At the suggestion of my site mate Kristin, I recently started reading a book entitled Living Poor A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen. I had no idea who Moritz Thomsen was until I managed to get a copy of his book at the Peace Corps Technical library in Asuncion when I was there last week. I’ll be sure to get into the book in detail a bit later, but I wanted to start off by saying that this book is unquestionably the most accurate account of a Peace Corps Volunteers experience that I have come across to date. If you had to classify the book I would say that it is sort of a biographical account of this man’s experience as an Agriculture Extension Volunteer in the small costal community of Río Verde Ecuador from 1965-69. Moritz Thomsen was a 48-year-old, single, farmer from California who one day decided to join the Peace Corps. Admittedly, there are many differences given the 45 year time period since the start of his service and mine, including the training, way more intense back then, how one finds a site, they basically were given a region and told to go find work on their own, and the ability to communicate. For some those might seem as though the experiences in no way could find commonality with all the 21st century technology that the average volunteer now has access too, but what makes this book remarkable is how despite the different country, language, climate, resource availability, and time period his interactions with people and the struggles he faced when trying to live in his community have uncanny parallels with my own situation.
Peace Corps Volunteers, in most situations not all, today have significantly more assets at their disposal than the volunteers that came before, but if you put aside all the bells and whistles of the current times and boil the job down to its most fundamental levels one finds that the people to people interactions are still the foundation of any successful service. The support of a community and the need to depend on the people around you transcends when you served or where you served. I think that all volunteers struggle to enact real mentality changes and living practices regardless of ones contact to the outside world. This is not because the areas where many of us live are in community’s that have not changed drastically for long periods of time. The habits, customs, economic climate evolve over time, but extraordinarily slowly. Getting people to change those habits or try something new is something that will always be taken with a grain of salt by the people within because the whether you are a first time volunteer in your site or a 5th you are still a foreigner that has never lived in that community or in most cases that country. How am I suppose to know what’s best? I realize that comes of sort of cynical, but those are the fundamental challenges that I struggle with on a day-to-day basis. Each culture and community has his or her own identities within the context of the society at large. Juan E. O’Leary is just one example of a small community like Río Verde. Granted the level of poverty is drastically different, but the engrained ideals and internal struggles are astonishingly similar.
There is a particular scene in Living Poor that has stood out to me recently given my current work in the school garden. Basically, Thomsen wants to plant gardens in people’s individual houses so they diversify their diet and get essential nutrients that their daily meals lack. The people of Río Verde subsist, when they are unable to get anything from the sea, on plantains, yucca, rice, beans, or potatoes. Not a lot of nutrients in those foods. Thomsen decides to plant a garden in his house, in the dry season, to demonstrate how easy it is to do. He gets into trouble because he runs out of water in his rain barrel and is forced to purchase water that is brought from another place. He rations his water and is able to get the garden going successfully, but despite all that he is still stuck in getting people to follow his example. Thomsen writes, “to my disappointment there was no rush to plant a garden after mine turned out so beautiful. The sad fact is that hardly anyone liked radishes, chard, or squash.” He goes on to describe a particular garden that he helped start with a school out in the jungle:
"The problem was that most of the vegetables were strange to people. The radishes were like tennis balls…The eggplants were enormous, but no one knew what they were for…The summer squash, too, had reached its peak a month before and was now quite inedible. The string beans were dead and drying on the vines. I argued with Oswaldo [a school teacher] for five minutes about the necessity of harvesting the beans when they were young and tender, but when he realized that the whole bean was suppose to be eaten he simply refused to listen to me. ‘This is a civilized country,’ he told me ‘Here we only eat the good part, the heart of the fruit’”
After I read those passages I could help but reflect on my gardening situation. While the idea of starting a garden is far less crazy here than it was in 1960s costal Ecuador, I frequently run into the same problems with when to plant my own garden. I tried to plant a garden during the summer. I was told it wouldn’t work not only by Paraguayans, but also by Peace Corps, but I didn’t care, I just wanted something to do so I could show the people around me that I wasn’t totally useless. Needless to say, the garden was an utter failure. The few things that came up died because of the heat, and no amount of water could fix that. It was a classic example of how I thought something could be done easily, but proved to be much more difficult than I expected. For Thomsen, he tried to start gardening projects shortly after the success of his garden with people in the community, but like the scorching summer sun here, the rainy season in Ecuador washed all the gardens away. People told him this would likely happen, but he didn’t believe that it couldn’t be done because of a bit of rain.
