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 Jamaica.
Dominique Gebru – Age 25
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Napa, California. I am Ethiopian-American.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Jamaica as an Education Volunteer. My official title is Youth Literacy Advisor, and I work at a small primary school in rural Jamaica. Our project’s goals are to improve student achievement in literacy, to help teachers to improve their literacy instructional practices and to strengthen community and parent involvement in the school. I do small group pull outs and work with students one-on-one to try to get them up to grade level, which is a challenge because many of them are more than 2 grade reading levels behind where they should be.
I’ve done a lot of work to improve our school’s library. I helped to establish a student library monitor program, which empowers selected students in grades 5 and 6 as leaders on campus. The monitors run the weekly check-outs, help answer questions, assist in school-wide library presentations, and are almost solely responsible for the library. In choosing our monitors, we targeted students who were not often considered leaders by their peers or their teachers; we chose the ones who needed a boost.
The program has been incredibly successful so far and the students take the job far more seriously than I ever imagined! Last week I was on my way to remind a teacher that it was his class’ library day, only to realize that one of the monitors on duty had beat me to it, totally unprompted!
Do you feel supported by your country staff?
I feel very well supported by my country staff, but because they’re humans, it’s impossible for them to get it 100% right all the time. In Jamaica, we serve in this paradoxical Peace Corps post where many of us have access to internet regularly, have electricity and running water. The flip side of that is that the internet often doesn’t work or is inoperably slow, power outages can be frequent and the cost of electricity is prohibitively high, and water lock-offs are all but inevitable.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I live with a host family in a very nice, 2-story cement house. All PCVs in Jamaica live with host families for the duration of their service, but my situation is a little unique. I live with my host mom, her two granddaughters (age 12 and 15), and 7 girls who attend the local all-girls high school. We have visitors all the time, ranging from my host mom’s husband (who holds down the fort at our old house – yes, I moved houses with my host mom!), to her granddaughter (21 years old) and great-granddaughter (3 years old), to neighbor boys, to the elderly widow for whom my host mom makes breakfast every morning to make sure he eats. It’s a busy house.
It was really hard to adjust to living with a family, especially one that’s so prominent in the community. I have to constantly watch my behavior, my language, the way I dress so as to help uphold the image. Our first house was pretty small. Sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with a busy household took a lot of adjusting. But through all of the challenges, I’ve grown stronger and learned a lot about myself.
I have access to internet at my house. I have electricity. I have running water for 3 days out of the week, and a water tank that supplies our house with water for the rest of the week.
I eat Jamaican food at school every day – rice and peas with chicken and raw vegetables. At home, I mostly eat the way I do in America – lots of vegetarian curry dishes, cereal for breakfast, sometimes I splurge on mediocre-quality bacon.
How often do you interact with other PCVs?
I see other volunteers relatively frequently; Jamaica is smaller than New Hampshire and there are about 60 PCVs serving here. Usually when we gather, it’s just a few of us for a day trip to the beach, but sometimes we do have larger gatherings, like to celebrate the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with other PCVs quite a bit, be it to get some ideas from their school’s garden or to get assistance with my summer eco camp. Our staff encourages collaboration where it helps to build capacity, which gives us a lot of opportunities to learn from each other.
What are Jamaicans like?
Jamaicans speak English and on the surface don’t seem too different from Americans, but the cultural differences run deep and the subtleties that irk and plague us here have the tendency to get under your skin, perhaps without you even realizing it. There are a lot of misconceptions and inaccurate stereotypes about Jamaica, and PCVs suffer more when they come into this experience with preconceived notions about what service will be like. Two Volunteers living within 10 miles of one another here might have experiences as different as night and day, and no two services are the same.
In my community, it’s been really hard to make friends with females near my age. Most women spend their time inside of their homes, whereas most men spend time hanging out on the road, at a bar, or at “di cawna shop.” I am one of the few women in her 20’s without at least one child. Jamaicans can be very warm, but are not generally too quick to open up to strangers. Many people have echoed the sentiment that it is unwise to trust others. Most people in Jamaica are Christian, and so the major activities outside of the home revolve around the churches.
English is the official language in Jamaica, but everyone speaks Patois, the local creole language. It was pretty challenging to master at first; it felt silly that something so close to English was so hard to grasp! But it was necessary for me to learn, especially because it makes it easier for some of my students to understand our literacy lessons.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I have been serving for 20 months. The most rewarding parts of my service are the relationships I have built with my host family, my community members, my students, my principal, the teachers at school, and with other PCVs. That person-to-person connection makes this whole experience feel valuable because at the end of the day, regardless of how my projects turn out, I am expanding my understanding of the world and the Jamaicans I work with are growing their understanding of the US.
My greatest challenge is overcoming self-judgement. I place a lot of pressure on myself to get things done, when in reality my impact is inherently limited. My successes are different from what I’d thought they would be, but they are by no means less successful.
As a woman serving in Jamaica, we are confined to more conservative gender norms than I am used to. The genders operate in very separate spheres in my community and there are certain things that, as a woman, people do not expect of me (i.e. drinking alcohol at a shop/bar, lifting heavy things, being on the road late, etc.). Male PCVs live less socially restricted lives here.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined Peace Corps because I was interested in international development and seeking a way to enter the field while also giving back. I was also inspired to join because my father, who grew up in Ethiopia, was taught by Peace Corps Volunteers while he was in school and had a very positive experience with them. These reasons absolutely still apply today, but I think the reasons that keep me here are different. I recognize now how a greater sense of understanding reduces the sentiment of “otherness” between nations, something I consider essential for building a more peaceful world. I recognize the importance of connection and the bond that we all share by sharing the human experience.
Has Peace Corps changed you?
I have always considered myself a patient person, but Peace Corps has improved my patience by leaps and bounds. It’s also made me incredibly grateful for the life I live.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Absolutely. Americans are so misunderstood, as is the reality of what it’s like to live in the US. From a technical standpoint, if we’re able to help inspire positive change and development, then why not continue? Peace Corps has a really collaborative approach and the worldwide Peace Corps budget is cheap – it costs less to operate annually than does the military band.
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?
As many times as you may have heard this already, trying to go in without preconceived notions or expectations for what ANY aspect of your service – your house, the people, the language, your work, who you will serve – will be like. I know this is easier said than done, but in my experience, it’s when those expectations do not align with reality that we struggle most.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Following the Peace Corps, I plan to continue to work in the international development sector, hopefully in project management. I am particularly interested in girls’ education and women’s empowerment.
What would you want someone thinking about joining the Peace Corps to know, based on your own experience?
Peace Corps Volunteers are here to enable people in the country where they serve. Any project that I work on here has to be meaningful to someone in the country in order for it to outlast me. Two years is a short time, and if you’re looking to save the world or to win glory, Peace Corps probably isn’t for you.
I was recently selected as one of the winners of Peace Corps’ 3rd annual Blog it Home competition! I use my blog to help teach Americans about Jamaican culture and what my Peace Corps experience has been like. Blogging has helped me to use my love for writing, storytelling and photography in a meaningful, productive way. Peace Corps’ Third Goal is to help increase understanding of your host country on the part of Americans, and one of the things I love sharing most with folks back home is Jamaican music culture. Music is so prolific here, and I love sending island vibes back to the US. I blog often! My blog address is: twoyearsponderock.wordpress.com.
Thanks Dominique! Be sure to check out her award-winning blog!