Sunday, July 15, 2012
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Friday, June 8, 2012
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Monday, March 26, 2012
Here in Peru it seems as though there is a festival or official day of celebration for anything. Everything from the common, like Mother’s Day, to the bizarre (or potentially invented) like Pisco Sour Day. I’ve learned to take advantage of these days to facilitate events or generate awareness about a relevant topic. March 8th was International Women’s Day, so Lindsey and I decided to plan an educational health fair for women in the district of Poroto. We began coordinating with our counterparts from the health post, soliciting support from the psychologist, nurses, and obstetrician to provide professional advice and interactive sessions. The idea was to present important health information in a fun and participatory way. The idea started small and manageable, but before long it transformed into an expansive event. We incorporated the 20 plus health promoters living throughout the rural sections of the district, my youth health promoters, and another NGO working in health activities. The municipality and police also became involved, creating a community-wide project that required seemingly endless coordination amongst all parties. Serving as the go-between between so many disparate community organizations definitely tested my patience at points, but the event came together well and ended up being a success.
The day began with an opening from the mayor and local authorities, recognizing the importance of women in the community. After concluding the welcome, each authority wrote their personal reflections about women on an enormous paper mural honoring international women’s day. We continued with a cultural show of typical dances performed by community members. From there, groups of women passed through series of stations that focused on different health fields; nutrition, family planning and reproductive health, women’s rights and empowerment, and mental health. Each station included interactive sessions hosted by health professionals and Lindsey and I. We also incorporated a different game at each station to encourage participation, teamwork, and fun. The games included bobbing for apples, three-legged races, pin-the-tail on the donkey, and egg races. To our delight, the women participated with enthusiasm. Full grown women were practically swimming in the bobbing-for-apples bucket and knocking each other over in the three-legged race. My youth health promoters also worked with the kids in the community to do art and play health-related games, allowing their moms to participate fully in the health fair. In addition to playing ridiculous games, women were able to learn how to prepare healthy meals, exercise their rights to education, work, and health, access birth control and family planning, report domestic violence, and more. The entire community participated in this event honoring women and their power. I continue to believe women are the key to development. If a woman is educated and empowered they will make positive, informed decisions regarding their futures and their families. The most responsible, involved, and dedicated youth in my community are girls, and if they are given further opportunities to exercise their leadership and explore their skills, I believe the future of Poroto is in excellent hands.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Acostumbrar. If I were to simplify the entirety of my goals, hopes, and aspirations during my Peace Corps experience into one word, this simple Spanish verb would pretty much sum it up. Despite my attempts to adequately convert this into English, any translation falls short. In my eyes, acostumbrar can mean to become integrated, to get used to, to become comfortable; in essence, to become part of something. So, you may ask, after two years of new experiences, frustrating challenges, and successful projects, why is “acostumbrar-ing” still the focus of my thoughts and actions? Life in Peace Corps depends on becoming accustomed to your surroundings, understanding the dynamics of your community, and embracing a new and very distinct way of life. I strongly believe my personal happiness and sense of fulfillment stems from integrating into a new environment. In all my life I cannot remember a more overwhelming experience than when I first arrived in Poroto. As I climbed off the combi I knew this rural 1200 person Peruvian town would be home for the next two years. I was left to fend for myself: to find work, make relationships, and form a new life for myself. Knowing no one, having little guidance over my work plan, and still stumbling over Spanish, the tiny town somehow felt immense.
I refused to recognize any lingering sense of doubt, and instead decided to embrace this new adventure and jump in head first. Wasting no time, I decided I would dedicate my first months to meeting as many people as possible and gaining as many new experiences as possible. Every day was a new adventure, with new challenges to overcome and different cultural barriers to tackle. I immediately fell in love with my sunshiny new town, accepting its many glaring imperfections along with its endless possibilities. Before long, I was invited to family lunches, danced at town parties, and greeted by name as I walked down the street.
