Our memories are what sustain us, top 5 memories I will hold onto from my service in Jamaica.


 SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This post is part of BloggingAbroad.org’s Re-Entry Blog Challenge.

As I near the end of my service, what an overwhelming and scary point to be! I am full of a mix of emotions, in a way I am relieved that my service will be over, yet sad to see it end. I look forward to life back home with my partner, but I am sad to say good-bye to so many wonderful people in my life.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I want to share my top five memories of my time in Jamaica!

  1. School gardens and the enthusiasm of the children I came in contact with. Read about that in these blogs:https://seaofcarnage.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/sometimes-children-are-your-saving-grace     https://seaofcarnage.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/one-year-later-in-jamaica-cha-chas-hugelkultur-beds-literacy-club-and-thoughts-on-success
  1. Adult literacy and summer reading programs, the joy of adults learning and gaining self confidence, oh the smiles, I will forever cherish the smiles!
  2. Beng able to use my undergrad and learn to SCUBA dive! So much validation in my knowledge that was gathering dust.
  3. Having Richard come and spend a few days in Cuba and being able to be his guide throughout Jamaica. A memory that I will forever cherish. The bus rides were the best.
  4. Building relationships with a few strong women in my communities. Getting to understand them and how relationships work in this culture that is quite different from my own.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

****Bonus memory: The day the three school girls walked past me and asked me if my neck tattoo hurt. After saying yes they asked what it meant, I told them. They started to walk away and one turned around and said: “Miss, dun get nuh mur tattoos, mi mom sey dey es deh murk fi di beast!” 😐 Uhm yeah Ok let me get right on removing these! I smiled and laughed to myself all the way to work and half through the day thinking of this.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Each of these memories brings about a great sense of joy and pride to me. Knowing that I touched a few people’s lives and a few people touched mine is an incredible thing that not everyone gets to experience or understand. Knowing that my memory will stay with those individuals just as their memories will stay with me brings us so much closer together. There are more similarities than differences, and once you become the “other” or the minority you begin to see how that feels, and understand the discomfort that comes with that. These understandings and experiences have forever changed my life and my mental model of how people are and why people do things the way they do. It has helped me to grow and to achieve more as I look forward to the return home. I know there will always be a home for me on this beautiful little island, in many communities, and that I have given and received a great gift of friendship and understanding, the greatest gift of all.

Optimism is like doing the ChaCha, two steps back for every step forward.


Sunday was an exciting day, which follows a pretty hard couple of weeks.  The aftermath of my very poor handling of a situation still weighs heavily on my mind.  I would like to have some kind of excuse for it, but I sincerely do not.  I simply just lost my temper and my cool.  It has required Peace Corps staff to re-evaluate my site and safety and the terrifying aspect that I might be placed in a new site were all results of my personal actions.  The reality is that my actions brought to a head multiple small incidents that were of minor concern to the safety officer, and since I am honest to a fault, she wanted to re-evaluate my situation.

Happily I will continue here, but my role will be refocused.  I have taken the last few days off to figure out an action plan, and I have one.  I am not quite ready to share it to the public yet, but I do have a plan of attack for the next year and I think it will accomplish many of the Peace Corps goals that are assigned to my department.

Sunday, however was planned a week or so before all this happened.  It actually strengthens my plan of action and focuses some of the fine points.  Sunday  UNEP (United Nations Environmental Protection) and the US EPA visited my site with a focus on clean waterways.  This falls in line with the clean-ups that my community has participated in.  It also showcases the need for trash skips and a better trash handling program, including eliminating styrofoam and recycling programs to help deal with the massive number of plastic bottles that are typically tossed in the “bush” on the way up from the taxis.

