April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What are we doing in Peace Corps Panama

So perhaps you noticed the list of books we've read, down on the right side of the blog, and decided that this is nothing but a tropical vacation for us if we read that much. I must disillusion you. April has always been a voracious reader of novels, and I've suddenly found myself without emails to read, internet to surf, newspapers to read, TV to watch, or any of the myriad of other time consumers of ¨normal¨ life in the US. And I´m definately enjoying filling those holes with pleasure reading, something I haven´t done regularly since before college.

The point being, yes, we read, but we do more than read. Now that we´ve (mostly) become oriented to who is who here, where they live, and what they do, we´ve started into our ¨real¨ work. As you may recall, I´m Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) and April is Community Environmental Conservation (CEC). (For a broad list of what the other sectors are doing in PC Panamá, check the related post, What is the Peace Corps doing in Panamá.) So naturally the first formal work we undertook was teaching an English class.



Teaching English in the school to interested community members

A big part of that orientation period was finding out what people wanted that we could offer. And one of the most requested was English. Obviously, some folks liked the idea but really had no concept of what learning English would entail. There is some English instruction in the schools here, but not wonderful and rarely have the teachers been given much training in pronunciation, etc. (Language teaching in Panamá will become even more interesting in a couple of years when Mandarin Chinese becomes another mandatory language.) So our first class had 27 eager folks, some of whom seemed a bit surprised that they didn´t learn tons of useful vocabulary right away. But 22 returned the next week, and 16 the third. Not bad considering our classroom changed everytime because the school roof was being replaced, that there are under 200 people on the island (swelled by summer vacations right now), and most live 30 minutes to over an hour away. But week 4, only six people showed up. The difference? A party thrown by one of the political parties - which featured 4 piñatas, food, and gifts for kids and families (gifts such as mattresses and other large useful items; not that politics here is about buying votes). Week 5, held the Sunday before we left the island, we recovered with around 20 people. We anticipate to settle around 5 to 10 core folks who really do want to learn, a mix of adults (at least 3-5 very interested ones) and students (some, but really, it is summer vacation right now).

So far, we have taught some vocabulary and the sounds of the letters. Pronunciation is difficult, because many English sounds do not exist in Spanish, so their mouths and tongues and minds just don´t know how to make them. We´ve also done key phrases like "I do not understand", "How do you say ___?", "I need help", "Repeat that please", and "Talk slower please".

So beyond English, what work related to our sectors (SAS & CEC) have we been tackling? We've begun work on compost, insect control, and weed control for small gardens. Seed collection and preservation for both gardening and trees is coming up, which will be followed by reforestation projects. For all of these, we spend time walking around and talking with potential adopters of the ideas and processes, explaining positives and negatives (cheap but more work, benefits the environment, etc) and sometimes helping them work on implementing the ideas, such as a small garden so they can expand their diet to include more vegetables.

Kevin with a short pickaxe, digging two double-dig beds back in October

Here is the start of a double-dig bed we did at our third host family's house. A double-dig bed loosens the soil and mixes in compost and other good things for the plants (chopped up banana trees for potasium, horse and cow poo, balo leaves for nitrogen, etc). She now has tomatoes and habichuela (greenbeans) growing in it, and is a big fan of the organic insecticide we made for the garden; she continues to use it after we've left to keep away caterpillers and other bugs.

In addition, we do some work on capacity building with community members. For instance, we are out of site now in part because of a training this week on Project Management and Leadership, which we will attend with two community counterparts. Together we will learn tools for setting goals for groups and the community and how to achieve those goals through management styles and communication skills. The intent is that upon our return, we´ll work to implement what we´ve learned and hopefully instruct other community members so that they will be able to utilize the training.

