Friday, April 13, 2018

Bear Witness

Bear witness. Peace Corps is often a series of moments, a series of experiences or events that you are simply a part of. It’s this incredible opportunity to uproot yourself from one narrative to the next. You are plopped into the middle of a story that has been going on for the entirety of our own lives and beyond. We don’t begin a book, change the plot line, or influence all of the movements that we secretly or publicly wished for when we signed up for this whole “journey”. We are literally imported, into another story and the thing we do more often than anything else as Peace Corps Volunteers is bear witness.

I’ve witnessed the birth of a newborn child (multiple times), the pain of the mother, the struggle of the delivery, the work of the midwife, and finally the cry of the infant. I’ve witnessed the moment of determination in an athlete’s eye and the devastation of a loss that rode on the coattails of shattered expectations and dreams. I’ve witnessed the consequences of alcohol abuse, violence, and absent parents. I’ve witnessed the wails of family members who lost their loved ones suddenly or too soon and the comforts and strengths of a community that rose together in solidarity and support. I’ve witnessed the aftermaths of suicide of all types, completed and attempted, in recovery or in decline, in the moment and reminiscent, young and old. I’ve witnessed corrupt powers, twisted money schemes, and disadvantaged students. I’ve witnessed the death of a toddler and the wails of a mother hollow and empty. I’ve witnessed the triumph of graduates who overcame unbelievable obstacles to shake the hand of their Head Master and hold their head high in front of guardians or parents. I’ve witnessed women take pride in their femininity and men take ownership in their privilege. I’ve witnessed youth and leaders log on to the internet, the cyber world at their fingertips for the first time. I’ve witnessed the safety in children playing together, their laughs splitting the quiet air and their feet thundering on the soft sand as they race past my house. I’ve witnessed birthdays, holidays, celebrations, farewells, welcomes, new lives beginning and old lives ending. As I've moved out of my village and into the capital for work, I've witnessed my own farewell from my village, my hanoquata (home in Warau) as well. I've witnessed the waving hands, and straining necks of my villagers, all of us just wanting the last glimpse of each other as my speedboat round the corner for the final time. Bear witness.

As you watch, you are blessed with the opportunity to see and you are afflicted in the responsibility to feel. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you have very little you can change, you have even less that you should, but you have every chance to see. You cannot control what happens to the people that you have grown to love and adore, no matter if they grow up in a culture that offers the world and the “American dream” or if they grow up in the “forgotten interior” and are on the losing side of a widening gap in health care and education. You cannot change the story, you cannot change the moment, you cannot change the feeling. Bear witness.

So what do you do when you see and cannot change? What do you do when you feel and cannot stop? What do you do when you love, but are at a loss? You simply, exist. Exist with deep intentionality and foundation. You pray, you let go of control, and trust in God in the face of righteous anger or heart shattering sadness. You listen and watch, even when you want to shut off your ears and pretend you never saw. You hug and cry, you clap and cry, you work hard and lose hope, you relax and gain insight. You ask about the narrative that came before you with curiosity and you stubbornly believe in the hopeful story that could be written after you. Bear witness.

When life happens around us, this is what I have grown to value: the beauty in the ability to see even when it’s uncomfortable and doesn’t make sense, when it’s inconvenient, upsetting, unsettling, and inspiring. When it’s all you can do - choose to bear witness.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Just Start

I’ve started at least 4 different blog posts at this point and each time I stop writing – either because I am interrupted by someone calling at my veranda, I’m at a loss for words to describe it all, or get distracted by some other task as I hop from thing to thing in hopes that by some miracle it will all get done. Like right now there is a very aggressive bat that keeps running into my bed net and I am very tempted to stop writing to “deal” with this issue…but I will continue on and the bat will be grateful for you all.

Team, I have been in Guyana for almost a year now, which means that I could have had a baby by now and none of y’all would’ve known…just kidding Mom and Dad, they have Zika here, I’ll wait. Even though, I will say, I have had my fair share of offers, and pleas of some older Aunties to be their daughter-in-law (whether I know their sons or not). Also, I have had the following conversation multiple times with different people, “Have a Guyanese baby fuh me nah. Ya can leave ‘em wit me when ya gone.” Me: “[nervous laughter], no”. Guyanese: “Me serious ya know” … Awkward Silence. But, I digress.

Let me just give you the obligatory update then: It’s official, I am head over heels for this Peace Corps job in Waramuri. I will be honest with you, there are rough patches, rough days or weeks where tears seem more natural than ever before, and missing of family and friends is more than a molehill, but the second that my speedboat turns into the Moruca river from the ocean there is this deep sigh of, “gosh, it’s good to be going home” in my heart. Overall, this work has become my passion, my dream day-in and day-out, whether or not it is easy or successful.