Some of the outcomes of this meeting will not be seen for some time, but now that these agencies understand the challenges we have improvements and support are bound to follow.  For example:  citizens just dash trash on the side of the road with the mind-set that they are creating jobs.  The NSWA (National Solid Waste Administration, I think) hires people to clean-up the roadsides every so often.  So technically it does create a short-term job.  Sadly if we focused on hiring more garbage men and less clean-up had to take place we would have more stable jobs that were not a simple day job.

skip needed

Other implications are that due to the truck being too full and not always picking up, (last month it was 3 weeks without a truck pick up) citizens will resort to burning trash.  This includes styrofoam and plastics, which increases greenhouse gases and asthma in the elderly and young.  The people who do have regular pick up also have issues with dogs and birds tearing into the trash.  This creates more clean-up problems.  These are all issues that I see in my community on a daily basis.  How can I convince them to pick-up if there is no one to carry it out and no place to properly dispose of it?  This is where the trash skips are so needed.  By putting in large bins that close up, it eliminates the dogs and bird issue.  It also has the potential to keep persons from burning trash that they simply have no place to put.  By building skips and running educational campaigns our newly founded Citizen’s Association is trying to address these issues.

news

Other issues are also at play, something I have not talked about, politics.  Just like back home, there is a two-party system and it is just as non-functional for the common man as ours is.  Trying to get anything done is like pulling teeth because you have to go through so many ministries and then they do not really communicate to each other what is going on and so you sit around with a big confused mess as to what to do!  In some cases it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission and that is a sad place to be.  In a perfect World, you would simply need to go in and register your complaint/idea/group plan/action agenda/etc.  with one entity it would have a list of all other ongoing projects/groups/disputes of the same area and tell you either yes or no based on what is going on around you, but this is not even close to how any government works.  Sometimes I think government is just a way to frustrate the holy hell out of anyone and the only ones to ever get through are those who are serious about their proposals.  I have worked in government on two different levels and I can tell you it is no better on the other side of the table!  Rules and regulations should make things go smoother, but instead they just collapse the idea of unity and working together, no wonder the world is now a to each his own attitude. ( If you cannot move everyone forward I am just going to get myself a better deal.)  This puts the environment at great risk.

Another great Jamaican phenomena is captured land (captcha land).  This stems back to Emancipation and freeing of the slaves.  Those persons, just like former American slaves now have freedom but no land or way to support themselves or a family. So here they just cut up a slice of land and call it their own.  The government accepts this and by all rights it should be easy enough to get title for the land, since the government has released much of the land back to the people, but it is not simple at all.  In fact it leads to murder and boundary disputes and jungle justice and inability to get things as a group done.  This has been my life for the last year.  I do not talk about it because I can do nothing about it.  The farm land is all captcha land and there is bickering and fighting and politics involved.  Politics here can get you killed!  Not beat up, not frustrated, straight up killed!  People are passionate about who they support and you have to tread lightly on how to approach persons with a belief system so deep.

find your passion

The reason I bring this up is that the new group is supposed to unify the community, but there is a distinct separation with political beliefs.  It sometimes gets difficult to navigate. I have managed to stay clear, but it does rear up occasionally. I find this dynamic exhausting and frustrating.  I am trying to figure out a way to bring both sides together in a civil and unified matter.   One thing I have noted is how things are presented, instead of demanding, statements should be made in an asking format.  Stop telling people how things are to be done and instead ask them how to get things done, it works so much better.  I also like to “lead from behind” as I call it.  I am not a leader, I hate the idea of leadership.  I like to think that empowerment is so much more effective.  I observe and find persons passionate about specific areas, then I suggest a way to improve or get something done.  I simply suggest it, I do not tell them it needs to be done, I suggest it and give them an idea of how it can be done.  I then step back and watch them expand the idea and create a tangible outcome.  This is probably my biggest strength.  I do not want to be the one to do the project, because when I leave that will just die off with me.  I need them to be passionate about it, only then will things become sustainable.

My summer will be filled with community development and environmental clubs.  I want to get the kids in the dirt, cleaning the community, planting trees and flowers to show others how easily it can be done.  Now all I need are some adults who are willing to help launch this project, so wish me luck!

