listen, you need to maintain more hygenic practices to minimize food-borne illensses, eat less carbohydrates, more protein, more vegetables and hearty grains, and less sugar and oil, and cook all these new foods this way,” but no one would listen. I think, from what I’ve experienced so far, being a PCV is a delicate art. We are trained, above all else, how to be tremendous listeners, and observe everything we see in order to maximize and exploit the resources and advantages the community has, while delicately finding ways to discourage certain behavior. We are encouragers, mentors, facilitators of ideas, a link to technical assistance, and an example.
This week we got to see what one Agricultural Marketing volunteer was doing in his site, in Patzun (picture below). He had managed to bring together a group of indigenous woman and started a mushroom growing co-op. He was able to teach them basic organizational skills, and the women took off with creating this wonderful income-generating endeavor. He acted as an intermediary by taking their ideas, and then in their words, writing the grant for start-up costs, but the initative came from the women. When he leaves, they will have the drive and tools to continue growing the program.
Dale told us today that he has trained PCVs with degrees from Harvard and other prestigious institutions, but they turned out to be ineffective volunteers. He said the most important thing is not technical expertise, but attitude - learning how to deal with, and be an appropriate facilitator of people, not things. While our technical training is important, he has said the thing that will make or break an affective volunteer will be attitude.
Essentially, I’ve been really moved by the Peace Corps philosophy. I’m sure I’ll have my days when I see acute suffering and I just want to call up the Peace Corps or the FAO and scream “give me emergency food aid and potable water ASAP!” Vamos a ver how those times will test me and my patience. For now, I am focusing on being a better listener, which is pretty easy so far because I don’t speak Spanish very well :)
A little bit of catch-up: here are a few photos from visits to Antigua, the old capital (Antigua actually means old!), welcoming Peace Corps fiesta with our language teachers, and a view from my room in San Bartolome. The internet is crazy slow, so I will try to get more pictures when I can!
I miss and love you, family and friends. You are always and forever in my thoughts. You are loved from Guatemala. Besos y un abrazo fuerte, Elly xoxo. (oh! p.s. my family calls me Elly because the last volunteer they had was also Elizabeth, so in lieu of calling me “#2”, they opted for a cute nick-name. I really like it! I might keep it! :)