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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Needs of a Community

           September 27th marks one year from the time I left my house in Cincinnati to leave for Paraguay. Seems sort of unreal that it was a year ago, but while the days at times can seem really slow the months seem to roll by faster than ever. While my Guarani isn’t quite as good as I would like it to be, it is a hell of a lot better than it was upon my arrival. Looking back to the build up to my departure I have to admit that I had very little idea of what to expect. Peace Corps is in 68 countries as of today all over the world. I personally know of people who are serving or have done service recently in Morocco, Peru, Madagascar, Namibia, Kyrgyzstan, Jamaica, Cameroon, and Guatemala. All of those countries are unique places that I could have been sent to if a few things turned out differently. The question I have been wondering of late is would my experience, if I had been placed somewhere else, be completely different? Instinct tells me that yeah it probably would be, but for more than just the differences in culture, language, and geography. Every Peace Corps post has its own unique identity that creates its own subculture within the context of the country ones serves. A commonly used phrase amongvolunteers from different places is whether your post is Peace Corps or Posh Corps. Many would likely consider Paraguay to be Posh Corps for a wide variety of reasons, but I think that is an unfair characterization that fails to account for different degrees of challenges I face here.
            Many people are aware of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basically there are 5 levels of growth that humans will go through depending on whether or not their needs are met. The basic needs are at the bottom of the pyramid known as the physiological needs and go up the pyramid to safety and security, love/belonging, esteem, and lastly self-actualization. I feel strongly that the service and different challenges of a Peace Corps volunteer in a given country are linked to that country’s needs level on the hierarchy. I won’t dive into too many details about the theory itself outside of my context, but if you would like more specifics I would encourage you to read more about it. Here is the Wikipedia link: Paraguay, and the work I have been involved with to this point, I believe, can be explained by examining the level on the needs scale for Paraguay in general.
Abraham Maslow
            The most basic level is known as the physiological needs. These are what Maslow considered as the essentials for human survival. For starters, Paraguay, while poor, isn’t anywhere near the poorest country where volunteers live and work. The average annual income in 2009 was roughly $4,100 a year per capita (, which might not seem like a lot, but considering I make about that same amount per year and have not once felt I was in a dire financial situation says something about how cheap it can be to live here. Granted I am not supporting a family, and my income doesn’t change if my harvest is poor, but still if you look at the incomes per capita of the poorest nations on earth Paraguay is way further ahead than many other places that are in the developing world. One noticeable indicator is that Paraguay remarkably has potable water throughout the country. It amazes me that I have been able to drink water out of a well without a major bout of sickness. Many volunteers catch giardia, a nasty disease that affects your stomach and digestive system as a result of drinking poor quality water, but it is treatable, if you know you have it, within a reasonable amount of time. Agriculture is the backbone of the economy, and most people know how to produce food, so affordable food is not out of reach. The Itapúa dam is one of the largest in the world and provides electricity through out the country. 15 years ago there were many communities that didn’t have electricity, but now as a result of massive infrastructure development, especially in the most inaccessible rural areas, most communities have electricity for at least part of the day. People again for the most part, have good shelter that is rarely damaged by natural disasters, access to clothing. Paraguay’s population has doubled since the early 1980s, which shows that families are better able to provide the basic needs for their children allowing for a 1.24% growth rate. Not out of control fast, but fast enough to demonstrate that the country can support a growing population. In terms of basic needs, the majority of Paraguayans have them met unlike many countries in other parts of the world.
            The second level on the hierarchy is safety needs. That includes the lack of “physical safety” as a result of “war, natural disaster, or in cases of family violence, child abuse, ect. –people experience post-traumatic stress disorder” (  While there are incidents of crime, for the most part Paraguay is a safe country with the largest cause of death among young people being motor vehicle accidents. It is not a major epidemic like HIV/Aids, or a war related to ethnic conflict or regional struggles related to natural resources to name a few examples. Paraguay has fought major wars against its neighbors, but the most recent was in the late 1930’s against Bolivia over the sparsely populated area known as the Chaco, where large oil deposits were believed to exist. As it turned out those deposits don’t exist, and as a result Paraguay has not fought a war since. I cannot claim to know much about family violence or child abuse other than there is some human trafficking that takes place is an area of concern in some regions. There also are incidents of crime, but mainly minor offences like burglary and petty theft that primarily take place in the most populated areas of the country. Additionally, one could argue that the spike in crime in those urban areas is more a consequence of development rather than a result of internal conflict or political strife. Other than people drinking too much from time to time, and the high incidents of motor vehicle accidents Paraguay is a much safer country than many others where Peace Corps has a presence.