So what have these past 8 months been? Shoot, it’s really been over half a year since I last blogged?? Whoops! Well, these months have been a roller coaster of emotions and stories, my moments of frustration and my leaps of joy alongside these wonderful Guyanese people have all gone down as the “Peace Corps experience”. Essentially, I’ve started work on a local Mini-Camp G.L.O.W. (an international effort by the Peace Corps to empower women) with one other Peace Corps Volunteer, Eneka Lamb (who quickly climbed the ranks of close friend and fellow jungle survivor), and 21 mentors in both of our communities (she lives in Santa Rosa – the district hub about 45 minutes by boat away). My supervisor and I have begun to work on a business plan for a Computer Hub with internet access (egad!) and computer classes for the community, and I’ve started doing health talks in the school and during clinic days at the health center. Outside of that (aka the fun things after work ends), I’ve started a running club with the youth (put on pause during the rainy season where the running route fills with water), and helped coach the girls football (soccer) team in Waramuri for our annual year-end Moruca Football Tournament (we’re kind of a big deal, reigning champs and all =]). Let’s just say that life got busy real quick. Outside of the “resume” things, my two best friends have come to visit - shout-out to Kobes and Hilary for being the best jungle conquistadors and soul-filling adventurers that I could’ve asked for to say that I am privileged to be your girls’ friend doesn’t say enough. I have learned the labor extensive process of baking cassava bread, making coconut oil, catching crabs (all the muddy, ocean-traveling, mosquito infested process that it is) and cooking them; I have learned that there is an art to steering a canoe that I am not inherently gifted with, and I have begun to practice the preparation of more foods than I care to admit to not knowing how to cook before. =]

Okay, now that you know what I’ve started working on, here’s what I’ve learned living wise: everything, the end, let’s all go home. Jokes. Well, they say that the Peace Corps is an experience that strips you of everything and then yells in your face the question, “WHO ARE YOU?” and “WHO ARE YOU NOT?” I would humbly agree and also give a spiritual yummy to that statement, “mmmhmmm”. I’ve taken pen to paper concerning the questions of true service, “making a difference”, being an advocate, loneliness, resilience, adversity, generosity, acceptance of generosity, and ignorance/”American syndrome”. I’ve grown angry at the world and the way that it runs - perpetuating systems of poverty, injustice, and greed. I’ve had to challenge my peacekeeping ways to learn how to yell for the things that demand attention and are just plain wrong. I’ve grown elated as I’ve carried newborns to the scale and whispered, “Welcome to the world little one – you’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to offer”. I’ve learned what I am not in the roughest kind of ways; I’ve learned what I am in the most rewarding kind of ways and I’ve learned that we as people are able to mold, fight, and adapt. I have faced the terms “American”, “privilege”, “humility”, “arrogance”, “ignorance”, “selfishness”, “poverty”, “service”, “vulnerability”, “racism” and “generosity” in a completely different light than ever before.

I was talking with one of the staff members at the Peace Corps office and I told her that I was once given the advice that evangelism and service is like one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. I lamented that in the Peace Corps sometimes you find food after you’ve been starving (for love, purpose, attention, actual food, etc.) and all you want to do is eat, you don’t want to show anyone where the food is until you are full. She listened quietly and then told me that it is when we are still hungry and yet show the next beggar where the food is that we find the most worth. I quietly accepted that statement at the time, but later took it apart. When we are lacking, when we have nothing, when we are uncertain of the future, unsure of the next paycheck, and unstable, then we will truly see the worth, the purpose, and the soul of service. What can we do? What can we do when we witness a corrupted system work its corrupted ways to pit a child against success in their own future? What can we do when we hear of struggles that we cannot begin to fathom or understand? What can we do when we hear of someone slighted in sexual, physical, mental, and emotional ways? What can we do in the face of injustice, inequity, and sheer privilege? When I asked these questions in the past, my first instinct was to shrug my shoulders, sigh in overwhelmed resignation, and then close my eyes (I’m sorry to admit).

