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.
I want to share my top five memories of my time in Jamaica!
Beng able to use my undergrad and learn to SCUBA dive! So much validation in my knowledge that was gathering dust.
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.
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.
****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.
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.
In Peace Corps service the first few months you spend building a community profile, assessing the needs of the community based on how the community view their needs. The next year is spent building dialogue and relationship, this is typically done through actions and projects. The last 10 months of service are typically spent closing up grants, implementing projects and ideas and building the capacity of your assigned organization. As you step back, the organization is to step up. My service has been all over the board. I have had some really low lows, and some very high highs. Mostly I have had an adjustment to accepting that I am not as good at cultural relations as I once thought I was.
My three base goals are environmental education for adults, environmental education for children and finally capacity building. These are on top of the base PC goals of skilled labor, sharing host country culture with Americans, and sharing American culture with Jamaicans. My successes have been: school garden, sharing American culture with children, adult literacy, showing small sustainable farming techniques to individuals, building and installing 2 trash skips in the community, several community clean-up days, and a summer program to encourage children to read. So what are my failures? Understanding cultural relations here, trying to unify the community, trying to avoid being pulled into political affiliation, and finally any type of organizational capacity building.
I am a very goal oriented person. I set high goals and I suffer from great failures because of this. I also take failure of projects very personally. I need to let that go. It is not my failure, it is my lack of cultural understanding. It is also my lack of understanding the community history and the politics of the area. You hear of bad mine or bad mind here, and that is a bit of my issue but more so it is my inability to be seen as a non-political entity. It comes down to who you associate and work with and how they are viewed. You tend to become an extension of them if you work exclusively with someone.
As my time is winding down, I have come to realize my biggest success and most sustainable projects will be the school gardens. This is where I will put my focus for the rest of the school year. Along with a recycling program and a clean community focus, all to be implemented on the school grounds. The principal at the school is not from the community so she is not involved in politics of the area, which makes it easier to be seen as neutral. Also children are super-excited to work outside on things and listen to most of what you say. They tend to be little sponges, and often share new information with their parents. If you think back, how many times were children the reason for a behavior change in your life? In mine many times, parents quit smoking for the kids, they will recycle for the kids they will even drive slower for their kids. Children are powerful influencers.
I do also hope to set up a monthly reading competition for the children at the school, with prizes like we had for our summer program, a themed day spent outside of class doing fun things. So if you have a suggestion for a theme that has a book to go with it, let me know. I want a book for each theme so the children have something to inspire them that month.
For me life as a PCV is not at all what I envisioned. I expected to work on sustainable farming and helping people understand the tenants of eco-friendly farm practices. I also thought I would be helping the community move itself into a prime location. This is what my services started out at, but it is not at all what happened. First off when you have a small pocket of people promoting and moving the entire population forward it is in no way sustaining. It is exhausting and then in my location we have a division based on land issues and politics. No matter what is being done someone turns up to undo any progress, even if it benefits the entire community. The frustration at times is overwhelming. On more than one occasion I have considered quitting and going home, lucky for me, quitting is just not in my blood. I always pull my bootstraps up and move forward.
In all of my frustration I came up with the idea of offering adult literacy programs. Tressa is from Seattle and has many skills/education in early education. She has been a great resource to get some things in this area actually done. I have one man who is full on able to read now. He inspires me to continue this when I get back home. The sparkle in his eye when he conquers a whole story gives me a warm feeling in my heart. The other two men not only are starting to read but also for the first time writing recognizable letters. This is pretty amazing and their excitement is contagious. Even on days I do not want to go down, I go because they are excited to learn. Several months ago we started taking them down to the library to get books. This was a way to give them the confidence in knowing that they now had access to the library. On many occasions, Library day had to be postponed or cancelled and each of these men on several occasions have walked down to the library to turn in their books and get new ones. I was told no grown men would be walking to the library for a book!
This summer I started an environmental club that meets on Friday mornings and a reading competition. A local citizen or group donated $2000 JD for the prize. As I was trying to get this going Tressa came in and helped organize it in a way that made sense to the culture, she has been here for almost 20 years. She worked in the local schools most of those years and knows how the culture works in this way. We encouraged the kids to come down to the library weekly with the men. The result? Nine kids read more books and pages this summer than they would have otherwise. They increased their love for books and found stories that they loved. Sadly because so much division exists in the area, not as many kids participated as I would have liked. Enough did participate to inspire me to propose monthly reading competitions at the local school when school starts back up. The principal is on board!
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The prize for the reading competition (read-a-thon) was a day at the river being a pirate. Yup you read that correctly, pirate day! So we brought finger foods and in case you did not know, pirates eat cake at least once a day, everyday! We had treasure hunts, we created pirate clothes, we “terrorized” tourist tubing down the river. We also swam and swam and swam. Life vest were donated to us by the caretaker of the park (Hidden Beauty) to us to ensure the kids safety. We got wooden swords, treasure chests and eventually fake tattoos! Three books were donated as prizes for the top three readers by an American family when they visited the area.