I also find the struggles he experienced with getting people to try new foods extremely challenging as well. Here in Paraguay, like in Ecuador, yucca, or mandioca as it is known here, is a principal foodstuff that is served with every meal. Rice, beans, corn meal based foods, and in recent decades pasta are also staples. It is very rare to eat something that is immediately recognizable as a vegetable. In all the soups, pastas, and rice dishes the vegetables are cut up so finely that you need a microscope to find them. They are also not used in abundance, 1 tomato, 1 pepper, half an onion, 1 carrot are the norms if people have them at all. There are salads, principally made out of cabbage, but they often add copious amounts of mayonnaise that greatly diminishes the nutritional value. Eating an uncooked carrot is unheard of; making a salad like we would eat in America is crazy. I know kids hate their vegetables no matter where someone is from, but here the same seems to go for everybody. People know it is important to use vegetables, but cannot seem to implement them in new ways.
This past weeks gardening activity I did at the school was a prime example of what Thomsen talked about. I was able to get a series of vegetable seeds about a month ago from a national newspaper called ABC Color. They give packets of 10 types of vegetable seeds to schools that write a solicitation letter. Most of the seeds are things that are commonly grown or eaten, like carrots, tomatoes, and onions, but there are a few like radishes, broccoli, and cauliflower that people simply don’t know anything about. On Friday, I spent some time with both the 5th and 6th grades going over what broccoli and cauliflower are and they ways we can eat them. Nobody, including the teachers had any idea how to eat in or foods you can use them in. The funny part is that the parent’s commission planted every single vegetable seed they were familiar with, with the exception of a few I asked them to save, and left the broccoli and cauliflower seeds alone to have me plant. I can only imagine what we are going to do when they actually come up, but something tells me that they won’t be the most popular vegetable grown in the garden.
My experience with the garden is just one of the analogous parallels that I have found within Thomsen’s book and my own experience. Another one that struck me recently is related to physical health and diet. Modern medicine has grown leaps and bounds since Thomsen lived his experience. In O’Leary there are multiple pharmacies with easy access to whatever medicine one needs. We are not limited by location, nor are we extremely isolated like some of my other volunteer friends are in their sites. With that being said, I still marvel at people’s general well being. Ever since motorcycles became affordable and abundant the obesity rate in Paraguay has grown exponentially. People are eating the same foods in the same proportions, but are no longer forced to walk to work, the store, or wherever. You can just hop on the moto and go. While this is great in terms of the flow of business and general economic growth it has profound impacts on individuals health.
Thomsen tells the story of a young baby girl who is the daughter of one of his closest friends. She is constantly sick, and is severely malnourished. He is constantly harping on the importance of improving her diet so she can get the nutrients she needs to be healthy. Specifically, if the family made and fed her orange juice, she would be able to maintain a steady degree of health. The famil,y instead of listening to Thomsen’s suggestions, would feed her natural herbs when she fell ill rather than treating the blatant malnutrition problem preventatively. I have run across this same problem with my contact and friend Julio, who I lived with my first 4 months here.
Julio is overweight. He knows it, I know it, and his wife and kids know it. Therefore it is no surprise that he has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart problems. During the first month I was in O’Leary I went on a trip to Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s second largest city, to visit the regional hospital for government employees. After taking a cat scan the cardiologist told Julio that he needed to lose weight immediately to lower his cholesterol. He immediately started to walk around the house at night for about a half an hour, a task that left him very winded and exhausted by the end. I continued to live with him in the months after he went to the doctor, and would occasionally comment on his diet as a contributor to his health. I would suggest cutting back on the oil in the cooking, stop drinking soda at meals, and limit your portions. The response back was normally a blank stare. I did notice that he was loosing some weight, but I couldn’t tell if it was a result of him working construction jobs for a month in Cuidad del Este, or if it was because of a new diet and workout regiment. I wanted to believe the later, but I knew it was the former.
Once school started he went back to the way he was before. Despite the fact that the school is a 2 km walk that can be done in 20 minutes he was still always on his motorcycle. I noticed no real changes in diet, and sure enough he got really sick recently prompting the doctor to prescribe more medication with a reemphasis on diet and exercise. If he made some simple changes in how he lived like walking to school, or being more conscience about his diet, he could probably resolve the majority of his health problems. This realization could be said about almost anyone anywhere in the world that struggles with obesity. However, the difference here is that, unlike in America, ones options are limited by the resources available. People are not accustomed to diet and exercise regiments seen in America. Going for a jog is weird, eating a salad with just vegetables is crazy, and walking to work when you can hop on a moto is insane. These are just some of the societal differences I’ve noticed. Obviously malnutrition vs. obesity is quite different and is a product of the times, but the individual’s responses are similar. Long-term consequences are rarely visualized and the way people seem to look at their problems is almost exclusive viewed in the present. I hope Julio realizes that, but it is also a learning process for me. I guess it is just tough seeing a friend go through all that when the situation is very preventable.
Needless to say reading Living Poor has had an indelible influence on how I think about my challenges of late. I just cannot seem to get over how much of what he wrote is somehow reflected in my own writings and experiences. It has really made me think about the work I am doing and the people I am doing it with. I’ll be sure to write a bit more about my recent work in the next update, but until then I encourage anyone who wants to read a great book that tells it like it is to pick up a copy of Living Poor A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen.