This is a video made last year for camp GLOW, Girls Leading Our World, a week long sleep away camp for girls teaching women’s empowerment and life skills. As a member of GAD, the Gender and Development Task Force for Peace Corps, I will be helping to organize and orchestrate this camp along with five other PCVs and our Guyanese counterparts.
I was nominated to present a speech at Swearing In (when we officially become volunteers) along with two others. I wrote a poem about every member of Guy26:
The girl to the left is Alia, the headmistress at my school’s daughter, as is the young girl in front, named Akia. My host brother Ricardo is the four year old, and the sassy lady on the right is the HM, Miss June, who is hosting the party.
I will be living in a village called Brothers, located immediately next to Sisters, where the Friendship Primary School is located where I will be working. These villages are in Region 6, East Bank of the Berbice river, about twenty minutes from New Amsterdam. Stay tuned for updates after my site visit this week!
At the end of training, each PCT must complete an activity of their choosing, known as Challenge Week, as well as a sector specific project designated by Peace Corps. Education trainees are tasked with creating a world map to be hung in the various practicum training sites, as a gift to our schools. My group at Supply Primary school painted our world map on a three by six piece of plywood and placed the finished product in the reading room there, which we organized and cleaned as part of our Challenge Week activity. The activity also included re-organizing the “library” (I put that in quotations because it was a small room with shelves covered in dusty, unused textbooks and teaching materials slowly being eaten by cockroaches and ants) as well as a grade one through six writing competition. After coughing and squealing our way through the clean-up of both rooms, we discovered the school has an astonishing number of resources at its disposal; the staff simply cannot/do not want to find them. There were recent textbooks in math, science, language arts, reading, writing, even computer technology, as well as some literature, simply sitting there, barely out of their wrappers. The teachers seemed genuinely thrilled to see what a couple days of cleaning could do however, and myself and the other PCTs sincerely hope at least one teacher will return to that room and make good use of it. The children also seemed to enjoy their newly cleaned reading room, located right next door, however that may have been due to the spinning chair they found in there. My group and I were pleased with the number of writing submissions we got, and in giving out the prizes in the reading room, we got a lot of children in to see the space. The map was a big hit as well, especially when everyone finally located Guyana. The sincere thank you myself, Ryan and Genelle received from the teachers was a nice surprise at the end of the week, making some less-than-pleasant forays into certain cabinets well worth it. While part of me suspects our hard work will be undone by busy and sugar-high second graders, at least we have shown the area can be utilized, and there is a brand-new map to adorn the walls. Below is the video Ryan created of our work on the world map:
Orientation week I made the joke that one of my goals while in Peace Corps was to take up smoking. The thought was that, with some dedication and hard work, I would eventually reach a point in my service where I would never not be smoking an extremely large cigar. This naturally led those to whom I was making the joke to imagine the various scenarios in which I would find myself with said cigar. From these imagined situations came a collection of cartoons depicting me, cigar in mouth, going about my future daily routines including teaching in schools, showering, and taking boat rides. The series is a work in progress and hopefully by the end of the two years here, I will have quite a stack of them to one day frame and chuckle at in my future home. I would like to thank the fine illustrators who got this project going, Lindsey Daugherty and Ryan Posey. They are both, obviously, extremely talented. Please see the PDF file below for the entire, up-to-date collection.
As we come up on the one month mark here in Guyana, certain things are becoming clearer, while others are making less sense. An example of the latter is why, after a couple weeks of being blissfully mosquito bite-free, I have suddenly become a target. I have since made very good friends with hydrocortisone cream, which seems to help (the symptoms. Not why mosquitoes are literally the worst insects in the world. Besides cockroaches). Another example of a confusing occurrence is the salting and sugaring of certain delicious fruits. I did encounter the salted mango phenomenon in Colombia, though I didn’t realize it was a wide-spread practice. I didn’t like it there, and I don’t like it here. Why add to something already perfect? The pineapple and mango must be “treated” here, or else, as my host mom says, it will cut your mouth ‘real bad.’ This “treatment” is indicative of the types of additions to food the Guyanese are so fond of: sugar, salt, butter and oil. While this type of food is not really my style (a point I think I have gotten across to my host mother; every time she cooks something healthy/with vegetables and fruit, she gives me a big grin and says, “now I you gonna like dis one!”), I am learning why it is they tend to prepare dishes this way. For one, some if it is just too good to think about cutting back on the grease. Bake is essentially fried dough in the shape of a pita pocket, into which they put bacon and fried fish. Terrible for you? Absolutely. Will I eat several? Absolutely. Roti and chapatti are also slathered in oil, and the fish is rarely prepared any way other than fried. The sugar is also a little out of control (hence the title of this post). Here, diabetes is referred to as “Shugga,” a very fitting name as everything has “just a pinch,” which constitutes several cups for even something as plain as bread. What I am discovering though, is that a lot of the basic ingredients (like flour, plantains, and rice) are quite tasteless on their own. So adding flavouring of any kind seems like a natural solution. I would never dream of telling anyone how to run her own kitchen (as, I’m sure all readers familiar with my cooking habits can attest to, I would despise having someone do that to me), so I have chosen to lead by example. I eat smaller portions, focus on fruit and vegetables and maintain a mostly vegetarian diet. Lo and behold, Nicole has cut back on the meat, and has gravitated toward lighter, healthier meals. Though mostly just for me. The kids are a different story, but hey, like I said, it’s not my kitchen. And traditions are traditions: her bake is to die for. As I mentioned previously, why change something pretty perfect? Maybe just try to head off the diabetes by limiting certain dishes to once a week.
