|Water Committee Seminar|
Photos from my water committee seminar in August! Sorry they're so delayed!
I witnessed an extraordinary thing on Sunday. I was going over to the school to use the internet and get some work done, and I stumbled upon a Padres de Familia (our PTO) meeting. I stuck around for a few minutes to see what was going on, because they seemed to be in the midst of some kind of training. There was charla paper (poster paper), markers, and a woman from my town was leading an activity. It was a good seminar, addressing a major issue: that encouragement and positive reinforcement, even in the face of failure, is always more beneficial than corporal punishment or verbal abuse. Simple enough concept, but most Panamanians are raised to fear their parents retribution if they come home with bad grades rather than seek out their help when they struggle in school. So, most Panamanians raise their kids that way thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.
The woman leading the group is named Yasmila. She’s someone that I trained to give some of the health seminars earlier in the year, and she initially told me that there was no way she would be able to get up in front of her community and present. She did though, and her presentations went well. I asked her what this training was about, and she told me that the Education Ministry wanted all of the Padres de Familia groups to receive trainings on emotional intelligence and communication. She told me, “Molly, I never would have done this if you hadn’t taught me how and told me that I could.” I just smiled at her, but inside of me, my heart swelled up. She probably thought nothing of the comment, because she turned away to help a group with their activity, but with those words she validated my entire Peace Corps experience. All I could think was, I am Charlie Sheen and I am WINNING! I was so proud of her, and by extension (and my unadulturated egoism) myself, that I stayed until the end, just to see how well it was received. Everyone was so communicative and participative, it was a delight to see. They never would have participated had that same training been facilitated by some nameless Education Ministry official. But because it was Yasmila, someone they know and trust, they all listened and responded and took it to heart. I loved it.
My service has been peppered with these kinds of experiences. Successes that I can’t claim as my own, but I helped facilitate in some way. I had another one last week with my water committee. There’s a cattle rancher that lives above my water source (which is a large, protected area quite a ways from my community) that’s been taking liberties with our property. He’s chopped down and either sold or used several hectares of trees. My water committee asked me to write some letters for them so that they could go to ANAM (National Environmental Agency) and the local authorities and file a report. I obligingly did so, and they turned them in and diligently followed up (which in itself was a win because almost no one follows up after turning a letter in). Last week the ANAM official went with them to the area, examined it and sided with my water committee. This does not happen much here. Bribes are pretty common, and land designated to water sources are regularly plundered for their natural resources (namely, wood) while authorities look away. The fact that the official sided with my committee is amazing, much less that he went out there at all. I was pretty impressed, and proud of them. Once again, a win, but one I can only really take 5% credit for.
Now, I know that the point of Peace Corps isn’t that, at the end of it, I can claim sole credit for a wide array of projects and accomplishments. In fact, that’s probably the mark of an extremely ineffective volunteer. The whole point of it is that internal capacity is being built and my community members feel more empowered to create the future that they want for themselves. By that estimation, I feel pretty effective. I have community members that have really started taking initiative since I’ve gotten here, partly because they were already go-getters, partly through some influence I’ve had on them, and partly because of some intangible X factor. I have a friend that put it nicely: when I congratulated him on organizing and motivating his community so successfully, he said, “I didn’t really do anything. The whole thing feels like a train that was already moving down the tracks, and I’m just hitching a ride for a little while.” It’s true. My train may be moving a little slower than his, but, in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m just here paying witness to their lives unfolding. I cannot dramatically change the course of their collective train, but my influence has little, lasting effects in the direction they choose to go. It is a sobering, humbling, and yet hopeful thought.
The influence that we have on people is so nuanced that, oftentimes, we don’t know we’ve done anything until much later. I probably won’t see the majority of the effects, since my time is winding down, but I'm encouraged by these little, bite-sized wins. They always happen right when I need them, too. When I'm bored, or feeling useless, suddenly I get a tiny reminder of why I'm here, a taste of my example rubbing off. That little success is like a drug, and gives me just enough of a high to keep me working until the next success. That feeling of pride in my community members and my work is what has kept me here for the two years. And it's what I'll remember when I'm back home.