But now, that’s not an option, and I am so damn grateful for that. What can we do? Get started; start to pay attention even if it is just to see something tragic that you cannot change. Sit to listen, even when it challenges the privilege that you’ve grown up enjoying. Pay attention to the stories, listen to the voices that are whispering for help instead of screaming and determine what type of help is truly needed. Let yourself look outside of the world that you have built for yourself and the future that you have already crafted in your head. Be willing enough to hear the stories of someone that makes you uncomfortable, someone who challenges your beliefs, someone who shows you that there are so many things that you don’t understand. Don’t be afraid to be proven ignorant, fearful, and entitled. We all are at some point. The difference between those who choose to serve and those who remain sheltered is the willingness to be humbled in the face of adversity, to be found ignorant, wanting, and uncertain. When we reach that point, we know that we are exactly where we should be.
Anyway, this Peace Corps life is wonderful and daunting in the same breath, a blessing and a blight, a great awakening and the ultimate condemnation. It is to really see the gap, the things that we as Americans close our eyes to because, who really has time to care about those outside of what they know…and who actually knows that Guyana even exists? But it doesn’t take moving to another country to begin to combat the selfishness or should I say the ignorance that we often are inclined towards. There is diversity in the US, in your state, in your neighborhood, in your home even. No two people are exactly the same. Begin the journey, my friend. Just start.

The end. Here’s some pictures: =]

Sleeping arrangements for Moruca Mini-Camp G.L.O.W.

Being sworn-in with the G.L.O.W. song

Free-time = football, swimming, and slip and slides.

Sessions during camp.

Moruca Mini-camp G.L.O.W. girls

Christmas church service with the William’s kids (aka my family away from family). 

Old Years Company. =]] 
My Auntie Norma (the woman that I live with) and I dancing on Old Years Night. An avid dancer, proper English woman, and incredibly entertaining woman. 

Making Coffee with the girls (we spent all day picking and pulping a GIANT tub of it).

Old Years Night (New Years Eve) was spent with this motley gang.
Visiting with two other Peace Corps Volunteers, Catherine & Robin, in their small Amerindian community.

Monday, July 18, 2016


When you are thrown from one culture into another, you are offered these incredibly unique scenarios. You have your American upbringing, wherever and whatever that may be, in one hand and are being handed an image of an entirely different Guyanese upbringing in the other. I think, for me, I am capable of compartmentalizing well. So I put my American upbringing behind my back as this Guyanese outlook was falling into my hand. I pretended like my American life never existed as living in a village of about 360 Indigenous people, regularly seeing monkeys/macaws/parrots/baboons, watching grannies canoe boats to their farms or walk with straw baskets on their backs, witnessing small children run across the white sand playing sports with whatever materials they can find, listening to the incessant pounding of rain on my zinc roof, and gaffing with people using terms like, “me nah no” or “how much years yo de?” and hearing names like, “Mnemosyne” and “Kamuwell” became my new normal. I pretended like bucket showers with cold water and walking down to the landing to buy my vegetables from the greens boat was just everyday life; I let it all be a part of this adventure that I was on and as a result I didn’t have to compare my life back home to where I was. But recently, the realization has been sinking in, I live here. This is my home and I am not only on an adventure, but I am here for a job, for a deeper purpose, for the hearts that I would encounter. But with this realization of my new home, the hand holding my American life has come from behind my back and is now idling up to this other hand that has quickly been holding more and more of the Guyanese traditions, (it only took 5 months of actually living here). The labor intensive process of making cassava bread and roti, farming all fruits/vegetables, washing laundry by hand, and making brooms from old palm trees. Here I see, the, well, the ways in which I have been blessed and handicapped to grow up in a developed country. We all knew this post was coming eventually hahaha, well here it is.
I think the real motive in writing this post was not to make others feel the guilt that goes hand-in-hand with service in a developing country or even to express a guilt that I was feeling serving here; it wasn’t to drive people to go donate all their money, sell their possessions, or feel laden with guilt for buying an extra latte in the week; it wasn’t so that people would think, “wow, what an experience SHE’S having” either. My motive in writing this was…well…gratitude. People here have so many things to be grateful for: amazing communities of family-based villages, generosity of the land and the people, a slower pace to appreciate the small details in life, gorgeous rain forest scenes every day, and a more environmental/economically sound way of living off of the land. They have these things in the midst of their struggles of lack of resources, inconsistent project plans, and limited opportunities towards diverse career paths; in the States the gratitude and struggle is no different, but it becomes so convoluted in the noise of wealth and the “American dream”. We have things we ought to be grateful for oozing out of our ears, and so often we let those things become our expectation, our demand even.
Let me say something cheesy for a Peace Corps Volunteer’s blog: there will ALWAYS be a reason to be grateful. If you woke up breathing today you have something to be grateful for and that’s anywhere you live. Gratitude, true gratitude, doesn’t take the form of superiority or pity. It doesn’t have to be contingent on other’s living conditions or life trajectory’s. Gratitude is a choice that when truly experienced fills a void, an emptiness, leaving no more room to complain; it is this response, this demeanor towards the things and the people and the purpose and the hope that we have in life. It’s a response that allows us to appreciate life instead of anticipate or expect things in life; it is a response that allows us to feel touched, instead of entitled, to be present instead of searching, and to become encouraged instead of drained.
Gratitude can be found in the details that you may have never seen before in your daily life. Like your refrigerator, or all-day electricity, or warm showers, or running water, or a fully-resourced health facility or school. There will always be a reason to be grateful; we have the option to choose just how hard we are willing to seek it out. And I’m not talking about the “sweeping the issues under the rug” kind of gratitude. I am talking about the heartfelt, hope-inducing, inspirational form of gratitude that allows us to have resilience in the face of our struggles.
For me, as the adventure of living in this beautiful, slower-paced life wears into the hard, tough, and sometimes frustrating work of living in a developing country that is the thing that hits home. As my hands, carrying these two cultures are measured side-by-side, these are the things that I see. And as I live here, I will be grateful for the world that I get to witness and I will be resilient in the face of the hurdles placed in front of me.


