About this time two years ago, I (yes, I, faithful readers) was scouring the interwebs for blogs from current volunteers about what it was like living in Peru, living in rural areas, and what volunteers DID. In the process, I remember stumbling over one blog that gave me a little fright. It was a WATSAN volunteer’s blog, and he wrote about doing survey work to improve a waterlines (or something along the theme) in the community. Survey work? Sounds like engineering! Fuck. I look on the dude’s profile, and he’s a Master’s International Student in Engineering and has a giant beard. I qualified for WATSAN with skills as a carpenter in a college theatre and mediocre Spanish grades. I am neither an engineer nor a facial hair grower. How am I going to survive in Peru (a fear reverberated by most other volunteers, especially sans beard)?
(First off) Well, two years later I gotta say – it didn’t matter that I wasn’t an engineer. My job (and most Peace Corps jobs) didn’t require being engineer but rather just being a leader. Being a leader in the community and knowing how to talk to people. So when I didn’t know something and I hit a wall. I did have some good resources.
I’ll let you in on a little hint: your best resource is….
That engineering student
The volunteer with an MPH
The volunteer who worked in construction for six years before becoming a volunteer
The volunteer who has been in Peru a year
The volunteer who lived 30 minutes away and worked with kids
The volunteers who stuck around longer than they were supposed to
They were all here to help out one another. The thing is, no matter how many training modules you go through – pre-service training, early in-service training (month 4), project design/management (month 5/6), in-service training (month 9) – it’s never enough. It never really applies to your setting, especially considering all the variables involved about working in community based development (which is what all volunteers do, regardless of program). And while our tech trainers are great, they come from different backgrounds that might not apply in some cases. Our APCDs are always open to help us, but they’re in Lima and can only offer limited advice. Sure, there’s resources on the interwebs (look at the bottom of the post for some of the WATSAN stuff) but PDFs only go so far.
In fact, I usually call volunteers for info before I go to the ‘experts’. Need construction advice – give Jason or Matebro a call. Hand washing charla –Frieda, Melissa. Trash management question – Kate, Patrick, Will, Naomi. Water treatment – Beto or Jess. Why? They’ve done it before. They’ve had success and failures and will let you in on both. While they might have gotten their information from a PDF they found on an NGO’s site, that document probably didn’t talk about what to do when the kids weren’t understanding germ theory or what kind of questions come up or whether the learning activity even worked (information sharing in development is a whole other topic, by the way).
Practice leads to learning, and sharing learning leads to more learning. And if that’s the case, sometimes the best way to learn is to take a trip to a volunteer’s site. I read a lot about dry bathrooms, but the trip up the mountains to see another volunteer’s bathrooms in action really made things a lot clearer.
Even just traveling and seeing another volunteer in site is redeeming. We can take advantage of tech-exchange, where you and a community partner can travel near or far to visit another volunteer and gets some hands on-practice and experience to take back with you. Peace Corps/Peru even helps pay part of the trip as necessary. I recently had a volunteer and a group of women from her site travel to my site to teach my health post about cocinas mejoradas (improved cooking stoves) which resulted in a presentation and a demonstration building 2 cocinas. My health post and community partners learned a lot, and the visitors got to see another community (volunteers travel 10x more than the Peruvians they work with), meet new people, etc.
(Side note: Got the in-sight blues? Instead of escaping to the capital city, consider a trip to visit another volunteer. Even if the other volunteer is not really up to anything that day, getting to walk around with the vol in their own environment, getting to know their host family who probably would LOVE to have you over for lunch, often works wonders on the moral. I am continually inspired by other volunteers when I see them in site, see how the community reacts to them and getting to see some of the fruits of their labor. Esto me pone y me da ganas trabajo)
Feeling unprepared? Well, you are. And so is everyone else sharing the same plane as you. Accept that you’re unprepared, but accept the need that you won’t know everything and that’s it’s okay to profess that as long as you’re willing to learn. Peace Corps is often criticized for exact that – sending unqualified people to do work that requires highly specialized skills. But really, there’s only so much you can learn in the comfortable environment of a classroom and reading case studies without actually being in the field. And to add to that, most of our work does not require an engineering degree. We need communicators – part salesman and part rabble-rouser and people who are comfortable teaching (and learning). We need thinkers who can work with local community partners to identify needs and find solutions for ‘em.
You won’t need to design bathrooms (there’s already manuals for that) nor lay down water pipes (there’s Peruvian engineers, too) but you need to be a leader and willing to learn.
Can you do that? Then you’re good.
Appendix: Here’s a good base of WATSAN related websites/knowledge bases taken straight from my Google Chrome bookmarks if you want to get a bit of a glimpse: