Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Panamá.
Derek Owens – Age 26
Where are you from?
I’m from the town of Bluffton, South Carolina.
What country and program do you serve in?
I am a Teaching English volunteer in Panamá. At the end of our 10-week pre-service training each TE volunteer is paired with a counterpart who is an English teacher at a/the school in your community. The three goals within our project are focused on 1) teachers, 2) students, and 3) the school community. Each volunteer goes about addressing these goals differently; through co-planning with teachers, co-teaching in the classroom, informal English practice, etc. Some volunteers give provincial wide seminars sponsored by the ministry of education, others hold small instructional meetings with only the teachers from their school. The work of each TE volunteer is so varied it’s difficult to give you a comprehensive picture of what our project does. Also, the TE project has only been in Panamá for 5 years, so we’re consistently evaluating and improving it.
My work is specifically different than that of my coworkers. I live in a very small indigenous community. The desire to learn English that the community expresses, along with my assessment of the needs of the people, has caused me to focus my work in different areas. While I still spend lots of time as a “consultant” for my teachers, I don’t work with them on a daily basis.
I am a member of a group of volunteers that live in other indigenous communities in this region called Universidad al Campo (UAC). UAC works with 12th grade students to encourage them to continue studying in university, specifically focusing in sustainable agriculture. The idea and goal is that these students will return to their home after graduating to share more sustainable farming practices that produce more food to the subsistence farmers of the area (the majority of people slash and burn wooded areas for their farms).
I was also recently elected to the position of Vice President for the Gender and Development (GAD) committee of Peace Corps Panamá. We promote projects related to gender equality, HIV/AIDS education, and youth development. GAD has three major annual events:
-Four youth GAD camps that teach kids to think about their future and how to avoid obstacles, specifically STIs and teen pregnancy
-A “Women’s Healthy Artisan Seminar” that teaches basic business practices to and sustainable artisan crafts with a gender-specific lens, while also addressing healthy relationships
-A “Men’s Health Seminar” that introduces ways of becoming a community leader. We also discuss healthy relationships and what it means to respect your friend, family member, or partner.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
My house is made of mud (this is actually NOT common in Panamá, only in my region). It is two small rooms, one of which I treat as my kitchen, the other my bedroom. I spend most of my time on my small front porch in my hammock, where I have a view of the town center and soccer field. I do not have electricity, but I do have running water (which I have to filter).
What are Panamanians like?
The town I live in is called Buenos Aires and it is within an indigenous “reservation” called the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé and is deep in the mountains of the continental divide. Buenos Aires is the last community that buses service, and is about 2 hours from the nearest provincial capital (large grocery stores, markets, hospital, university, etc.). There are literally dozens of communities that one can only get to by walking for hours after taking a bus to my community. Buenos Aires is the largest town in the area; it has a school, medical center, small stores, and both a Catholic and an Evangelical church. For this reason, all the residents of communities further into the mountains travel by foot/horse for as many as 12 hours to run errands, attend school or church, and seek medical attention.
I explain this because the people who live in Buenos Aires (a population of about 350) are very poor, but in comparison to the people I see coming through on a daily basis (and the communities I have visited on hikes) they are much more well off. The vast majority of all these people are subsistence farmers, and cultivate nearly all the rice, corn, beans, starchy-vegetables, bananas, and plantains that make up most of their diet. They also have an infinite cycle of chickens that lay eggs, raise their chicks, and then are slaughtered for meat. The women do all of the cooking, most of the time over a wood fire. Men work on the farms, which are all further into the mountains, anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours walking. Children attend school in the mornings and play soccer or baseball in the afternoons.
There are two different indigenous tribes live in this area (Ngäbe, and Buglé). Each has their own language, but where I live those languages are basically lost. If you hike a few hours north you will find communities of each group that are still very culturally strong. There are lots of artisan crafts that are made by these groups, and both wear similar traditional dress. These cultures and people are very different from the Latino people that populate most of the rest of the country, and there is pretty harsh racism hat exists towards the indigenous groups.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I have had various ups and downs during my first year of service, both personally and related to my work. Some of the most rewarding parts of my service thus far have been the two projects I have now focused my time on, GAD and UAC. Empowering kids to make it through the college application process who never could have imagined attending a university is unbelievably fulfilling. Even when they don’t make it through the whole process, the looks on their faces when they leave our seminars with new leadership skills and confidence are something I will never forget. The youth development workshops I have facilitated through GAD are also so enriching. Knowing that I am sharing information about sexual health that could change the life of these kids is an awesome feeling.
