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This Peace Corps Life – Nicaragua

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 Nicaragua.

Janae Werdlow

Janae and her graduating class (front, purple dress).

Janae and her graduating class (front, purple dress).

Where do you serve?
I am currently serving in Nicaragua, under the small business sector/program.  My group is SBD (Small Business Development) 65.  My program goals are simple: co-plan with teachers in the OTV or entrepreneurship class, explaining the materials while emphasizing creativity and thinking outside of the box.  As a country standard, education is very verbatim and dictated.  Nicaraguans are not encouraged to think for themselves in school.

The second part is to co-teach, which includes actually going into the classroom and teaching subjects like budgeting, how to run your own business, as well as classroom management, and what we call dinamicas, or icebreakers. These are fun quick games to keep the students engaged and encourage creativity.  Lastly, I consult with community businesses to see what exactly they need and help them reach their goals for their business.

How do you interact with your country staff?
In regards to country staff, I pretty much love my program bosses. Admittedly, I am no fan of the medical staff. Somewhere between going to the hospital for a week with parasites, amoebas and a bacterial infection strand and thinking I was treated only to get sick again in two weeks, all the way to them breaching confidentiality and not making an environment where volunteers want to talk to them or ask for medical advice, they lost my trust. That is an overall feeling amongst my entire group.  There have been a few incidents of mishandling health.  Aside from health, my fellow volunteers struggle with normal things, integration, project completion, heat, and many other things.  It is normal.

[Editor’s note: as a reminder, nothing published on this blog represents in any way the opinion or views of the U.S. Government, Peace Corps, or the government of Nicaragua.  That being said, I think it’s important that volunteers feel free to write about their own experience as they experience it, and so have not edited any of Janae’s comments regarding her experience with country staff.]

What is your living situation like?
My housing is lovely.  I live in a large room with a bed and my hammock in the corner.  I love it.  I have running water, but it is a shared bathroom between the five people living in my house.  My host family is great.  My host mom is very considerate of all my food pickiness and my host dad often sits and talks to me about any topic under the sun. Because of them, I have integrated very fast and get a little more respect in the community.

Me and another PCV in Grenada.

Me and another PCV in Grenada.

My only problem is how loud Nicaragua is.  My family rises between 5 – 6 am, and I can hear everything from the thin walls. Also, my room is on the corner of the street and often drunk people stand right outside my window, talking loudly about nothing.  I also had an elementary school right across the street, and often awakened early with children screaming or the band practicing.

I love eating Nica food though and trying all the different homemade drinks made from fruits that do not exist in the states.

What are your interactions like with other volunteers?
There is camaraderie between everyone in my group and my fellow volunteers who swore in on different dates.  We have a support network and we try often to meet up with each to celebrate and relax. Depending on the occasion, we meet in certain places or just at the office.  The staff strongly encourages beneficial meetings; whether those are to socialize and stay mentally healthy or collaborate across project sectors on projects.  It is never discouraged unless it interferes with our personal work.

What are Nicaraguans like?
My host country neighbors as colorful people and very open. They always greet me when they see me. The neighbors homes are interconnected with mine. On one side is the mother of my host mom. Another house is the brother of my host mom. The other neighbor is the principal at the school where I teach. A little ways down is the delegate, the supervisor of all the schools in the region. He lives with his son who owns a cyber (a computer lab).

The people of Nicaragua are good people. They are very nice and so willing to talk to you. As a people, they have a naiveté about them. They rarely travel to places within their own country, let alone the world. It’s common for Nicaraguans to live, have children and die in the same city they were born in. it’s also common for them to believe everything they see on TV about Americans. This mainly shows up in their assumptions about our food and thinking there are no black Americans because black Americans aren’t shown on TV.

Dancers from Janae's Welcome to Nicaragua ceremony.

Dancers from Janae’s Welcome to Nicaragua ceremony.

