Ok…So what kind of work do I do here in Vanuatu, and Peace Corps in general? This is one of those questions that is a great question, and an obvious question to ask. One that anyone could and probably even should ask~ and they do. All the time.
It’s also a question with which I always feel so at a loss to answer: What DO I do here? The lack of clarity in the answer to that question has indeed been one major source of psychological instability this past year.
So let’s see if I can break it down.
First, Peace Corps Volunteers are all split up into different regions (me: South Pacific), then different posts/countries (Vanuatu), then different programs (Vanuatu currently has Community Health, English Literacy, and IT Education), and then finally individual sites. I am a Community Health Facilitator in a village on the island of Erromango. So what does that mean???
I facilitate the health of my community! Or something like that. But what kind of health? Environmental? Social? Mental? Physical? Am I simultaneously working as a conservation biologist, social worker, shrink, and doctor? With nothing but a BA, I sure hope not~ though my host community was some degree of surprised that this was not the case when I first got there and couldn’t treat every ailment they could find. Or any of them, for that matter.
So what DO I do?
Well generally speaking, Peace Corps first trains us in the cultural and language skills necessary to move into our host community and begin the process of integration—living with/near a host family in the village with a similar lifestyle of everyone else in the community. Integration really takes up most of our time, particularly during the first year. This step is exactly what makes Peace Corps unique from every other international organization of its kind that I’ve ever heard of.
The purpose of integration is to build trusting relationships and cultivate a deeper understanding of the community. Only then can a volunteer really work with community members to help them decide what they need to be healthier and happier (at least in the case of the Community Health Facilitator in Vanuatu—the only Peace Corps experience I can speak for).
Next comes the technical training… that, as you can tell given the large umbrella it takes to cover the concept of “community health”, covers quite a broad scope in the case of my specific program. During the first two months in training, we’re trained—a little—on everything from sex ed to youth leadership to water and toilet development projects. And lots in between. We then take the micro-training they give us for each of these macro-topics to our village with us, figure out what the village wants to do with us through thorough integration (hopefully), then pick out which micro-skills need to be expanded on to be more useful for two years at our unique site. All the while we are intended to pass our knowledge and skills (that we often end up just learning as we go) to as many community members as possible, making our work during these two years of service sustainable.
Or to put that last point another way: the more we work as we’re intended (as can be understood from our job title)—FACILITATING behavior-change, access to resources and education, and development projects that the community does the work for with our guidance—the more the community learns how to do all those things on their own, can continue after I leave, and the more the work I do during my two years has a lasting positive impact on the people who I lived and worked with. It’s grassroots, straight up. But with a lot more grass and roots than any grassroots project I’ve heard of in the States.
If that’s confusing, try contrasting it with the organizations that show up, dump materials and/or money and/or whole development projects in a community, then walk away. Sometimes these projects are necessary for things we consider global human rights (like access to water), but sometimes the community doesn’t value or understand them the way the organization probably hoped, and the money, materials, or project gets misused, abused, or in some other way ultimately doesn’t last.
So what has all this looked like for me? Well, this is long already, so I won’t go into too much detail. You can see a lot of the specifics in various blog posts. But basically I got to our village in December 2012 and just started getting to know people—who for the most part were terrified of me at first. I did community surveys and a workshop with community leaders that helped them look at and discuss the health needs of their community to decide next steps and create action plans. We created some big plans for a Rain Tank Project and a Toilet Project, made committees, got excited, and I realized early on that my community was amazing and we were going to have the most kickass first year any Community Health Volunteer had seen in Vanuatu.
Then the committee members went and lived their lives and never came to meetings. My time began to revolve around scheduling meetings, re-scheduling them, begging and pleading with them to come, trying to casually stir motivation, and eventually getting extremely disheartened and all but giving up. That’s when other things started to pop up, all on their own.
Through collaboration with various people who do various kinds of work in our village, I have:
- Created a public question and answer board that covers topics from health to education to culture to politics;
- With a counterpart I taught a term of health to grades one and two, helping the kids understand and be confident and considerate of their bodies (baby steps);
- I’ve done various small family planning workshops for mamas of all ages who desperately need the information;
- The nurse, midwife, nurse aid and I started a weekly exercise program for mamas (though girls and women of ALL ages come) which is easily the most fun thing I do each week;
- I taught the alphabet to all the pre-school kids all year and also did some “kitchen kindy,” where some pre-school kids would come to my kitchen to play educational games and get more individualized attention;
- Peter and I both do “homework hour” 5 nights a week, when kids of all ages come to us in our host family’s kitchen before dinner to do intensive studying—either getting help with homework or asking for extra work which we then help them with.
- And various other things that can be read about on our blog.
- Oh!!! And just recently, the Rain Tank Project Committee, after nearly a year of my nagging, has begun to pull together and get stuff done. Finally, it’s looking like that project will move forward, bringing CLEAN drinking water to about 600 people.
So yup, I think that about sums it up. In a nutshell, I do anything and everything I can while trying not to get bogged down by the constant reminders of everything I can’t do.
Again, everything I say here is pretty specific to Community Health volunteers here in Vanuatu. I can speak a little to the English Literacy Volunteer experience just because I live with one, but this has gone on quite long enough. For now, it’ll suffice to say that his experience has been strikingly different in many ways, though the basic philosophy and integrative strategy are the same.
I hope that was somewhat interesting and/or informative. If any specific part of it strikes you as something you want to know more about, comment or email me and I can easily elaborate quite a bit more on just about anything I talk about here.