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.
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!