But if I were to worry too much about what this grease and shugga will do to my figure, not to worry. The sweat takes care of a lot of the calorie burning. As does the running I have forced into my schedule. I say forced because the options for scenic and long running routes are non-existent. There is one main road, however it is busy and running along it attracts even more attention than the small loop behind my house where everyone knows everyone. Its a challenge, but I find that with loud enough music I can (somewhat) drown out most of the kissing and catcalling. I had resigned myself to being Sarah Johanna’s (my village) resident white running freak, but actually Nicole tells me people have come up to her asking why she isn’t running with me, and if they can join. I have repeatedly extended the invitation to neighbours, and while there is much laughter and enthusiasm, I have yet to recruit an actual running buddy. The unintended consequence of this little experiment has been that I have discovered a great way to make myself visible and pose as a positive example. In my future community, I plan on starting some type of running club, whether it is a group of one or I can actually convince other girls and women to join (because of certain cultural factors, having men in there might be a stretch). So even if I look weird and get more attention than any woman would ever want in a lifetime, I still get to run, and even if one woman joins me, its worth it.
The insanity bit of this post refers to a group of PCTs who have gathered twice now to do Insanity workouts in our training space when we have free time. There is a lot of sweat, a lot of laboured breathing, and a whole lot of encouragement. It sounds so cliche, Americans imposing their obsession with fitness on a new situation, but I think it is fantastic. Everyone is so supportive, high fives and laughter all around, and it is becoming clearer what my fellow volunteers will mean to me in the long run. We have all talked about how a host family, a site placement, a community partner, can make or break one’s experience. But I think fellow PCVs have just as much to do with one’s success as all other Guyanese factors. These people will be my family, in addition the in-country hosts I grow close with, and it genuinely warms my heart to see what a wonderful group we have here. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a group that would be insane enough to work out in this heat, and see the value in it the way I do. Plus, having a beer at the air-conditioned bar after is just that much sweeter.
As for my work, it’s going well. I have been in the school four times now, co-teaching the whole class with my wonderful counterpart Miss Kaylie, as well as doing individual sessions with struggling students. One of the kids now knows about 80% of the alphabet, which is a huge improvement over where he started (knowing A and B). It is great seeing the enthusiasm in that school, and doesn’t hurt that every time I enter the grounds I get a chorus of “Miss Emily!” and at least ten kids are bold enough to run up and attempt to hug me as we walk toward the building. It is a huge challenge for me, learning how to teach in this environment while attempting to understand/integrate into a new culture and school system. It is immensely satisfying though, getting even one thing right, and the inevitable frustrations with the education system are tempered by those individual successes.
With the training, school visits, and constant “integrating” with my host family, a lot of the time I feel exhausted; which why us PCTs enjoy outings like the one we had to Jubilee Water Park on Thursday so much. Now, water park is a bit of a stretch by American standards; this was a pool with a long slide. But it had a bar and allowed the girls to wear bikinis (opportunities all of us ladies were thinking would be few and far between), so it fit the bill. It was a great way to relax with the other trainees without worrying about all the cultural taboos we were breaking, or having to focus in the millionth session on diversity or integration or phonics building in schools (we had the park to ourselves so there was no need to fend off aggressive males or explain why were all so…American). Everyone had a great time, though certain PCTs indulged a bit too much. Sparing details, after that evening I became aware of the fact that in this country men and women just being friends is not really…understood. If you are seen frequently with a male not related to you, it is automatically assumed the two of you are sleeping together, which is inappropriate if you are not married. This standard, like any standards anywhere, varies with location and family, but the predominant view in Guyana seems to be that women need to watch who they are with and what they are doing at all times. This is frustrating, to say the least, and is also indicative of a lot of other norms here that are intensely uncomfortable and smothering for many Americans. As with most issues in life though, communication is key to solving these misunderstandings. I had to assure my host mom Nicole that just because we enjoy spending time together, Chase (the PCT staying with Nicole’s mother) and I are not in fact dating. This proved to be the gateway to a productive conversation about certain other misunderstandings (like why I need to dress up and wear make-up for a five year old’s birthday, or that I am not only encouraged but expected to meet everyone related to my host family. Which is the whole village).
All of the cultural SNAFUs are simply growing pains though. Each time I feel like I messed up, someone smiles at me and laughs and says “don’t worry bout it man!” And then I get random bits of encouragement, like my host mother telling her mom that I “can do anything, always so chill and go with the flow.” It is encouraging that the Guyanese I have met are more inclined to embrace, rather than lecture, so I guess I am learning where and to whom I should go with a problem… Give and take seems to be the name of the game, and lucky for me there is usually a tasty meal and grinning child round the corner as a reward for simply surviving…