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 Guyana.
Erika Clodfelder – Age 33
Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Southern California but I lived in East Wenatchee, WA for almost 10 years and consider it my home.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Guyana in the education sector. My official title given was “Community Education Promoter”. The main education goal here is literacy. There is a program called GLIFE which stands for Guyana: Literacy Improvement for Everyone. It’s the education sector’s job to assist students in raising their reading levels (and understanding in literacy) and to help teachers improve their literacy teaching strategies.
At school, I do literacy pull-outs and from time to time I lead professional development sessions for the teachers. I work with about 30 students (at a school of 96) from Grade One to Grade Six (US equivalent of Kindergarten to Fifth Grade) who are all below grade level in some area of literacy. Some of my kids have specific weaknesses like comprehension or fluency, while many of the others are unable to identify letter names or letter sounds. I work in the library (which is a partial third floor, so it gets hot!) and my students come up with a partner, or partners, who are similar in skill. I have a special area set apart from the rest of the library and we work on letter sounds, flash cards, literacy games, fluency, comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary.
Starting this term (August term is the third and last of the school year), I will be team teaching two “remedial” classes after school – reading on Mondays with the Grade Five teacher and composition on Wednesdays with the HM (Headmistress). Recently, we started a literacy committee that I have a seat on. Right now, it’s just being used as a way to give advice and assistance to teachers when they’re teaching literacy skills in the classroom.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/don’t you have?
I like to think that I was pretty lucky in my housing. There is a lot of space and a good amount of privacy. I have a kitchen with a stove/oven and a refrigerator. I also have an indoor washroom/bathroom. I have a cherry tree, a mango tree, and a pomegranate tree in my backyard. I used to have two papaya trees, a plantain tree, and bora (related to the green bean), but strong winds took down the trees and the bora was torn up for taking over the yard.
Most houses have a huge water tank (looks like a giant black plastic barrel) on top of the roof or on a platform above the ground. I have to pump up water to the massive tank about once a week if I want to be sure I always have running water in my house. If I don’t do it then I have to get a bucket and fill it with water for bathing, cooking, or washing. One of my favorite amenities is my mini washing machine. I think I may actually be the only volunteer who has one. (Oh, the joys of living in a house owned by Guyanese who live in the US. 🙂 ) I drag it outside, plug it in with a long extension cord, fill it with about four buckets of water, toss in my clothes and soap, and then start it up. It leaves me open to do other important things like read or watch Netflix. 😉 Oh yeah and I have wifi that I share with my host family across the street. It works most of the time or some of the time, when it feels like it. But hey, it’s wifi and I’m not gonna complain (too much). Some people would call this “Posh Corps” living.
What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
The people who own my house emigrated to live in Brooklyn and they come to Guyana to visit once a year. Even though they visit rarely, it can be a challenge to change my schedule and life to accommodate their vacation. I have to remind myself (and others have to remind me too) that it’s just once a year and only temporary. Typically I eat a lot of pasta or rice with beans and mixed veggies. Meat isn’t high on my list since I didn’t eat a lot of it back home, but I don’t get it very much because it can be pricey. If I get protein it’s usually in the form of soy chunks or hot dogs (called sausage here).
What is Guyana like?
Guyana is located at the north part of South America. It’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Suriname to the east, Venezuela to the west, and Brazil to the south. Most people have never even heard of the country and usually assume it’s in Africa. (That’s Ghana.) That’s what I originally thought! Guyana is the only country in South America whose official language is English and it’s the only country. Guyana is considered the Caribbean and much of its culture is part of it, including the food. And believe it or not, there are no white sand beaches with clear blue water. The rivers in Guyana come from the Amazon and that brings in a lot of churned up soil, so most of the water is brown.
What are the Guyanese like as a people?
The people here are the most welcoming I’ve ever met. They love to feed you and they’re always asking, “Gettin troo?” to be sure you’re handling life okay. The Guyanese are very family-oriented and usually live around their cousins and siblings their whole lives. They can also be really protective. My host mom, during training, liked to call me her American daughter. Once when we were out shopping in Georgetown, we walked by a rum shop (bar) where a lot of men were sitting outside. I was cat-called and referred to as “white girl” in order to get my attention. My host mom, Jackie, grabbed my arm and said I was her daughter and the men assumed I was married to one of her sons. After a few comments of disappointment between the men, they left us alone.
They’re good people for the most part. They say good morning, wave, and smile at me which is always a good part of my day. We’ll gaff (chat/gossip) from time to time, but we don’t have a lot in common so there are more questions being asked about America or Guyana than anything else. There are days when music is played until late at night and I just want to go to sleep, but that doesn’t happen very often. Since this is the country, many people get up early to work, so late night parties are very unlikely. Everyone’s usually in bed by 10 pm.