My home, it is not so different from yours.


http://bloggingabroad.org/blog-challenge
http://bloggingabroad.org/blog-challenge

This is the second in the #bloggingabroad challenge. I have previously done a blog of a tour of my home.  (Click that little link to see what my home life looks like.)  In this blog I really want to focus on my community, because the building I live in is not the only piece I call home.  I live in the Three Hills District of St. Mary.   It is located between the White River Watershed and the Rio Nuevo Watershed in St. Mary on the St. Ann border.  I am about a 25 minute drive to Ocho Rios.

If I walk outside of my home I can actually see Ocho Rios and I always know when the cruise ships are in.  If I can avoid going to Ochi on those days, I do.  I  can also walk a little ways up the road and see the water slide park on the White River.  One day I may actually get off my lazy butt and walk over there, but so far I am easily able to get a ride there!  On the other side of the community I can see a community along the main highway along the North Coast called Tower Isles.  So I can pretty much find my grounding in 3 directions from my home. I find water to be very grounding for me.  I am truly a water sign.  I get quite anxious if I am not near water, which explains my discomfort growing up land bound.

ships at port

I think I live in the most beautiful place in the World.  My community is very diverse and spread out.  My apartment is located in the Liberty Estates Scheme.  It is divided into 3 sections, Phase 1 (my area), Phase 2 and Phase 2 Annex.  There is a large section of farm land behind the scheme.  This is full of small subsistent farming and small modest homes.  The Scheme, as it is called, is full of McMansions.  What I have realized is that many of these homes were built with the intent on renting out apartments for a sustainable income.  This totally makes sense due to the tourism in Ochi and the easy access to work for those that work in this industry.

When you walk out of the scheme you see several shops along the main road and a beautiful ball field with a underutilized community center.  This has been my base for many projects, so it is getting so much more usage lately.  In the shops you can find soda, liquor, bread, flour, sugar, some canned goods, some frozen chicken, chips and candy.  In a few shops you can find tasty cheese, which is quite like velveeta and scares me, along with a few fresh veggies.  I have found a local farmer who runs a restaurant and sells some things out of her home.  I have also found a “Rasta” who may or may not actually be a dred, and he sells quite a bounty of produce out of this little tiny board shop connected to a bus stop.  He calls to me daily on my walks to try to interest me in what he has.  I do buy things from him because the ‘Ras’ culture is more likely to have more “naturally” grown produce, ie: no chemicals.

My community is also comprised of so many churches and bars.  For every church there is likely a bar nearby.  It is not illegal to walk out with a drink, so I do not frequent the bars and will sit outside and drink a beer with some locals people, but not often.  On a Peace Corps budget, at least here, alcohol is a treat not a norm (at least for me).  We have two cook shops that is open every day.  We have two that are open on Friday and Saturday and Mrs. English has started doing jerk chicken mostly on weekends but sometimes during the week.  As a vegetarian, I rarely go to the cook shops as I am only going to be able to get rice and peas or french fries.  I pack and carry lunch or simply go home to eat.   Eating in public invites begging and I just do not want to set up a habit of this, I cannot afford to feed everyone.  One of the local shop keepers is my neighbor.  They found out that I love red wine, Malbec and Syrah in particular.  They have stocked a few bottles for me to grab when I need one.  This my friends is integration level: EXPERT!

 

There are two basic schools locally, these are what we would call pre-school and kindergarten.  The two primary schools are quite a trek down the hill for the children.  It takes me 35 minutes to walk down the hill to the first school, about 15 minutes more to the second one, although there is a steep shortcut which I do not use.  If I ride my bike it is about 12 minutes to the first school and 17 minute to the second one.  The ride back up is exhausting because it is mostly up hill, and a little scary as taxis fly up and down these narrow roads.  date night

I walk or bike my community when I go out.  No point in taking a taxi to save me a 35 minute walk.  There are so many unique locations in my community and there are shortcuts or as the Jamaicans refer to them “cut thrus” that can shorten your travels.  I still get a little lost on those but I can mostly find someone to help me out!

sunset from my apartment

Ultimately I live in the most beautiful place in the world with amazing people and amazing environments.  I wake up everyday and am thankful to be alive and in this beautiful paradise, with its own set of problems. I live in the most perfect place for me, the only thing missing is the love of my life, but he will be here soon!

