by Mario Machado—The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is strange and, at times, seems like a completely maddening existence. As an outsider living for 2 years in a foreign village halfway across the world, one is never quite here nor there, never regarded completely as a professional but never quite as a neighbor either. Here in Paraguay, I occupy an awkward realm that feels a lot like being a stranger in one’s own home. My job as a volunteer is quite varied and undefined. I must simultaneously integrate into the community, facilitate developmental projects, and carry out daily necessities of survival—three tasks that constantly blur and transcend typical social lines. So when it comes to actually carrying out a project, the challenge usually has less to do with the technical aspects and more with the myriad social elements and barriers that must be navigated.
As I am initiated into this crazy world with the start of my first projects, the tenuousness of the line I must walk becomes clearer. The director of the local school approached me last week, asking if I had any experience with chemistry and physics. I said that I did, having studied both topics in college for several years. He was delighted and informed me that although chemistry and physics are a required part of the Paraguayan school curriculum, the local school lacks science textbooks and teachers. I was initially delighted by his proposal that I teach the two subjects, eager to get working in the community, but it seems the task is perhaps much larger than I had expected.
The school building, a simple brick building composed of three classrooms with broken windows and crumbing walls, resides directly in front of my house. The school children, who currently knock on my door and steal from my garden or porch at all hours of the day, certainly don’t see me as their teacher any more than they see me as their neighbor. I am just the strange norteamericano (North American) living in their midst with my fancy bicycle and strange foods and tendencies. It will be a task within itself to get them to take me seriously, let alone to learn a subject that most of them will likely never use again once they become rural farmers or the wives of farmers.
Along with teaching in the schools, I have also been propositioned by the local farmers’ committee to start an organic permaculture garden in the community. Again, excited at this opportunity, I immediately offered my technical assistance with the project. The members of the committee, who stopped just short of laughing, informed me that they were already well versed in matters of organic farming and simply needed my connections to procure the necessary funds to front the capital for this project. I tried to explain that my organization was Peace Corps, not Money Corps, but that sort of thing just doesn’t fly with people who are used to working with non-governmental or governmental groups that show up with promises and fail to deliver. Trust extends only so far in these situations, and I am still trying to earn mine with this community.
These issues can’t be beaten by fancy tricks or the right set of tools; the only cure for overcoming these obstacles is time. I am uniquely positioned to become involved in this community in a manner that other organizations cannot. By mingling and mixing in the mess of it all, I should (in theory) come out with a better and more practical understanding of this context. At least that is what I keep telling myself. —Mario Machado