that American living in Guyana.

Dear Coffee Snobs, I Have Arrived

Today, I am chronicling the start of a process that I have only dreamed of in the past…harvesting my own coffee beans!

For those of you who know my level of coffee snobbery and addiction, you would understand the gravity of this proclamation! I stopped by my neighbor, Auntie Pearl's, house to ask if I could pick some coffee berries off of her tree that day and she decides to take me to her cousin’s house at the back end of the village so as to get MORE coffee berries. We get to the end and she points to the top of the tree showing the bright red and ripe berries on the branches and starts to ask for a ladder. But, this is my dream right folks, so I turned down the ladder and jumped into the tree. Now I’m pulling branches of ripe berries towards me and dropping them on the floor for the local kids (they follow me everywhere) to pick up and put in my bucket. With a full bucket of berries:

I walked back to my house and:

Sat underneath the raised foundation at my newly constructed work station of a board and an old glass bottle. 

At this point there were about 5 kids who showed up to see what I was doing and started to help. Sooner rather than later I was the manager of a child’s sweat shop … 

First we “panged” or pounded the berry, just enough to burst it open:

and then we pulled the cream colored slimy bean from inside:

and put it in a bucket full of water to soak. 

The kids had a full assembly line going and we finished in no time! Then the kids got bored and off they ran to play cricket or catch a monkey or something.  

Next, I soaked the beans until the slimy coating on the outside began to dissolve (about 3 days). Then I washed them out and put them in a pan to begin the most tedious, watching-paint-dry process of drying the beans. 

They have to be dried for about 2 weeks and cannot be rained on, which means when it starts to drizzle you are dashing out the door to bring in your beans (and washing if you can remember them/have enough hands for them, priorities people). As the beans dry there is a thin shell that cracks and this is where my child sweat shop managerial skills are impeccable. The kids magically reappeared of course and together we peeled the shell off of each and every single bean for hours. After that, there is a parchment that must be rubbed off or sifted off of the bean to result in the green, non-roasted product that you’ve seen in the real coffee snob’s coffeehouse as they prepare to roast the beans. 

I then walked with a container full of beans to a house across the village where we roasted the beans in a Cahari (type of pot) over an outdoor fire until they were browned aka roasted. 

We immediately pulled them off of the fire, sifted them one more time, and then we put them in a hand mill that was passed down through generations for over 200 years. 

I walked back across that village with a FINE smelling container of freshly ground/roasted beans with a smile and spring in my step, that truly marked an addict in anticipation of their next fix. =]. On my first morning enjoying the coffee, I used my travel French press to brew these celebrated Guyanese beans. 

Breakfast completely brought to you by the land of Waramuri.

I tell you I will never be the same and my snobbery will be 500% worse when I return to the states, of that I can guarantee. 

Voila, coffee made from start to finish!

Birthday, Take 24, Jungle Book Edition

My first birthday in Guyana. I didn't take too many pictures team, so sorry on that factoid, but the reasoning is because I had moved to my new community, Waramuri, 4 days prior to this celebration and truthfully, I felt a leetle awkward about taking any pictures. BUT I woke up and Auntie Norma (the 69-year-old, semi-British woman I live with) had made a big breakfast and coffee and we sat out on the porch to enjoy our coffee and took in the scenic jungle background with the sound of monkeys and macaws chattering about. 

WARNING: Pictures on my phone have very poor quality, but they get the job done and they look a bit like paintings, so it's super artsy. 

The neighbors at this point started up their generator and blasted Happy Birthday music for 20 minutes. And of course, “Go shawty, it’s your birthday” started playing and Auntie (69 remember) started danced to the whole song, dragging me in to dance as well. The neighbor kids made me the sweetest birthday card and we had a wonderful roast chicken lunch with some family members of Auntie Norma’s as well….and remember, I moved in 4 DAYS AGO, this community is positively wonderful.

