Thursday, June 25, 2009

VAD? (aka what is it that I do?)

My job description has been a little vague in the two months I’ve spent in my community. It would seem that there is a bit of frivolity associated with this fact and believe me; it is on my conscience most of the time. To be honest, getting sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer lacked the shiny luster it once had all of those months leading up to my journey here. The challenges I faced and expectations I had were both unique and nothing I would have imagined prior to coming to Guyana.

Before a PCV departs to his country, he is issued a VAD, or volunteer assignment description. This little pamphlet describes the primary job a volunteer will have and the things he will likely be doing at the site he is ultimately assigned to serve at. I would bet that the VAD for most PCVs all over the world is about as accurate as a North Korean test missile is at reaching space.

What I’m trying to say is that the things I am doing at my site right now are very, very loosely connected to the job description that was laid out before me six months ago. Personally, I am ok with this and I’m not sure I will follow my job description in full over the next two years. In the two months I have been at my site, most of my time has been spent watching, observing, asking questions, listening, and reading. I’ve actually done little, but that is what service is all about, no? Believe it or not, this has posed a bit of a problem with the people who work “above” me. Fortunately, the PC staff members that oversee volunteer work are content with this. Yet, those locals in my community that I work with are anxious and eagerly tugging on my shirt to get me moving and grooving. It has been a good exercise in negotiation. I have had to explain to my uppers that I need 3-5 months to prioritize the things that need the most attention in my community. And, I’ve had to do this without offending, upsetting, or rocking the boat too much.

The first thing I did was visit all the schools in and around my community: 4 nurseries, 6 primary and 2 secondary schools in my immediate community plus a handful of other nurseries and primaries in the outlying region.

The second thing I did was spend time with the VSOs that have been here for a year. They understand the workings of this community better than I do and they also have established a network that I can tap into. Since they are from the UK, there is a distinct advantage to learning about my community through their eyes since they are westerners like me. Don’t worry; I also make time to discover my community through interactions with my own Guyanese contacts, friends, and colleagues.

Lastly, I have spent my own time researching online. I correspond with a host of people in the states in order to open the door to a variety of possibilities. I share my experience with Americans through emails and a blog, giving them an opportunity to learn about Guyanese culture and life styles. I also have started setting up requests for resources from home, financial aid, grant money, etc.

It is hard not to jump the gun and difficult not to lock into one of the myriad opportunities that exist in my community. To give you an idea, here is a short list:

  • Head teachers have schools that are severely understaffed and they constantly ask me to take over a classroom full time
  • Computer labs are sitting in hot rooms, unattended, not maintained, and rotting due to lack of IT know how or the confidence of the teachers to use them
  • Schools are in dire need of counselors and qualified personnel to work with special needs students who are neglected by most everyone
  • There is no organized sports program or P.E. program in the community
  • There is no intervention program for low level readers (80% of the student population)
  • Most schools do not have a feeding program to provide hungry kids hot meals for breakfast and lunch
  • There are no arts programs, drama, music, or extra curricular programs established at the schools
  • Teachers are under-trained and have little experience with alternative teaching methods, IT literacy, and classroom management
  • Students seek extra lessons after school with private and public teachers from the community who charge money per lesson. Parents regard these fee-based lessons as a status symbol – the more they spend, the more they are seen as proud parents in their community. The reality is that these after school lessons are not monitored and many claim that no instruction is going on. Who will investigate? And how will a free after school lesson attract any student who’s parent is caught up in this money making scheme?
As you can see, there is a lot that can be done. It will be hard to make sure that the work I am doing will have an effective impact based on the needs of this community. Furthermore, I have to figure out a way to preserve whatever I do here so that it can be maintained and sustained after I finish my 2-year service. In my eyes, this latter challenge is the most difficult and the one thing that is most discouraging to the success of any project I choose to work on.
So, what is my job description? It is a vague group of observations, conversations, concerns, ideas, and expectations. But, it is also forming into something concrete as I filter and compartmentalize everything that comes my way. The activities I’ve been engaged in that demonstrate the above look something like this:

  • Visits to schools
  • Troubleshooting computer problems
  • Reading to children after school
  • Taking a day off to write songs about literacy on my guitar
  • Researching grants and emailing friends and family to help fund raise
  • Spending evenings at a bar drinking and talking to Guyanese about the things they want done in their community
  • Sitting in on head teacher’s meetings, community workshops, and teacher training sessions
It has been a whirlwind because of the severe lack of communication, lack of organization, lack of resources, lack of personnel, and lack of money. I can only do so much, so which project will have the most effect? Which will be most productive? Which will be most sustainable? Which will serve my community the best?

…and the questions go on.

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