Most of the people in my community are farmers. Some grow fruits and vegetables, others raise animals. The family behind my house has a lot of pigs. They sell them for breeding or for food. Almost every neighbor of mine has a donkey. Donkeys are used to pull carts mostly. Many of the men in my community work on the rice fields or the sugar cane fields, but some drive cars or buses for a living. There’s a lorrey (a big truck) that picks up the field workers at about 5 am and then they get dropped off at home around 2 or 3 pm. Then they do some work around their homes before going out to drink rum or beer with the guys. Sometimes they’ll play dominoes. I can hear them at night slamming the domino pieces on the table and shouting at each other when someone wins or loses. Most of my women neighbors spend their entire day at home. They cook and clean most of the day, go to market, come home for a nap, then cook and clean some more. If they work, it’s usually in a shop or to sell fruits and vegetables at the market.
Compared to yours?
The women do far more household stuff than I do. I really hate cleaning, so I do the minimum to keep the bugs away. It’s just me in my house, so it makes it easier when there are not four or five other people tracking sand or mud in. Even though I’m in a different country and learning new things, I still think my life is easier than theirs. I have things many of my neighbors don’t. One of my students brings over her water bottles to freeze for school because her family doesn’t have a fridge.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
My school’s library is nearly finished and the kids are finally able to check out books. Today, as I’m writing this, is the first day to borrow library books. Erwin, a grade one boy, checked out the first book and he was so excited! I love seeing the kids fall in love with books and reading. A few of my students started out unable to read and we’ve slowly been getting through sounds and blends and even spelling high frequency words. I’m especially proud of two of my grade six students, Ryan and Kevon, because they started out knowing very little of the alphabet and now they know nearly every letter and sound they make. They’ve even started reading a book.
Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I’ve been in country for a year now and will have my year as a volunteer July 3rd. My service has been good for the most part. I really had no idea what to expect because a lot of times Peace Corps would keep information from us until the last minute. By the point I’d learn something; it would be too late to have any kind of major reaction to it (for me). It was just “go in there and teach these things we talked about for a couple days and have fun”. I tried my best not to come to Guyana with any expectations and that’s helped. I think not having traveled internationally before helps too because I have nothing to compare it to. I always thought I’d feel like an outsider or that I’d never feel at home here but sometimes it seems like my daily life is exactly the same here as it was at home, that is until I look out a window.
Being a woman in Guyana can be a pain in the ass sometimes. Not so much in my village, but in cities like Georgetown or New Amsterdam a lot of men cat call. They make this kissing noise (called sipping) to get attention and they call out “white girl” or “white meat”. It’s especially obnoxious when a passing truck with several field hands all “sip” at the same time. Guys will get cat-called by women, but it’s very rare. The guys in my group typically get left alone, but there are times when I’ve heard the guys had been victim to cat-calling too. I’ve been ignored by men here, but I’m used to that from selling electronics at my last job; some men tend not to listen to women about technology.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I saw myself nearing the end of earning my teaching degree and felt I wasn’t meant for traditional teaching, but I didn’t want to work a meaningless retail job for the rest of my life either. I wanted to get out into the world and help kids who don’t have the same opportunities American kids have.
Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
Yes and I also added some selfish ones as well. Peace Corps opens doors that I never would have even seen. I’ll be able to afford a Master’s degree so I can stay in the U.S. and work with kids and families in poverty. I’ve been looking into careers I never would have even considered before the Peace Corps. There are more options than just the one path I always saw.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Yes and no. I think in some countries, Peace Corps can do a lot, but those countries need to be willing to use the new skills they learn in order to help their people. I know not all skills or technology work for everyone and volunteers need to be sure they’re communicating with host country nationals to ensure they’re finding a need to fill. Peace Corps is all about sustainability, but if it’s not done correctly we can be in a country doing the same thing for decades. How does that help in the long run? In order for change to happen, all parties need to agree and work actively towards it. If we’re constantly pushing against a wall that refuses to move, what’s the point of putting more money into the people pushing?
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?
Don’t have expectations. Not just for your country of service, but for service in general. Don’t assume Peace Corps will always be behind you because they’re part of the US Government and you’re a US citizen. They have host-country nationals to work with too. Everyone needs to be friends and that requires compromises on both sides, but sometimes mostly on yours. Don’t expect your service to be ANYTHING like this blog or my blog or like the PCV who is leaving early or like the PCV who extended or like the one you imagine. It won’t be. Every volunteer has a different experience, even volunteers who live in villages close to each other. I will tell you that your service will be awesome and fantastic and awful and miserable and happy and fun and exciting and adventurous and depressing and chaotic. Sometimes all of those things at once in one hour! The most important piece of advice I want to give is that you be sure this is what YOU want to do. YOU are going to live in another country, not your friends or your family or your idol. YOU are going to live these experiences, not anyone else. Be certain this is what you want to do and stick with it.
You won’t regret it.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
My plans change constantly! Right now I’m deciding on taking a break for a while, see some sights, and work a nonprofit job to gain some experience before going to grad school. I want to get a Master’s in social policy and work with nonprofits that have a focus on education and poverty. I have my sights set on The New School’s Urban Policy Analysis and Management program in NYC, but we’ll see! I still have time to think about my future. Maybe I’ll meet someone, get married, and have a baby instead. (Ha!)
If you want to read more about Erika’s service, check out her blog!