Finding your strength


There are those times in your service when you just feel defeated. You question why you are even here. Why did you leave your comfortable life for this? What is the point? Why do I endure these unnecessary hardships? Then one day you find your strength to go to one more meeting. To get up and bike or walk the two miles to the school you work in, of to meet with the local adults to teach them reading basics. Even though these are worthy and needed activities they somehow fall outside of your “requirements” for your service. This becomes painfully clear when you go to do your quarterly reports and of the three parameters you are supposed to try to meet, nothing you did falls in those areas.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Proper Trash Disposal!

It is at those moments when you feel completely defeated and you wonder how things could be going so terribly. Just because these do not fall in your requirements, does not mean that they are not beneficial or needed. Sometimes you have to let go of your goals and expectations. Sure I am supposed to be doing environmental work, but I have spent the last 4 months facilitating the creation of a community group, trying to work in two local schools, who still have yet to have one single environmental club meeting, or creating a literacy group and a reading club. Not one of these actually fall into my required areas, but I have found that my requirements do not always fit into the needs of the community. Flexibility is my greatest strength. It will be yours as well. Let go of your strict interpretation of what you are supposed to be doing. Let it organically happen.

road signs

So what if the only real goal I hit was environmental demonstrations to a small group of local men who helped build my school gardens. So what if the kids only just last week planted those gardens. So what if I have not any tangible results. You know what I do have? I have some small successes. I have adults who could not read at all, now able to read sentences and build up their confidences. I have many of the roads in the area with new road signs/names. I have a community group that is now organizing a community clean-up. I have Zik-v prevention signs that were voluntarily put up. I have kids who are excited to see me and really want to go work in the dirt. So yeah there are things I do have and next quarterly report I will have a huge reporting quarter.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
New signs being hung up in the community.

Sometimes it takes walking away and trying to find a balance and understanding that things are improving little by little in your community. The main point is to build relationships and help a community out, this I have accomplished. As long as I have tried my hardest, that really should be enough. Better to have failures than not trying anything. Fear of failure is very paralyzing, it wipes out your confidence, you community’s confidence in you and wears down your self-esteem. I live by the motto, what is the worst thing that can happen? Oh right, it fails and we learn why.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Fire safety tips.

Remember to just get up everyday and do something.  It is far better to try than to sit in misery worrying about failure!  Trust me!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Pumpkin is soon coming!

 

Jamaica, No Problem Mon.


As a Peace Corps Volunteer people in the States have often asked me why exactly does Jamaica need volunteers? Isn’t it some kind of rich country with a heavy tourism industry. Well no and yes.  It does rely heavily upon the tourism industry, it also relies heavily upon those returning residents or the gifts sent home from family abroad, or aforeign as the Jamaicans say.

The motto of this country literally is:  Jamaica, No Problem, Mon.  It would seem once you get outside the touristy places you begin to see a huge problem, yet why do the local people seem to not care?  It is not so much that they do not care, but life can be hard and focusing on things that are outside of your control just adds to the pressures of life.  So by adopting this attitude that there are no problems is essentially a defense mechanism.  Jamaicans find joy in the simple things, yet most often long for the ability to obtain nice things, but not to the point of obsession.