How is it being a volunteer in Panamá, specifically?
Each Peace Corps country is different. Panamá is very small and easily traveled, and lots of my friends and fellow volunteers live in close enough proximity to visit each other for a day without much effort. My site is relatively far from where my closest volunteers live in comparison, and a lot of times this has made me feel alone or excluded. It has also been difficult living among such poor people, most of whom have access to American media or have come in contact with American tourists. This causes a very skewed view of what “most” American people are like (white, blonde, rich, promiscuous). I’ve been able to get over these stereotypes within my area, but when I’m in nearby cities I can always feel what people are thinking as they stare me down.
I’m sure this isn’t any different than lots of Peace Corps programs in other countries, but the life of volunteers here in Panamá varies significantly from person to person. The projects working here are: Teaching English, Community Environmental Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture Systems, and Environmental health. There are volunteers who have electricity, internet access in their house, refrigerator and washing machine, consistent running water, and a house large enough to have a “guest room”; other volunteers live in raised wooden shacks, have no electricity or cell phone service, cook over wood fires, and poop in buckets. Some people live in cities of 50,000 people, and others in villages of less than 150.
The difference in site placement, and of assigned country, creates a type of hierarchy among Peace Corps volunteers around the world (and encourages the coining of terms like “posh corps” and “beach corps”). Lots of people like to compare difficulty of site based on a lack of resources, but what I have concluded is that each site comes with it’s difficulties. While it may be tough to collect your water from a far away river on a daily basis, it is also difficult to find where one fits-in in what could be considered a city. Some volunteers have a hard time convincing their communities to work with them, and others have the problem of not having enough time to dedicate themselves to everything their town wants from them. There are volunteers who feel lonely and wish they had a way to communicate with friends/family/coworkers more consistently, and people who can’t seem to get the personal time they’d hoped for in Peace Corps due to constant connectivity. I am a strong advocate against comparisons, and in favor of recognition that no matter where a person is serving, we are all Peace Corps Volunteers making an immeasurable positive impact across the globe.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined the Peace Corps for lots of reasons, both philanthropic and person. I had been told many times that I would be a good Peace Corps volunteer by random acquaintances throughout my college career, and I began seriously researching it towards the end of college. I love provided a service that I truly feel is needed and that I feel fulfilled in volunteering my time for. After reading various blogs of PCVs and speaking with the few that I had met back in the states, I decided that I thought Peace Corps was for me. Personally, I wanted to spend a long period of time fully immersed in a culture, to refine my Spanish skills, to put off life in the real world, and to get out of a job I felt trapped in.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I absolutely feel like Peace Corps is a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government. Not only are there many projects that have long lasting impacts in Peace Corps countries, but the sharing United States culture with host countries AND of host county culture with Americans is invaluable.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
It is so hard to go in without expectations and even harder to keep yourself from developing them during training but don’t. If you let your service unfold itself you will be surprised at how wonderful and successful it can be. Don’t lose touch with friends or family from the states, and I don’t mean simply filling them in on recent and future events; talk to them about your emotions and don’t be afraid to tell them when you’re having a hard time.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
At this point I have a little more than a year left, and the number of options floating around in my head are a little dizzying. I’d like to continue studying for a Master’s in Public Administration (focusing in non-profit leadership), but I’m still not sure where. I plan to apply for a few of the wonderful Paul D. Coverdell Fellowships through Peace Corps and I’ll decide based on whether I am awarded any or not. Ideally (at this point) I will find work in the non-profit sector working either with indigenous rights or advocating gender equality. Additionally, I have been considering a 3rd-year extension here in Panamá, or a short term Peace Corps Response position in another Latin American country. Regardless of what I decide to do, I hope to do a few months of traveling through South America after I finish my service before returning to the US.
Want to read more about Derek’s service? Check out his blog here!