May 16th, 2010
I am at the training center right now, just arrived this evening and was served crème puffs for desert tonight. Crème puffs. Yes. I ate five. (they were small! [ish]). Where am I? The training center is so fancy, I am almost embarrassed. We have all brought our “counterparts” with us for the first 4 days of our training. Counterparts are people who work with us in our villages and towns, helping us with projects or “integration” and all that nice Peace Corps stuff... Some people have a very obvious person to call their counterpart. In my situation, it's not as clear. Maybe I'll end up working with one of the teachers a lot, with various farmers, and perhaps with some VOI in my area. There is not one particular person to call my counterpart, but I decided that the best person to bring is the President of the VOI who lives in my village. (A VOI is a protected area forest management group formed within communities living close to the forest.) He is the one who was most involved in getting a volunteer in the village, even if I don't end up working a lot with him. I think he's a bit overwhelmed by the fanciness of the training center. He said to me “this isn't like your house [in the village]!” I had to laugh. No, but I like my house more. I'm already a little homesick, and missing “my” kids...the neighbor children who are watering my garden while I'm gone.
Last month a Peace Corps Response volunteer came to my site and stayed with me for five days while she was meeting with various VOIs in my area. I went with her to a little community about five hours walk from my town—3 hours on the dirt road, and then off onto a trail for two hours, passing by some areas of Malagasy forest (not eucalyptus!), and lots of rice fields on the steep hillsides. The community consists of several families, the houses spread out along the hillsides where they grow rice, cassava, corn, and beans, and build their houses, raised from the ground a bit, from wood and reeds, right up the hillsides. There was a good-sized stream where the family we stayed with for the night gets their water. They cleared out a little hut for us to set our tent up in, and killed a chicken for us for dinner, serving us the biggest mounds of rice that I have ever seen. It was impossible to eat it all. People are so happy to have their rice harvest coming in, they are eating A LOT of rice.
We were staying with the President of another VOI, and in the morning about 20 men crowded into his house to meet with the volunteer and my “counterpart,” who was helping her with her presentation. The forest that this VOI is supposed to be protecting/managing is an hour walk from the community, and they don't actually have any projects going, and haven't finished their paperwork to get their actual VOI status, but they were very involved in the meeting and sharing their ideas, more so than other VOIs that she has met with.
The community had many children who didn't go to school (the closest primary school being 2 hours on that trail, and the secondary schools hours and hours away). They have no flat land in that area, so all their fields are on hillsides, where it's a slash-and-burn system and say they have to farm a new field almost every year—very labor-intensive and damaging. When I asked the VOI president whether he had ever seen farming on the contour (an erosion control technique for sloping land), he said that he had had no experience with it before, but had seen it in another part of the country. Honestly, I have no idea how interested he really is, but I detected more enthusiasm about things from that group of people than from others that we met with.
At the same time, like all the groups we met with, they had many issues and complaints, talking about how unfair the non-profit working with the VOIs is, giving money to other groups and not (yet) to them. From the other volunteer, I learned about what's going on with this situation, and it is really discouraging. Not just the isolation of the farmers who don't understand the non-profit's system, but also the non-profit itself, and how the goals and ideas don't always actually go in the intended direction.
I can't solve these huge issues, but sitting there listening to them talk about their poverty and their dissatisfaction with the non-profit, what I keep thinking is, why is it so much easier to see what we don't have than what we do have? So much easier to complain than to rejoice? And I can't judge anyone because I am exactly the same way, and I have much more resources than the people in this community have. My goal for my time here could be to develop my focus on the good things, the resources, the joy of using them well, and hope that some of that rubs off on others, too.
I feel like there is so much possibility here. I'm not in a desert where things struggle to grow—I'm in an area with rain, with sun, with streams and plants and trees. I don't know what is keeping the people from having nutritious food and enough for their children. I have a lot to learn, much still to come to understand.
I want to go there and start showing them a bunch of erosion-control things, all these books I have with ideas, and take my shovel and start digging...but I know I could just go in and mess things up! I have to sit with them and ask questions about why they plant the way they do, and understand what their reasons are, what their ideas are, and approach any sort of change slowly and carefully.
Honestly, I don't even know how to go there and start anything. Not only am I not an expert in development, in agroforestry, or in facilitating anything, I'm also not a non-profit with money to hand out, but, being a foreigner, that is what I will be seen as. Which is why what I need to keep in my mind as my first goal is to simply cultivate a thankfulness for the things I have, the things we have, the good things all around. Learning to value and care for well the resources here, and hoping that people see the goodness in all these things around them. I'm still very new to this place -- before I run in with project ideas, I have a lot to learn.