            The next level is love and belonging. My personal interpretation of all these levels is mainly based on my experience in Paraguay; as a result my statements are generalizations rather than in-depth analysis of a larger sample of people and communities throughout the country. I have marveled at the sense of community that exists within the country. Families generally stay together in the same towns they grew up in with many generations living close to each other. People within these communities are very respectful of the people around them, and to me it seems that there is a general recognition among the Paraguayans close to where I live that they want to provide a better life to their children then their parents were able to provide to them. I have been to many community events that take place at the school including: parent’s commission meetings, festivals, and fundraisers. At times it can seem like nobody cares about what happens to the community, but I chalk that up more to the lack of knowledge of how to work in groups and the dictatorship that lasted for over 30 years. Families here are big, they help each other out the best they can, which at times can seem like not at all but that is more a result of their own capabilities to support people rather than their desire not to in my opinion. An example of this in my time here was when I saw a little girl of around 7 break her arm while playing a game. This took place in a poorer area of the country where people don’t have a lot of expendable income for things like expensive medial treatment. Some man, who may or may not have been a member of the family, paid 100,000 Gs. ($23.00) to have someone take that child to the closest health center to get fixed up. The sense of community and banding together is something that at times seems lost to me when I am back home and families are less likely to live together, or even in the same part of the country once you reach a certain age. You could argue that alcoholism is a problem in some areas, that divorce as a result of infidelity is higher now than ever, and more children are born out of wedlock than in previous generations, but I would argue that those incidences are more a result of easier access to information, a much higher population, and infrastructure that has made the country smaller and given people more ability to leave a bad situation. The love and belonging section of the pyramid is very difficult to explain, and obviously varies from person to person. I will say that people around me tend to get married have children and stick together more than in America causing me to argue that the needs at this level are more or less met.
            The areas where Paraguay seems to struggle are more on the higher end of the pyramid than the lower levels. The esteem and self-actualization levels are the ones where I feel my work is striving towards. People need to have self-esteem and self-respect in order to accomplish things that would seem inconceivable at lower levels of the needs pyramid. I cannot count the number of times where something as simple as asking someone for something basic like to borrow a pan to make pizza or to ask a teacher for help is met with I have verguenza (shame). Sure people are confident around their immediate families, but thrown outside of those comfort zones where you have to ask someone for something is met with great resistance. I personally have struggled with that at certain times of my life, so it only natural that it is a common challenge for all types of people in all types of places. Some examples in my time here are mostly associated with working in the youth group. The kids are sometimes, so passive that it makes me want to scream. Even the simplest tasks can sometimes not happen at all because of their hesitancies. A classic case is answering the phone. A lot of people, but particularly kids will not answer the phone when you call them. A big reason is they often don’t have saldo (payment or minutes) on their phone, but a lot if it has to do with not wanting to talk or provide a definitive answer. As a result, I get more and better responses to my questions from text messages rather than a regular phone conversation.  Another example is asking someone’s opinion about something. When I have been doing things with the youth group, which by the way would be impossible to form without meeting the most basic levels on the needs pyramid, with Mike and now Robert I have noticed whenever a question is asked to an individual in the group the response is immediately “no se” (I don’t know). The best way to get answers is to ask a small series of follow up questions that would potentially provide an idea to give them time to think. Often that yields the desired result. It is extremely difficult to get the kids to take their own initiative in doing things. However, it does happen, but takes a lot of building up confidence and congratulating the most minor of accomplishments.
            The whole idea of graduating high school is something that has only within the last few decades been expected and even today isn’t quite at that desired level. Going to a university wasn’t even an option until recently, not because people didn’t want to go, but more because there weren’t that many especially in areas outside the cities. What that all means is the step towards self-actualization where a person can reach their full potential is still extremely limited here. While being able to leave the home town and go study somewhere is more common now than ever, people still need to help support their families whether that be working in the fields, or getting a job in the area of any kind. It is still difficult for a family to send their child to a 6-year university program because of the cost and the time that takes them away from home. In the more rural areas the argument is the same, but at a more basic level of the family not being able to even have their kids graduate high school because of how much work it takes to be able to support a family. As a result many, bright, and intelligent people don’t have the access to meet their potential. Whether you classify that as not being able to complete a certain level of education, or the general lack of opportunity one has to experience things outside their immediate surroundings both inhibit people from accomplishing a certain level of self-esteem and reaching the level of self-actualization.
