Frustrations and Lessons Learned
Trip Start Jan 06, 2010
29Trip End Feb 23, 2012
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To begin with the philosophy of the Peace Corps is to work and live alongside local people to 1. Learn about their culture. 2. Teach them about American culture and 3. Train them to do what they want to do. If you notice 2/3 of that is about cultural exchange. 1/3 is about work. And I think that I have succeeded much more in the cultural exchange part.
- supporting the environmental office of the municipality
- supporting the park guards in developing trails in hills and volcanoes nearby
- supporting the local tourism bureau to incorporate more people in the decision making process of developing tourism
- supporting 5 community groups to become more involved in tourism: mat makers, painters, guides, wood sculptors, and a women's coop
- teaching English to 60 kids
- supporting a women's weaving cooperative on a stove building project
- supporting a group of painters to raise art awareness in children
- giving talks on protecting the environment to kids
- learning to weave in traditional mayan style
- planting trees with school groups
- learning about mayan cultural traditions
The first frustration I have had has been to work in the local municipal government. It is a boys network by definition. There is only one female who works in the municipal office who is not a secretary or a maid. She runs the woman’s office. She nicknamed the snake in Tz’utujil. She was the first women to be on the town council and has aspirations to be the first female mayor starting in 2016. She has funding for her office from the Norwegians because they like that she is a woman and working in a man’s world.
I don’t have any funding and am an American who is still learning about this culture and how to work in it. She has a slight advantage. The other women in the municipality are obviously not consulted on any projects. They are secretaries. And there is a pretty strong rumor around town that any woman who works in the municipality has, to put it bluntly, slept with the mayor. This rumor has persisted through many mayors – and I dearly hope that it is a rumor without basis because the woman that work in the municipality are all young, single, and pretty.
I was assigned to work in the environmental office to support new tourism projects including cultural and ecological tourism. I have attended many four hour long meetings in mixed Tz’utujil and Spanish. I have presented many ideas on different paths we could take to the mayor and the councilmen. I have gone hiking with the council members in the municipal park and discussed ideas. Nothing has moved forward with any idea. I have never been given a desk or even a chair to work there. Since February they have been remodeling the building. Squatting someone’s desk while listening to the sounds of cement blocks being cut with electric saws is obviously not the best working environment.
I learned that some NGO told them that they could get free labor for two years if they just signed a paper, so they did. And then I showed up asking them about what we were going to do. They had no idea what to do with me. They have still yet to have asked me to do anything besides attend meetings and do the odd translating job. I still try to make contact with the municipality and inform them on my work and invite them to workshops, but I don’t think I have made a lasting impact there.
Lesson learned is to not waste time going to meetings with people who don’t have the desire to work with me.
2. The NGOs
Another frustration has been to distinguish myself from the other NGOs. There are too many NGOs in this town, in my opinion. It is a perfect place for short term NGOs to come: it is relatively close to the capital, it has a picture perfect Mayan culture, the physical setting is beautiful and there is a lot of work to be done here in terms of development.
I come with the Peace Corps without any money – only a lot of time and ideals to offer. A lot of other NGOs can come in, do a short term project that succeeds in accomplishing X goal, and then leave. They don’t see how the project pans out in a couple of years. And they don’t have to understand the complicated network that is this community (and I presume all communities).
For example: There is a stove project that I have recently been supporting as a secondary project. The project is more than 5 years old. The goal is to have local people pay a small percentage (Q. 350) of the cost of an improved wood-burning stove. They benefit in improved health, saving the environment, and increasing savings. There is no longer smoke in the kitchen so the women’s and children’s respiratory health are immediately improved. And they use less wood, so the impact of deforestation is immediately lowered. And lastly the amount of money they spend on buying wood – or time hauling wood is cut in half. It is perfect on paper for donors. The project builds the stoves and walks away.
I have returned to do some interviews with the recipients of the stoves. The preliminary results show that half of them were no longer being used as they were destined less than 5 years later. They have taken then apart when they moved houses, they have broken and could not find replacement parts, or they had to sell the stove because they were in debt. All of the women interviewed agreed that it helped them save money on the cost of wood every month – a difference for most families of 100 quetzales or more a month. Since the project did not include repairs or follow-up the women were forced to take the stoves apart, which basically made them serve as high consumption wood burning stoves again.
The frustration I have had has been to find a way to work without money in a town that has a lot of people throwing around money. There was actually an NGO that stood up at one meeting and said we have 1 million Euros to give to this community in two years – and then went on to promise a lot. To date they still have only donated 15% of that. Another project has 4 million over 3 years. There is not a lack of money – but there is a lack of efficiency.
There is a lot of distrust of people that manage NGO projects in town because everyone sees the managers get fatter and the people (who should be receiving the help) get skinnier. The people think that they should receive more benefits for free and have become accustomed to waiting for someone to give them stuff – because if this NGO doesn’t then the next one will. (As a reminder the idea of the Peace Corps is the raise the capacity of the local people to be able to do what they want and not to rely on these handouts. Because handouts create laziness and a dependency on waiting for someone to give you something without finding a way to get it yourself.)
