Sewing seeds of change

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Celebrating a successful two years of service in Andapa with close friends who also happen to be local English teachers

Living in Madagascar for more than two years has afforded me the opportunity to integrate into a local community and see beyond the superficial aspects of community issues. Under the surface, there are various realities, values, and norms that collide to create the world in which we live in. The same is true of issues in America (and really, any other country). Addressing community issues can be complex, daunting, and even emotionally draining at times, but remaining hopeful is a necessary part of the development process. Change is no easy feat to accomplish, and I’ve observed a few aspects of this process that are essential to making a real impact and creating lasting, positive change.

In my experience, there is tremendous value in being a willing observer before developing a strategy of change. I believe that too often people jump into a situation and get right to work with a narrow understanding of the underlying issues. This is especially true in a cross-cultural setting. I have learned so much by observing the context of my community before offering solutions based on my own pre-conceived ideas. My cultural upbringing and experience allows me to see the world in a particular way, and that’s not always the best approach in a different cultural reality. Lasting progress means learning about the community first and adapting ideas to the local realities.

Coming from a western culture that places value in timely and measurable achievement, it’s important to remind ourselves that change and progress often come in small increments. This idea took me a while to come to terms with. It’s not uncommon for me to share a plan of action with colleagues only to be told that there are actually many more smaller actions that need to take place in order for our project to move forward. Yet, each time these seemingly annoying “setbacks” help me change my own frame of reference when working in the community. Baby steps are still headed in the direction of positive change.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.” -excerpt from Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer

We don’t always see the change that we work so hard to promote. It usually comes later on, maybe years later, after we leave a place. This has been one of the central ideas that I cling to when I question the effectiveness of my work. Maybe a student doesn’t fully understand a lesson today, and that is sometimes frustrating in the moment, but hopefully my approach in the classroom will encourage them to continue studying long after they have left my class. Maybe a community member doesn’t fully recognize the value of a new practice today, but hopefully through repetition and integration into their lives they will come to know the benefits.  The process of sustainable change never really ends, but recognizing our small contributions to this worthy endeavor can give us the hope necessary to continue moving forward.

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Avoiding the comparison trap

Most of these people, I haven’t seen or even talked to in about two months. After the excited reunions and hugs, it doesn’t take much time before we begin the lines of inquiry about each other’s lives.

“So, how are things at your site?”

“Do you have ______ in your town?”

“How long did it take you to travel here?”

“I’ve been doing this or that in my town, what have you been doing?”

I expected some of these conversations to happen when the 29 members of my Stage got together this week for our IST (In-Service Training). I was looking forward to it. We had all been alone in our respective sites for two months already and this was the first time since PST that we were all going to be together again. It’s a great time to check up on people and share ideas about our integration and teaching strategies. We all had stories to tell, some more passionately than others.

But for me, one of the challenging parts about this flood of stories from around the island is resisting the urge to compare experiences. This country is so diverse and large that the experiences of one Volunteer might not ever resonate with another Volunteer. Yet, in our attempt to come together as a group, we share bits and pieces of our lives and try to find ways that our experiences are similar. Most of the time, they are not as similar as they seem. It feels as if part of IST is supposed to be about sharing our “common Volunteer experience,” but we are hesitant to accept the truth that “common” is a very delicate idea to use. While there are definitely some aspects of Volunteer life that can be understood by almost all Volunteers, much of what each individual person does and sees during their service is so specific to just that one person.

One piece of famous unsolicited advice from our Country Director is to never compare ourselves to other PCVs because “each PCV comes to [Peace Corps] with a different background and personality and will be placed in a different site, [so] what they do should not guide or direct your experience or feelings of accomplishment.” While this idea is much easier said than done, it has been something that I have tried to focus on in the past two months and especially during IST. In my eyes, there is a balance between wanting to know what my fellow Volunteers are doing and planning in their own communities and using that information as a scale to measure my own success and worth.

It is important to remind myself that this is my Peace Corps experience and I take sole responsibility for my own satisfaction. I must use my own skills and background to work within the context of my own community and evaluate my experience based on my own ideas of accomplishment. Comparing my language skills or the extent to which I feel integrated into my community or the amount of hours I am in the classroom to the same metrics as other PCVs does absolutely nothing for me except give me a distorted view of my own reality. I am not trying to emotionally or socially distance myself from other Volunteers so much so that I end up living in my own little bubble, but I am trying to limit the direct comparisons of experiences that I make between myself and other people.

If nothing else, attending this IST was a great way to bounce ideas off of other Volunteers and hopefully I can return to Andapa with a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to my host community. Plus, the food at the Training Center was pretty delicious.