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All in all for about $5000 JD (food and rental of the park) and a little bit of time and gas, we gave the children the privilege or finding love for literacy and a fun day being pirates, which they will never have again. Tressa has had the pirate day in her mind and suitcase for a few years. She has wanted to do it and when she realized we needed a prize she thought this would be the perfect opportunity to pull it off. It was and I thank you Tressa for helping to organize and make the reading competition a true success!
So if you come to stay in Jamaica, at least in the North Coast areas, be cautious about letting persons know when your birthday (Earthday) is. In my area this is a treacherous and messy tradition. So what is to fear about your birthday, spankings? Loud Singing? Pinching? Nope, being floured! Yup they surround you and they take a heap of flour and toss it on you! Remember this is a humid and hot place so that flour pretty much makes a dough on your skin!
Last week one of my Environment Club members had a birthday. We had already planned on taking kids to the library that day, as part of the read-a-thon competition to ensure children have access to books. I would love to see someone continue to take the children to the library throughout the summer next year and the following years. Back to Michael’s birthday. We carried the children to the library and they all got books. Instead of dropping them off at their homes on the way back we took them back to my supervisors shop where all the girls got a handful of flour and as he came to the other side of the truck he got bombed with flour! His mother had given permission since she would be the one to wash the child up when he got back home.
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This is a fun but messy tradition and I have managed to escape it both years I was here. I am grateful that I missed this tradition but also happy to have seen it done. Birthday cake after the flour shower makes everything better in the end. All children love sweets so they will endure a great deal with a good outlook if a sweet is provided after the fact.
As a volunteer you often have ideas of how you would like to see things change in your host country. If you are like me, you dream of making and difference and what that looks like to you depends much on your world view. I thought for certain I would be creating new farms and farming techniques. I was so certain that I would come up with environmentally sensitive climate change action plans.
Annnnnnnd then I got to site. Yup, my ego just plummeted. First off the farmers in my “farm” group, yeah they do not even actually farm for the most part. All they want to talk about is land tenure, which is something that I cannot help with. I tried a few presentations and a demonstration plot, but with no water on the farm it is hard to get real momentum moving forward. Then I tried getting information about my community to do a community assessment. There was much more interest in who I was going to date and begging me to have their babies. So traumatized was I, that I refused to go out without an escort or unless, I had actual business to do in the community. Then the escort I had for the past few months, fell in love with me and literally tried to kiss me one night. Yeah, nope not happening, gotta go! Oh and today was cock-fighting! I told those men they should be ashamed of themselves, those birds have feelings too. They just stared at me like I was crazy. Maybe one day that will end, but not today I am afraid.
Are you concerned yet? Are you scared, well do not be. These are the negatives at my site. Are you ready for the positives? Every single child in my area knows me by name! I have no idea who most are, I recognize faces but unless they have been working directly on projects with me or went above and beyond ,I still do not know names. I am not given a lot of official time with the kids so I have not learned names, yet. Unlike an education volunteer, I spend only one day a week at two different schools (well I have added an hour on Fridays to one school.)
A citizen’s association has formed, and we have one successful project under our belts; more about that later! The community members are now willing and interested in the school garden program and some people have offered to come help. The literacy program that has been running for about four months has some positive results and more people are joining all the time. People who could not read or write are now reading and writing some. Some people just want stronger comprehension and we are about to take the entire group to the local library to get library cards next week!
You have to celebrate those small victories. But when a huge victory comes along you might want to yell from rooftops! Last week we quickly, and on short notices organized a clean-up day for the community. The Friday before was national school clean-up, so I thought Ash Wednesday was a great day, since it is a holiday. The turn out was amazing. Much of our community was cleaned of trash and bags of bottles were put down to the school for recycling. The amount of persons who came out to clean was amazing, but there were section that were not cleaned. We had debated on another clean-up day, then the Ministry of Health announced that February 20 is National Clean-up day! Bam, we immediately changed the signs and put them back up. We are ready for another round.
Sadly, two weeks ago or so, a family of three died of CO poisoning due to using a generator inside the home. The tragedy had rocked the community pretty hard. Today was the grave digging, sometime next month is the nine-night or dead yard. As a respect I went down to the grave digging, which is quite a bit like a party but with sadness, if that makes sense. The first thing we noticed, as I was with the PRO of the Citizen’s Association, Tressa, was the garbage on the ground. We had considered talking about the clean-up but decided that it was inappropriate to do so, but why not bring some trash bags to the yard to help eliminate the need to re-clean that area on Saturday. The second people saw the first bag they began picking up the trash. It was like the most amazing moment in my time here. People actually do care. They do not want trash on the ground, it is just that there are typically not trash pans to put the garbage in. Within minutes, most of the trash was picked up and put into bags and a huge smile lit my soul. This my friends is the first sign of behavior change, and it may be small, but it is a forward movement. This is why I am here.
These are the moments that outshine the bad things. The things that keep you moving forward and keep hope in you alive. Never forget these moments, because there will be very dark days that make you wonder why am I here? On those days you can pull up that memory and it will give you a substantial reminder of indeed, why you are here!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!