Despite my initial love for Poroto, I certainly wasn’t “acustombrar-ed” to this crazy new life. For months the early morning donkey brays startled me, the enormous portions of rice and potatoes overwhelmed me, glaring poverty disheartened me, and strange Peruvian customs besieged me. However, I slowly found myself taking part in the activities I first found so bizarre. I loved eating a huge bowl of chicken soup with chicken feet for breakfast, I found it normal to sit in the town health post with stray dogs at my side, and started to throw Peruvian slang into my Spanish vocabulary. Every conversation with a Peruvian inevitably began with, “¿estás acostumbrando?” to which I confidently responded, “¡claro que si!”
Now, over a year and a half later, as I come back from the chakra with my host family covered in dirt and carrying large sacks of fruit or enter the school to resounding shouts of “Senorita Kelsi!”, people in my community now comment with a knowing smile, “ya, estás acostumbrada.” My sense of normalcy has shifted entirely, and I’ve come to understand the deeply rooted societal customs of Poroto and Peru in general. I worry that when I go back home my less than socially acceptable Peruvian tendencies will continue, and I’ll end up sucking on chicken bones at the dinner table, bathing only a few times a week, or aggressively waving my hand to get someone’s attention. However, in all seriousness, I have been adopted by my community as a pseudo-Porotina and I consider Poroto my second home. As much as I sometimes like to think I’m Peruvian, I’ve come to realize I will never fully “acostumbrar.” My American roots run deep and I will never understand some intricacies of the Peruvian culture (for example; how an open window or a fan is a sure cause of the flu, but heavy drinking for hours out of a shared cup poses no sanitary concerns). However, the bizarre beliefs or lifestyle choices are far outweighed by the many cultural habits I’ve come to deeply appreciate. Peruvians are warm, generous people; no matter how little they may have, they share it without reservation, keeping me well fed with heaping plates of food and freshly picked fruit. All Peruvian women seem to have the incredible talent of miraculously producing ample food for anyone who may unexpectedly show up at their doorstep or arrive late to a party. I’ve learned to take myself less seriously, and come to realize there is never anything so urgent that I can’t take the time to stop for a quick chat and a good morning smile with the senoras I pass on the street. I’d like to think that in my time here in Poroto my community and I have simultaneously “acostumbrar-ed” to one another; slowly learning more about the other and becoming more comfortable as we share, laugh, and experience life together.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I was recently contacted by our country director in regards to planning a special trip for the US Ambassador. She wanted to see the work of a Peace Corps volunteer first hand by visiting their site and meeting their community. My site-mate, Lindsey, is working on an extensive healthy lifestyle and “cocinas mejoradas” project and I’ve worked closely with my health post on various successful health promotion and youth focused projects. Although this trip was still only a possibility, we were both simultaneously excited and nervous at the prospect of hosting the ambassador here in our tiny Peace Corps community. We contacted community counterparts and created a tentative schedule, highlighting our projects and involvement in Poroto. After some deliberation, we were selected to host the ambassador and showcase the work of Peace Corps first hand. Wasting no time, we informed our work partners, students involved in our summer education classes, and health promoters that an important visitor from the US would be coming. Many of the participants in our projects live in far away caserios with no phone service or transportation, so informing them of this important meeting was a bit of a task. However, we managed to organize a schedule that highlighted the broad work we’ve been doing and confirm the participation of various community members.
I was recently in Lima for an advisory council meeting with office staff, when we found out the mayor of Trujillo had changed the ambassador’s meeting time only 2 days before the planned event, which required us to reprogram the ambassador’s visit for a day earlier. I rushed home from Lima and both Lindsey and I spent Tuesday running (literally) around the district of Poroto, communicating the changed schedule with the many health promoters living in isolated caserios, preparing presentations with our counterparts, and encouraging the participation of local authorities. Despite our excitement, we were nervous because of the last minute schedule change, and after a full day of planning we could do little more than go to bed and hope for the best.
We woke up early on Wednesday morning and received the full support of our health post staff, who had also arrived early to clean, set up the room, and prepare for the presentation. Before long, a caravan of large SUV security vehicles rolled up to my 1200 person town, creating quite a sensation here in Poroto. Somehow, we managed to have the entire invited audience in attendance and seated in the health post before the arrival of the ambassador and her entourage. The mayor and entire municipality, the health post staff, my youth leaders, health promoters traveling from isolated caserios, participants in our projects, and our host families; everyone was early and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the embajadora from Los Estados Unidos.