That night, I hopped on a crowded bus to travel through the jungle to a town about 40 minutes away called Kumaka where a Pentecostal revival was going on. I got there and it was a huge field FILLED with Guyanese. They started to play worship music and all the youth went to the front to dance and celebrate. Just like that I was a part of a worship mosh pit of Guyanese jumping up and down in the middle of the jungle singing at the top of my lungs, steam rising from our heads, and sweat POURING. That went on for about an hour and then the pastor gave a talk and off we were. On the bus ride back, we were jostled every which way by the rough road through the jungle, but I couldn’t stop smiling as I thought, with sweat drying in my hair and my seat neighbor practically in my lap, “WHAT A BIRTHDAY!!” And just like that I turned 24 in Guyana, stay tuned for 25, I’m planning on hosting a jaguar-wrestling party. 

Site Pictures

This is the landing from the Moruca river into the mission. Across the river is all savannah and jungle, not another village to be seen.

More landing views from later down at the mission.

My calves will be legit after playing football in the sand for the next couple of years…hopefully. =]

This is the savannah view from the far side of the mission.

This is my Auntie Norma who I will be staying with in the village and her little niece Michelle. We took walks around the community after work and this was our little path across the village.

This is a group of the village kids including all my neighbor girls: Michella, Danielle, and Kavita on the left, Adena and Mary in front of me and Michelle, Eron, Lilliana, and Shakeel to the right. They are all adorable and frequently visit the house. We are at a bathing pool in the jungle that the community uses.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Just Words

Here I am back in Mainstay Village in Region 2 after an 11-day trip to meet my counterpart, Dr. Orin Lewis, whom I will be working alongside for the next 2 years. I also traveled to my new community, Waramuri in Region 1 to meet the rest of my colleagues, host family, and community members. After touching base with multiple other PCV’s one could say that the emotions raged for everyone just about as much as they did when that lovely stage of puberty graced our presence. It is interesting the wide range of emotions that we humans are capable of when thrown into an entirely new experience and surrounded by everything foreign. You grasp at anything that makes you feel comfortable and familiar; that feeling of being UNDERSTOOD becomes one of the most precious gifts that you could be given.
We all spent a week in our respective communities. Some of us were the only Americans in the area for hours, others were placed into the somewhat busy coastal regions. Some were placed in a house on a river without a canoe in complete isolation (one could say that they were up a creek without a paddle) and others closer to their neighbors than they care to experience (aka they could probably hear you fart…smh). I was among some of the more isolated volunteers in a village on the Moruca river. I did get to see a PCV from the year before me, Eneka, for about 30 minutes during a supply run for our health center at the district hospital. My heart nearly burst seeing another American and for someone who has taken pride in independence and a confidence in meeting people from different backgrounds (hello FreeZone!) that was a foreign feeling. I feel like it’s in those moments that you realize that you are never going to stop pushing against your comfort zone; it’s a continual choice that will consistently plunge you into the unknown, whether in the states or in a different continent.
As I walked around in the community, being watched and analyzed like a zoo animal, trying to get to know the traditionally shy and reserved Amerindian community, I felt the feeling of discouragement wash over me. Conversations were short and simple, people avoided eye-contact, relationships were proper and professional, and I, the eternal child, was melting away as it seemed. Of course this propelled me into the journaling and prayer (per usual), and as I prayed, this question slammed into me, “Am I just trying to make myself feel productive, useful, and liked or do I actually care about the people that I’m serving?” Service is a more complex thing than I had previously thought. It is tested in the face of challenge. Do you continue to serve the people around you, or do you retreat into your deservedly felt emotional distress? When in a position of service, do you choose to continually plead to God to open your eyes to see the needs of others or do you plead to God for him to open his eyes to see yours? I know that in this week I just wanted to feel seen in a community that only saw my skin color, my nationality, and the clothes that I wore; a community that only heard the oh so out of place American accent that I spoke in.
Whether you are choosing to love a difficult friend or family member, launching into a new stage of schooling/career/therapy, or trying to integrate into a new world, do not forget that you are already seen, loved, known, pursued, and desired. You have a God that is BIG and in control. You are held tighter and closer than you could ever know. This was the deeply needed message that I heard God whisper to me as I journaled and gave him that emotional distress. Not to say that I won’t feel those same feelings of failure, discouragement, and insecurity. This is simply to say that I will pray for remembrance of truths that have propelled me into service and that I will ask those who read this to partner with me in that, for their own lives and for mine.