In many areas communities have been built up on what is termed captured land.  This is land owned by the government  and occupied by persons who just built a “board house” upon it.  A board house is a home built literally out of plyboard and or slatboards.  It may or may not have a zinc (metal sheeting) roof.  Typically these are small home with not water hook-ups and may or may not be illegally or legally hooked up to current (electricity).  The roads are typically goat trails tramped down by years of walking through.  Sometimes you will find a real road, but it is typically not paved.

board house

The concrete, block homes are typically built by persons who have some sort of legal document for occupancy, although these are often questionable.  So why does Jamaica need volunteers?  Partially due to the large literacy issues.  Partially due to the lack of community development.  Partially due to an inability to navigate the governmental bureaucracy, even those of us trained in this area find it excessively difficult to navigate at times.

community

Examples of this is that our community association got a donation from a local business to put up a notice board somewhere in the crossroads.  We have had it up for a few weeks and just posted some documents about the citizen’s association.  We placed it within legal location (less than 6 ft from the road in the Parish Council easement).   Yesterday the man who has been aforeign paid another man in a bulldozer to remove the sign and return it to Mr. Johnson’s business site.  There was not notification that the board was a problem, just destruction of property.  The police responded to my ex-pat friend who went to report it to the police, but in all likelihood that man will not be made to pay for the property he destroyed.   It is a very sad circumstance and this is part of why Jamaicans typically do not try to improve their communities.  People of class or power will go unpunished for willful negligence and the hard working men and women will be the first to be punished when things go wrong.  How do you change this dynamic?  That is a question I keep asking myself and I still have no answer.  What you have is a system that is just not very functional.  Why?  I still have no answer.  It might be lack of training, it may be that those with money are able to afford affluence and influence the system, but more likely it is simply that those with little are too beat down to protest and rise up.

This is how poverty works.  It just beats you down so much that any ounce of fight you have left is just depleted.  You soon learn that the best way to approach change here is to just hope for the best and work very hard at education and health aspects, because these are the only aspects you can really have control over.

Jamaica is one of the hardest post to live and work on.  It might be the cost of living and how small the living stipend is, I spend my own money every single month.  In Liberia I always had extra money.  I never had to consider a beer a luxury, but here I do.  In the public mind Jamaica is a constant party, this from the outside is true, but if you get deep in it is not so true.  We have our share of alcoholism, we even had drug traffic issues and human trafficking is a highly avoided topic, but it is very prevalent, but what is underlying in all of these issues is that lack of hope.  A people so beat down that a sense of hope is almost non-existent. How do you beat hopelessness without succumbing to it?  Not all of Jamaica has lost hope, but on an individual level you can see the loss of hope in people.

The solution is not an easy one.   It does not help that tourism is a huge source of employment, but the local people are paid very little.  The industry itself makes a ton of money but it is sent to foreign investors and not reinvested into the country.  This is the saddest part of everything I see.  The tourism industry does not actually support the local people.  So as in any other location if you spend your time only in an all-inclusive you are part of the problem!  You are not helping the local economy and you are simply arrogant in your views of the local people.  You will notice how aggressive people are on the streets to sell you things, or braid your hair, this is a sign of true inequality.

tourism industry

If you want to help build up the economy, stop shopping in shops that sell things made in China printed with Jamaica on them.  Start looking at local hotels, bed and baths, hostels and restaurants.  Street food I hear is good, being a vegetarian I cannot eat it.  Buy local produce from vendors in the open market, buy locally made crafts, jewelry, carvings and handmade items.   Look for local community tourism, get to know the real Jamaica, not the brochure they sell you.  Seek out local taxis, ride with other Jamaicans, travel like a Jamaican.  This is the benefit of serving in Peace Corps, I do not see the white washed tourist ideal things, I see the real people, the true Jamaica and it is beautifully flawed.

community tourism

Sometimes Children are your saving grace


I am not a kid person.  I never was.  I jokingly state that the only reason my children survived is because I was obligated not to kill them!  I have to be careful what I say here because sarcasm and satire are not so easy to understand in this culture.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my children and I am proud of the people they grew up to be, but there were times when I wished I had less obligation in life.