You can see the toll war has had on the people and the land but despite all of it, they’re appear very content. The majority of the people speak Spanish, though there are a few other languages spoken in specific cities. I found it hard to learn the language, despite having taken six years of Spanish in the past. People speak the language very informally, but in class, you learn the rules and speak it formally. Also, each region has its own way of using the language, its own dialect. They use different verbs, different slang, and they pronounce words differently.

The people here dress in extremes, either very formal and really nice or like a homeless person. No matter where they’re going or doing the women are in heels and the men are in button-ups, despite the heat. Conversely, you’ll meet people dressed in shirts that look like they’ve never been washed or not wearing shoes. I find it interesting that the people approach gender roles very traditionally and yet, most of the business owners are women and head of their households. Still, boys are highly encouraged to be promiscuous and cat-calling is a common tradition accepted as something that just happens, has always happened and won’t change. Women are expected to be proper, pure, and there is no room for dating for fear of being called a loose woman. Appearance is so important. Gossip is very common. Small towns and relationships are the heartbeat of Nicaragua.

What has been the most rewarding part of your service? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my service is just that, serving. When my hands are busy and I can see the change I am making, I feel most content.

The greatest challenges in being here have been dealing with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Being discouraged by the false comraderies of other volunteers and not feeling their support. It’s also hard not being able to speak to my parents as often as I would like. My site just got Wi-Fi in the park and it’s not all that reliable.

Janae with the students from her pre-service training class.

Janae with the students from her pre-service training class.

Has your Peace Corps experience met/surpassed/or trampled on your expectations?
I honestly did not have any expectations of my service. I knew I was more likely to be disappointed with expectations, so I went into with an open heart. Serving as a black woman has been quite unique. There have been things I’ve experienced that my white counterparts don’t experience. There is one other black volunteer and she, of course, shares my experiences and is a great soundboard for relief. However, using my blog as a medium to educate others has helped many volunteers to feel enlightened on my struggle.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?  Do those reasons still stand today?
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to help people. I wanted to be in a place to learn complete selflessness. To date, being seven months in my service, yes. The reasons still stand and I have been getting the things I asked for: moments of selflessness and opportunities to bless others.

How has Peace Corps service changed you?
Peace corps has made me a more mature woman. All the things my mom tried to help me to do and become finally clicked here. Nicaraguan culture places such importance on appearance and as a result I iron almost all my clothes. I immediately hang up my clothes, because there’s not always electricity to iron and handwashing clothes takes time. When in the states, I used to leave my clothes on the floor, or on the bed. My lack of convenience has made me grow up. I hate washing dishes, but I wash dishes here almost every day, willingly because my host mom cooks for me every day.

Do you think Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I do believe that Peace Corps is a worthwhile program but it is in desperate need of a reformation. I think in the next few years, some transition for benefits, processing of volunteers terminating their service, and health issues need to occur!

Janae with her fellow PCVs and their student group. They won the business competition, despite being the lowest Spanish speaking group, with a coffee drink they named 4YOLO. Their win came as a complete surprise.

Janae with her fellow PCVs and their student group. They won the business competition, despite being the lowest Spanish speaking group, with a coffee drink they named 4YOLO. Their win came as a complete surprise.

If you were to give advice to someone thinking of joining the Peace Corps, what would you say?
Having joined the peace corps, many have approached me about joining the peace corps. My advice is always this:
Peace corps is like getting married. You have to give more than you have, every day. You will want more and sometimes you get more, but at the end of the day you still have to keep giving. It’s like a box. Other volunteers will take things out, your co-workers will take things out, the requirements of peace corps takes things out the box, but unless you keep giving, the box will eventually become empty. Your service is what you make it. There are ups, and good Lord, there are downs. But it’s what you make it. Just like marriage, you can quit. The contract has a way out, but I would be willing to bet you’ll be missing out on true fulfillment.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I still have a year and 3 months left. So, things could change BUT I plan on doing the fellows program to go to grad school for free or a discount. I feel like after two years of my life, Peace Corps owes it to me.

Thanks Janae!

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