We´re also working to construct the estufas lorenas we´ve mentioned. We developed a handout with a drawing of the estufa with the parts labeled, listing the positive (it requires less firewood, helping the environment and freetime, and sends the smoke out of the house) and negatives, so they will be aware of what they are getting into, and on the back, a list of materials necessary for construction. We´ve handed out a few of the sheets to folks we know are interested and we think will be good "early adapters". And just last week, we walked across the island (well, pasear-ed across, which means stopping and chatting with just about everybody on the way, so it took us about 3 hours; a big plus was hearing a resident explain the estufa and its benefits to her grown daughters who were visiting for the summer) to help one of them begin collecting materials and review the steps necessary for construction. We especially want to build a big one at the school, where the Madres de la Familia currently cook in a room that is totally blackened inside from the smoke of the open fire they cook on for daily crema and lunch.

On the environmental side, April will be hosting activities Tuesday and Thursday mornings throughout February for the students on vacation. They´ll observe environmental aspects of their home island they may have taken for granted, hopefully watch An Inconvenient Truth in Spanish, learn to read a map, and in general she hopes to expose them to things they just won´t get in normal school. Watch for more here after she´s done some classes (but with this Tuesdays and Thursdays and English class Sundays, we aren´t sure we'll be able to get out of site until March).

The other big agricultural request I´ve gotten is for pasto mejorado, or improved pasture grasses. There is a lot of cattle raising here on the island and everyone has heard the buzzwords of pasto mejorado. So I´ll be working with MIDA (Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario - or agriculture development) to give talks on how best to plant seeds for the improved pasturelands, what else they can plant, like shrubs or ground cover, that will improve the soil, provide shade and erosion control, and be enjoyed by the cattle, and methods for managing herds that will optimize pastureland use.

Part of our job is to aid our community in making good working connections with goverment agencies. Entonces (so...), we will be partnering with agencies such as MIDA or ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente - National Environmental Authority) on much of our work. We visit their offices in the district and provincial capitals, plan charlas (talks) with them, and formally invite them to come give the charlas to the community.

In addition to these activities we´ve already begun, in the near future we will be working on

  • reforestation of the watersheds around the fuentes de agua (water sources) and ojos de agua (springs)
  • trash, hopefully to decrease the amount of trash tossed on the ground and find a way to deal with it (currently, tossed in holes or burned, which really is the same as we do it in the US, just on a smaller, less organized, scale).
  • other ideas, projects, and requests that come up, both within our community and within the Peace Corps Panamá program as a whole. April and I can´t help but think of process, documentation, and training improvements with everything we do, and there are organizations within PC/Panamá to help with volunteer programs and development programs. With under two years left now, we certainly feel like there is a lot more to do than time left to do it in!

In addition to our direct work with agriculture and environmental issues, the other two goals of the Peace Corps are cultural exchanges, what we learn, what we share with friends and family in the US and with Panamanians.

Part of our job is to expose Panamanians to reasonable, thoughtful, cultured, and intelligent American citizens. We take this part of our work seriously. (But we haven´t figured out just how to do it well...so we are inviting you to come visit and help us on this one.)


    Kevin and Mac, a volunteer from another couple in our group, at a Christmas Day meal with the Mothers Group

    We fit all of this work into the daylight hours, along with cooking, cleaning, studying, reading resource materials, writing letters (both home and to people or agencies here, since everything is handled with a formal - even if handwritten since we have no computer, printer, or typewriter in site - letter, including invites to off-island trainings or meetings), pasear-ing, walking to the tienda, chatting with the neighbors, and yes, reading for fun. And okay, I'll admit we do much of that reading for fun sitting in a hammock.

    1 comment:

    dcropper said...

    What a wonderful and informative posting! I know that everyone is happy, not only to know that you are working, but to know what it is you are doing. And I am sure that you are exposing your host country to "reasonable, thoughtful, cultured, and intelligent American citizens". We hope that we will be able to help in that endeavor. This post also reminds that, no matter where you are, government agencies have acronyms :) And thank you, too, for occasionally including Spanish translations. Love from Mom C.