That being said, the idea of working in a school is a setback for me.  I struggled with it.  In Liberia I was to work in a high school, way different level than a primary school.  Primary schools are where the children hold your hands and hug you constantly.  They want you to mitigate arguments and make other kids stop, whatever the infraction is.  It can be exhausting. I was not looking forward to this aspect of my service.  In fact I contacted the schools a few weeks before school started and was worried that I would be overwhelmed with work.  Then no one called.  I sat through September wondering if they were just busy getting situated?

As my farmers were getting frustrated and I was losing momentum, I struggled with this aspect of service.  I have to work in a school, but none seem to want to reach out to me.  I finally rode down to the local primary school and met with the principle, who really wants to utilize the environment as a teaching tool.  This is my in!  I am totally capable of making this happen.  So began my service at the Three Hills Primary school.  About two weeks later I was contacted by the farthest school in my area.  They were told I was willing to work with the environmental clubs.  So now I have two schools, which I promptly enrolled in an environmental competition.

The following are the obligations for the school in this competition.

  1. Recycle plastic bottles and count how many we recycle.
  2. Plant 40 trees per school.
  3. Create a school garden.
  4. Create an active environmental club.

I now have 20 trees donated by trees that feed for each school, my only obligation is to go and pick them up.  One school already has an environmental club and a school garden.  They also already recycle their bottles and keep the school clean.

My new truffula tree

My main school is starting from square one.  So I spent my first week reading the Lorax to grades 1-4.  I talked about the importance of trees and how to take care of the environment.  Then I watched the kids rip limbs off trees to beat (lick) each other with.  I yelled at them “What are you doing to my trees?” in my Lorax voice of course, so far less limbs are being torn off.

Recycling is still a mess.  The kids throw things on the ground and refuse to pick them up.  They put trash in the recycle bins.  I figure by years end, I might have made a difference in this aspect.  I think my next step is to create a school clean-up committee.  If they spend a few minutes daily picking up trash maybe they will be less inclined to litter in the first place.

The school gardens, this is where I get the most enthusiasm.  They all want to help and work in the gardens.  Maybe as an incentive, the gardens will be for those who help keep the school clean each week.  The gardens however were a struggle in themselves.

What an opportunity

I asked for a few farmers to help break the ground.  The ground is tough and full of rocks.  It is also on an incline and kids are just not going to be able to break it up right, neither am I.  I was informed that the farmers would not break ground with the grass on it.  I asked if they could just burn it, but was informed that the preferred method was to spray.  Spray poison where kids play?  You cannot be serious?  I don’t want to poison the kids, I just want to make something nice for them.  I was so frustrated at this information, I even called RADA (a governmental farm agency) to find out if they had any spray, they did not.  I am not buying this, I do not like this idea and I am certainly not putting my money into poisoning children.  Besides how will I keep them out of the field after it is sprayed?

raised beds

As I pondered in frustration I had a huge aha followed by a major duh moment!  I have a Master’s with a focus on sustainable urban agriculture.  This means I farm where there is no  space or there is no way to farm in the space.  I am an idiot!  I was staring at the small concrete structures that I had decided to make raised beds for the first and second graders.  Why am I not making raised beds for all the classes.  I can showcase how to build a bed in an area that has never been farmed before!  Also I can utilize the hugelkulture concept and really show some sustainable farm techniques!  I am an idiot and a genius!

So began the project of finding help to get bamboo and build these wonderful beds.  See not only did I solve my initial issue of how to get the beds, I used local resources at no cost!  A huge win.  Not only that I brought men from the community down to help with the kids.  I can show them and the kids how this concept works and they in turn can share skills with the kids.

the work begins

We built up the first two beds on a weekend when kids were not around.  I did not want them around the machetes and tools, I worried it would become anarchy and chaos.  We were able to build the first two bamboo beds.  It took longer than I thought because my idea was not translated well to the men until we got to constructing it.

almost done with 2

The following Tuesday I spent the day showing the classes the recycling station and the beds that were built.  Explaining in detail how we need to take care of the beds because nice men took the time to come do something nice for them.  It has been a bit of a struggle and I had to inform one child he cannot work in the garden until January because he knocked a bamboo slat off of one of the beds.