            At this point I have rambled for a good 3 pages, so I am sure you are probably asking yourself what is the point in me telling you all this? My point is that the work I do isn’t trying to fulfill a basic need like water, food, simple sanitation, a better sense of security, or relationship counseling for people to find love. My job, at least what it feels like to me, is to expose whatever I can to as many people as I can to get them to attain the needs of self-esteem and self-actualization. Doing a massive tree planting project to provide shade and make certain areas look nicer is not a priority for someone who is dependant on wood to survive. Yes Paraguay is the number one consumer of wood for personal use, and large amounts of forest have been cut down to sell timber and to make charcoal. However, there are interest groups that are trying to replant trees, and many people recognize that planting trees is an essential part of protecting their livelihood in the future. People can do that for reasons that aren’t purely out of necessity, and proof of that is in the number of tree nurseries that has sprung up as a result of people’s recognition of the importance of trees. A similar argument can be made about trash management. People burn their trash because there are no dumps or waste management services in the rural country side. Yes there are better ways to dispose of garbage other than burning them, but I ask if you had a ton of garbage piled up in the back of your house next to your fields with kids running around and no way to get rid of it that is quick or safe for the environment wouldn´t probably burn your trash too? The whole point of the garbage project we did with the kids was to provide the community with trash cans so a better option exists to get rid of ones trash. If there is a trash can that means you don’t have to throw it on the ground. People need that convenience otherwise what else are they suppose to do? You can’t find me a kid here that doesn’t realize that throwing your trash on the ground isn’t good, but if he doesn’t have access to a municipal waste management service that will pick up your garbage and take it far away how is he suppose to know what to do?
            The challenge I have faced in my time here has focused on getting people to realize that they have the potential to do great things that can increase their standard of living and gain a better sense of their capabilities. If a farmer is constantly planting the same things in his field year in and year out, the soil is going to deteriorate. That is going to decrease his income and place his needs at a lower level on the pyramid. On the other hand, if he uses a small portion of his income to invest in green manures that he can plant to improve the soli quality and therefore his yields, he will be in a better position to focus his time on other things like personal hobbies that can lead to the acquirement of more skills or better yet allow his children to gain an education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Different people will have a strong desire to do different things based on where they lie on the hierarchy. Convincing people that changing or investing in one aspect of their lives can change things forever is the hardest thing I have ever done. After all I am a 24-year-old American who has never farmed, never planted trees, never taught in a school, and never had to provide for my own family. Who am I to say that I know what is best? Hell I can barely speak the languages well enough to express those ideas! It is easy to look at those barriers and give up. I could spend my time doing nothing but sit in my house and read books, but I strongly feel, and that is not to say my opinion won’t change a year from now, that getting that one person, family, group, community ect. to try out one thing that brought you to this place at this time makes the Peace Corps service worthwhile regardless of where you are, what your project is, or what level that country may be on the hierarchy of needs. I guess what I am getting at is that every individual who joins the Peace Corps will have their own unique experience despite many perceived similarities between your service and someone close to you. I cannot claim I know what is going on in Thailand, Mongolia, Uganda, or Panama for the volunteers there. I wouldn’t even venture a guess, but what I will say is that individual’s classification of how easy a country is to live in is based off of what I see as the level that individual is surrounded by on the hierarchy. That doesn’t make ones individual service harder or easier than someone else’s. If your challenges were associated with your community not having access to water, there was a breach in safety, people wouldn’t work with you because of a lack of human companionship, they had too much personal loathing to think outside the box, or if they were unable to realize their own potential are all challenges that cause different degrees of frustration. Certain people handle those difficulties in different ways; all I know is that my struggles in Paraguay don’t put me in the same category as a volunteer anywhere else in the world. They put me in a certain position that has led me to this point, and ushered me into the work I have done and will be doing.

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