The lesson I have learned is that it does not help to have money because money attracts people who only want to take advantage of it.
3. The community
The next frustration has been trying to find my place personally and to find meaningful work in a community of 50,000 people. Since I could not find my place in the municipality, I had to find new people to work with. When I joined the Peace Corps I did not want to do office work. I wanted to work with people and learn about their desires and help them to achieve them. It took almost a year to get some people and ideas together.
Basically what I ended up doing was observing a project from another NGO working on tourism here – the funding for that project ran out and I stepped in and kept it going (they to this date haven’t found funding to come back). This NGO came and did a survey of the different groups working on tourism or interested in being more involved in tourism in some capacity. They then selected 7 groups. These 7 groups received 4 months of twice a month trainings on how to strengthen the formation of their group. This included how to create a board of directors, how to apply for legalization as an NGO and how to prioritize their goals. The very last meeting they brought all the groups together to tell them now that they were empowered and strengthened they could start working together.
I was a little shocked that they had told the donors they were running a "tourism networking" project without ever once telling the groups that that was the goal. They also left promising that they would return with more funding and would legalize all of the groups to be associations. After four months of no news, the groups started asking me what was happening. So I got each group together and did a visioning workshop to find out what they wanted. I asked them flat out if they actually wanted to be involved in tourism and how they imagined they could do that. Through this we started putting together a project.
With their ideas we developed and completed a project the involved developing 15 new tours, establishing fair prices for the tours, designing logos for 7 groups, designing a brochure describing all of this work, and printing 4000 copies of it. The funding from this came from a fund for Peace Corps Volunteers from USAID called Small Project Assistance (SPA).
The plan is to start promoting these new tours and bring tourism dollars to the people who need it most. If people do purchase the tours their money will produce a supplementary income for 120 people in the community who are keeping alive the culture and arts of the people from a Tz’utujil community.
Even though the goal was to take a step forward in designing new tourism offers here, a major part of the project was to get these groups to run their own project and decide on how they wanted to be involved in tourism in their own community. We had team building workshops and discussions on the value of working as a team or as individuals. The ideas behind designing a logo for each group was to have the groups see that they were united under an image that represented their ideas of themselves. Did this team unity really happen? How can one measure that? That is hard. What we did measure is that they all have a logo. Done, measurable.
It was frustrating to run this project, because even though the ideas came from the community there was no leadership in the community that was managing it. I was pulling them along to get to the destination of simply printing paper.
The project lasted 5 months and every week there was another crisis that I thought would make the project fail. For example one group decided they couldn’t meet with the designer, even though they had chosen the date and time. After much discussion it turned out they were scared and didn’t understand. They ended up meeting the designer and were happy to have been apart of something they thought they were incapable of doing.
Another time the President of one group decided that he hadn’t achieved enough so he wanted to quit. We (me and my new project manager friend who translated) talked to him and the group separately and it turned out they need to have more clear, short term, achievable goals. So after much discussion he didn’t quit, they have a work plan, and they were part of the project.
The lesson for me has been that community organizing is not easy – and that is ok. I don’t have to expect clear success and acceptance quickly.
My personal frustrations have been dealing with all these preconceived notions of what life would be like here and my capabilities. I thought I would be able to learn the language (I still struggle with Tz’utujil), I thought I would instantly love living in a town with stunning scenery (it is great but doesn’t make everything paradise), I thought I would be in physical discomfort (I have wifi, good food, and hot showers), etc. As usual not everything we expect comes true.
The best lesson I have learned in my time here is patience. I have learned to take things as they come and work with that instead of trying to force my expectations on something.
I have also learned that I also need short-term tangible goals to go along with the long term goals. I have started teaching a lot of English classes to have interaction with kids who are always receptive and excited. I have started weaving because I can see the results of my time in the form of cloth. And with the language – a couple of well selected words here and there are still better than none.
As a final note, my views expressed here are just that, my views. They come from a perspective of a female Peace Corps Volunteer working in this town on this one project. There are many other perspectives of this town. Even another person here would have a completely different experience and perspective. I would never say that this experience has not been worthwhile. I have learned heaps and hope to be able to continue learning in the rest of my time here so that I can continue trying to play a small role in improving this task we call development.
The last six months I am focusing on another SPA (small project assistance) project. This will be working with a group of painters and kids to paint environmentally themed murals. Kids, raising environmental awareness, teaching art, beautifying the community walls, all of this will be fun and tangible. I am sure with this there will be frustrations and lessons learned.
But through all of this the biggest lesson has been to continually find a way to smile and laugh at the sometimes painful process of learning.
The contents of this website are mine personally and do not refelct any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.