We were finally able to finish the last two beds yesterday.  I wanted to do it after school, in hopes that the kids were more interested in going home.  Fortunately for me this was not entirely the case.  Several students stayed behind and were super excited about helping.  They carried bamboo up to the work site. They even worked together to get it done.  Some stayed around trying to get involved in many ways.

My little fan club

In the end Mr. Johnson told me how inspiring it is to see them so excited about a project.  It renewed his faith in moving forward and continuing to try to build the community up.  It was also great to see the men and children work together.  I believe the men enjoyed seeing how excited the kids were about the project and how much they wanted to be involved.

they want so badly to help

Just remember in those moments during your service when you are feeling lost and wonder why you are there, kids are your go to.  They are your saving grace.  Like it or not, kids will always want you to be near them, they always want to hear you talk and listen to the things you say.  They may not always follow the things you say, but change is difficult and long, but eventually one day it will change.  You just have to sound like a broken record most of your service.

the beds are done

Also one last note, connecting the community members to the school is  a great way to help unify the community.  Sometimes people forget that children are the next generation and that schools are super important for that to happen.

What does life in service look like?


When I started this adventure I knew it would be unpredictable.  I knew it would be challenging and I knew that it would take me so far out of my comfort zone that I might never return.  I knew that service is about collaboration, and about advocacy.  I knew that Peace Corps used to just do for the people, but has changed its model to include the people.  The hardest part might be to get the people to want to participate.

This might have to do with distrust for American government, or even distrust in their own government.  It often has everything to do with how you approach your service.  Do you spend your whole time devising ways to improve the life of the people based on your “American Lens”?  Or do you avoid the people to avoid uncomfortable cultural misunderstandings?  How you approach your service will determine what it looks like.

The very first step is to take off your American lens.  This means drop your assumptions and your perceptions, which can be difficult.  It helps if you research the country you are going to serve.  Look for books about it, read up on the government, find videos of movies and music that are popular there and try to find some recipes or restaurants with that style of cuisine.  If you can it is most beneficial to find someone who is from that area.  The United States has so many immigrants from so many countries, you are bound to find someone who either is from the country or a neighboring country in the same region.  Talk with them, ask them what life is like there.  If you are lucky they may even explain why they left, but never ask about it.  Ask about home and family life, home structures, the economy, what friendships look like.  All of this can be very helpful in your service. One of the most important questions to ask is what is transportation like there?  Are you going to ride donkey carts to and fro, or are you going to get packed into a little car with so many people you cannot touch the seat and a goat and chicken loose in the back?  These are important question to simply set your mind to what life will be like.

The next thing you should know is that not everyone experiences the same things.

The next thing you should know is that not everyone experiences the same things. Reading blogs about other people’s service can only show you what life might be like.  It will never mirror your service, so be aware of this. Site envy is a real thing.  If you set yourself up to compare your service or mirror it, you will be setting yourself up for failure and depression.  Keep it real.  You are your own person and you cannot do the things that I can do, nor can I do the things you can do.  If we were all the same there would be no need for service work and the World would be very boring indeed.

Remember when you go into service you are opening yourself up to a life that is nothing like back home.  People call Jamaica “Posh Corps”.  Just because I have reliable electricity and services does not mean it is like living at home, it is not!  Jamaica has its own set of unique issues.  Every country does, otherwise they would not ask for help.  Notice we do not serve in places like France or Australia!  These countries have developed enough to function without help or aid workers.  If you think service is one giant party, you are in for the surprise of your life.  Service is about making friends in areas where friendships look nothing like the ones you have at home.  It is about learning how to navigate in a culture that is often male centric and females are secondary.  It is about learning when to keep your mouth shut about the things you see wrong, because the fact that the man is screaming at the woman on the street is not domestic violence that you think you see.  It is about learning so much about your own prejudices that you will sometimes be ashamed of how you interpret things.