The ambassador arrived to the health post and was met by a standing ovation and an enthusiastic audience. We met her at the door, led her to her front-row seat, and began our presentation. In Peru, it is custom to formally address each audience member of importance personally, so my introduction was a very long-winded, “A very good day to our ambassador of the United States and her esteemed colleagues present, mayor of the district of Poroto and municipality staff, our honored doctor Luis Aponte and health post personnel, Peace Corps staff present, district health promoters, and audience in general…” I still can’t get used to these formal introductions, so after making it through that without a hitch I knew we were in for a good day. I was given the opportunity to explain Peace Corps as an organization, its role in Peru, and specifically how I’ve been active as a volunteer in Poroto.
From there, I gave a brief presentation explaining some of our most successful youth development projects here in Poroto, including our youth health promoters and teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, youth entrepreneurship and environmental programs, and parent education workshops. Diana, my loyal community counterpart/health post nurse spoke highly of her work with me and the impact of our programs, even sharing that recent data suggests that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped in the district of Poroto as a result of our work. I also invited two of my youth leaders, Karolain and Tania, to speak about what they’ve learned participating in projects with me. They were well spoken and sincere, and their kind and generous words about me and our projects made me hold back tears.
Lindsey and I continued to share pictures and details about our rural health education series we’ve been working on together in the isolated caserio of Huayabito. This caserio is 3 hours walking distance away, with little access to water, electricity, or other basic needs. We’ve traveled there consistently over the last 6 months, giving interactive nutrition and cooking classes, hygiene and disease prevention, and composting and gardening workshops. We were thrilled and surprised that the health promoter from Huayabito came rushing in during the meeting, having walked the three hours in the heat to join us. This portion of the presentation served as a transition to Lindsey’s exciting new program of healthy living and “cocinas mejoradas” she recently began in the district. Working with the 20 health promoters in various caserios in the district, they will be trained in basic health practices and then construct “cocinas mejoradas” for 70 families. Cocinas mejoradas are improved cooking stoves, which include a chimney and covered flame to drastically reduce smoke contamination and health problems as well as preserve more firewood for cooking. The health promoters each brought a rural family who will be benefitting from this new program, so it was an excellent opportunity to gain support and excitement for this upcoming opportunity.
To finish the program, I explained the importance of the cultural interchange and community integration. In order for projects to be successful, the involvement of the community is indispensable. I’ve spent a year and a half cultivating meaningful relationships within Poroto, and this event was an excellent sign of the fruits we’ve bared through our mutual collaboration. The overwhelming support and positive feedback from my community on such short notice indicated their commitment to me, Peace Corps, and the work we’ve done together.
I was also able to introduce my incredible host family, who has been a solid and constant source of encouragement, laughter, and comfort during my time here. I truly feel like I am not only Peruana, but Porotina at heart, and a member of the community and my host family. Joshy and Pascuala couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces during the entire presentation, so when I invited them to the meet the ambassador personally they were quite excited. The whole family came to the front of the room and spoke genuinely about our shared experiences and my presence in their life, and gave the ambassador hand-picked Porotina Pineapple, freshly selected from the chakra. The ambassador closed the program, thanking us for our participation and explaining that Peace Corps truly reflects the best of America; the desire to explore, to serve, to grow and make an impact on the world.
Peace Corps is something that can be explained over and over again, but without seeing it first hand, it can be difficult to truly understand. I have become extremely proud of Poroto and the people who live here, so the opportunity to show off my community, my counterparts, and my work to the US ambassador was quite a memorable experience. It seemed as though the ambassador also appreciated the opportunity to see Peace Corps first hand; in many ways, we’re doing the same kind of work. Obviously, on a much different level, but after a year and a half of life in Poroto I will be the first to advocate for small-scale diplomacy. The contributions of Peace Corps volunteers throughout the world represent an intercultural exchange and collaboration of resources and knowledge that couldn’t be replicated in any other form. In a way, we’re all ambassadors: the daily interactions, community projects and educational opportunities shared, and intertwined lives of volunteers and their community create lasting bonds of friendship and mutual understanding that promote a positive image of the US in a personal and meaningful way.