October 10, 2009
Gary has written a bit about our culture week and tech week experiences, but here are a few more facts. Culture week is designed to give each volunteer a peek into the province he will serve in. Chiriqui is Panama’s richest and most proud province. It was the first province to have its own flag and is known as The Province of Workers. Indeed, this province seems to be more dynamic and innovative than the others. It is known as Panama’s breadbasket. The varied topography permits many different types of agricultural production, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, dairy and beef farming, and lots of coffee and plantains in the northern mountains, where we we will serve. In addition, there are beautiful beaches on the Pacific side.
Four new volunteers from our group are moving into this province, but our jobs and locations will be so different that we will have virtually no common experiences! Another telling fact that no EH volunteers serve in Chiriqui – the Environmental Health volunteers are the Marines of the Peace Corps. They are the first to go into villages, and their primary responsibilities are sanitation and health. They build latrines and aqueducts, which bring potable water into communities for the first time.
The volunteers that work in Chiriqui are members of the following Peace Corps sectors, whose names will tell you what they do: Community Environmental Conservation (including sea turtle projects, reforestation, environmental education), Sustainable Agriculture (good farming practices), Teaching English and Tourism (yep, you guessed it) and our group, Community Economic Development. The major goal of CED is to increase family income via teaching people how to plan for and manage projects and groups, how to evaluate ideas for new businesses, and finance management and accounting skills. We also assist communities to develop new activities such as recycling. We find local community leaders and teach them how to do what we do. Sometimes we work with governmental agencies to find funding for community projects. Finally, we create and maintain youth groups such as Junior Achievement, artisan groups, sports leagues and Panama Verde (a youth group concerned with environmental conservation.) We teach leadership skills to everyone we can, as another goal is sustainability – we want these activities to continue after we leave.
Anyhow, to get back to the new volunteers who will serve in Chiriqui: H., a 30-year old entrepreneur who has his own production company in Chicago, will live in a port town of 30,000 people where Chiquita Banana pulled out recently, leaving the town’s unemployment at about 55%. B., a 24-year old Afro-American who grew up in Dutch Curacao and urban New Jersey and who has Dutch citizenship (!), will be working in a ghetto in David (Panama’s second-largest city) with disadvantaged youth. Gary and I are going into a small town in the beautiful Chiriqui highlands where coffee production and organic farming are the employment mainstays and where the folks we will work with are energetic, motivated, and busily reforesting their land, doing their part to ameliorate the effects of climate change.
Our Chiriqui culture week was organized by a CEC volunteer who lives in a tiny beach community. H., B., Gary and I dug clams with machetes along the beach, rode horses, drank coconut milk from freshly harvested coconuts, trekked thru mangrove forests, participated in a baby turtle release, ate fried fish at a beach cantina, watched a culture presentation by the junior high school students, and attended talks on topics such as presenting yourself appropriately to agencies, the indirectness of Panamanians, body language and nonverbal communication. We also walked a lot. Our host family lived about 2 miles from the beach. Our sessions were either at the beach or in the tiny community’s outdoor restaurant between our house and the beach, so sometimes we walked back and forth twice a day. It was HOT.
The very next week, we reconvened with our entire CED group of 18 volunteers in the mountainous community of Hato Chami. This village is in the Comarga of the Ngobe Bugle – a semi-autonomous province where one of the three major tribes is concentrated. During tech week, we practiced various techniques we’ve been training on, most having to do with community organization, business planning, financial management and other activities that make up our bag of tricks. The community is at coffee-growing level, in the cloud forest. It is cool. We lived in Ngobe-Bugle homes, where whole families live in one room, albeit often a large room, and divide their sleeping areas by cardboard or hanging clothes. The rooms are usually of boards with corrugated metal roofs. They have no windows, only a space about 8 inches wide between the topmost board and the eaves. They have no doors, either. Sometimes a curtain serves as an exterior door. They cook on outdoor fires and eat lots of fried bananas and boiled rice or yucca. Most are subsistence farmers. Our family’s farm was about 2 hours from their home, so the husband and son often stayed in a hut on the farm for several days at a time, rather than hiking home. We were lucky, as our family grows vegetables as well as yucca and plantains. We ate onions, potatoes, chayote, carrots.
The Ngobe fry or boil everything over wood fires. They use LOTS of oil. One of the fun things I did was to show Melida how to cook pancakes in a large pot and biscuits in a Peace Corps oven. The PC oven is a large pot inside another large pot, separated by an empty tuna can and placed over a wood fire. It bakes pretty well! We used a deep-sided pot for the pancakes, as those are the only kinds she owns. We turned the pancakes with the handle of a ladle. The Ngobe are POOR!!! Melida was bowled over when she saw that you could make biscuits and pancakes with only a tiny bit of oil, and immediately declared that with the money she would save on three bottles of oil, she could buy a skillet! She did not know how to cook anything with wheat other than ojaldras, which are basically Indian fry bread. Ojaldras are really good, but super fattening. If you’ve never had Indian fry bread, it’s like beignets or donuts, only less fluffy and without confectioner’s sugar.
The Ngobe could be living in the 1700s, except that the dresses are different and some of the utensils are plastic. All the women wear naguas, beautiful floor-length dresses with appliqued fabric designs. You’ll see some on our website if I ever get the photos organized. The problem with living as they did 200 years ago is that their land is full of gold, copper, good water, teak and other valuable resources. Mining companies are coming in, and these people are not ready. This can put Peace Corps volunteers between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the PC policy of staying out of politics, the hard place is that we are supposed to provide these people the skills to improve their lives. Many of us feel that greed will prevail, especially when the locals have no idea how to read, let alone negotiate contracts. There is a strong instinct among the Ngobe that big industry will pollute their environment, however, and they have already completed one march to Panama City about this issue.
When it can cost a ship up to $360,000 to transit the Panama Canal, there is no excuse that entire village populations still walk over a mile to collect water. Without the sophistication of political pros and good lawyers to protect their interests, I would not be surprised to see the Ngobe land severely damaged or ruined.
Putting CED volunteers into the primitive conditions of the Comarga was an experiment. It was widely thought (particularly by the EH staff and EH volunteers) that we would freak out at the primitiveness of the situation and not be able to handle the latrines, cold water outdoor showers, board beds and primitive sanitation in this poor village. EH needs to stop believing the stereotypes! We all did well, nobody cried or wanted to go home. Among ourselves, however, many of us we whispered that we were happy to be there for only six nights. About half of the CED volunteers are indeed going into primitive sites, but they have requested this type of Peace Corps experience. Every year, a significant percentage of PC volunteers do not complete their two years of service, often because they just get tired of that lifestyle. So far, we have not lost anyone in our group of 36.
Hugs to all, Peg