Reading the places you will go!
Reading the places you will go!

Once you get integrated into the community and culture, then and only then can you move forward in your service.  Again, remember that your help looks nothing like help to you.  I have held bi-weekly community meetings since mid-June.  I have become so frustrated at the lack of support that I felt like my entire service would just be cultural exchange.  It is these moments that you have to keep your spirits up, because one day the community rallies and forms its own association.  They then take the lead at the meetings and you step back and offer suggestions only when asked for them.  You see leaders emerge, and you realize this would not have happened if you had given up.  This is what service looks like.  This is what success feels like.  If you had not been open to having a conversation and held strong in the conviction that the meetings were needed, you would never see success.

Never too Old to Learn
Never too Old to Learn

Working in the schools is by far the easiest part of my integration and service.  Schools are always grateful for help when it is offered.  I am currently working with two schools one day a week each.  The kids are always happy to see me.  The idea that I could read a book to the classes, one class at a time is pretty cool.  It was a way to show case American culture yet pop an environmental message in it.  If you are an Environment of Ag volunteer pick up a copy of The Lorax, the movie and the book.  It will be a great way to share culture but also drive home some messages about trees and their importance.  Be open to the fact that the kids will start in their seats, but as the story progresses they will suddenly be in your bubble.  And if you are lucky, an amazing thing happens and they end up reading the last few pages aloud to you.  So now you have hit a triple play, you have shared a cultural aspect, hit on some environmental issues, and seen some literacy points take off.

It is often thought of that a good service will bring grants to the community to build up much-needed aspects of it.  Although this is true, something else is brought to the table.  Your ingenuity to get things done without much funding is going to serve you well.  I saw a need for books in the library of one school and the other school wanted some books for classrooms.  Boys tend to not read as well or much as girls.  I remember this issue with my son.  I remember giving him comic books to read.  It helped some and he at least opened up  books and read words.  Here in Jamaica I have not seen actual comic books. So I had an amazing idea.  I posted to my Facebook that You guys can help make a difference here, )because believe it or not many of your friends want to make a difference but have no idea how they can help) I asked them to purchase and send me a few comic books for the classrooms.   The response was amazing and I now have several people shipping me a few comic books here and there.  It doesn’t cost much, unless they are super excited and want to ship a whole box of them, Thanks Tammy!  Remember sending to schools through media shipping will be cheaper and if you are Peace Corps it should go through customs without a hitch.  I am giddy with anticipation for some of these packages to start arriving.

This week was our Project and Design Management conference.  We all met up in Mandeville and took a counterpart if we could.  Most of us did have one, a few had theirs back out at the last-minute for whatever reason.  We went through the process of designing a mock-project, that could actually work into a real project.  The purpose of this is to see the issues with projects we thought we wanted.  I know that I will be reworking my proposal several times before I am convinced it is the right project.  We also met with several grant-donating organizations.  I am so excited about 5-6 potential projects and funding that might be available.  It was great to have our counter-parts be there to see exactly who in their country offers what assistance.  It opened many doors.

Certificates at PDM
Certificates at PDM

I also want to point out that you as a service worker can find sources of supplies and funding that are not so visible.  As long as you, the volunteer are not asking for money, you can crowd source many things.  I have found places that will donate books as long as I pay for the shipping.  I will have to write a small grant for this, other places will donate and ship at their own costs.  It just takes the determination to look into it and start writing emails or phone calls asking about the process and how to get access to the help they provide.

Sometimes a Queen is really talented.
Sometimes a Queen is really talented.

I am looking forward to my next year and a half of service!  I am currently working on an adult literacy program and I hope to encourage the community to embrace it and start helping their neighbors be better citizens and have more opportunities!  It is an amazing World we live in, and it just takes dropping your expectations and your presumptions to find out just how amazing the place you live in is!