Monday, November 26, 2007

The last few weeks have been full of meetings like usual, but this time, they have centered around one area of work. USAID in January is starting a project in Caluco to protect the natural springs, as it is rare that an area has so many and are still fairly clean, relative to the rest of the water in the country. National statistics maintain that nearly all of the water, including rain, is polluted. The main river that runs through the capital of San Salvador, is said to be the 2nd or 3rd most polluted river in the world (via my Spanish teacher). And garbage remains one of the country´s biggest problems, as this country is over populated and the people have not yet learned how to dispose of waste and the importance to the environment, and thus, their own well-being. Ultimately, it is a matter of education and obtaining money to train people and build the infrastructure. Many Peace Corps volunteers are involved in garbage disposal projects and training.

Back to the USAID project, Caluco has many beautiful views, surviving rare animals, and indigenous plants, including two nationally protected green areas, not to mention the advantage of many rivers and springs. This means that it is a great site for eco-tourism, and it is very close to cities and the main highway, and close to other famous tourist attractions. By promoting eco-tourism, the environment of Caluco can be protected, agriculturalists can learn about sustainable and more productive methods, and incomes and business can expand, bettering the lives here overall. And also bring some life and activities to the town! With this project, we have the opportunity to work with some great professionals that are enthusiastic about what Caluco has to offer. So to manage this, we have started a new tourism committee composed of community members to promote and manage the events, so that when the project ends, we have a strong, local infrastructure in place to manage the future projects. We had our first meeting last week, and it was quite successful. Although Caluco is beautiful, its best asset is its people. Although we are small, the committee members are motivated and professional, and great visionaries. It has been a pleasure working with them. As for my part, I have basically been getting people together and organizing the meetings. Since everyone on the committee is volunteering and have other jobs, I am able to help out doing the logistical and communication stuff, along with finding other resources to help us in our endeavors.

I also recently have been fortunate to get to know the NGO ADHU (Asociation for Human Development) better. They are the NGO that donated the pigs and chickens. For the next year, they are wanting to do more with the youth population here. In general, there is not much for kids to do, which makes a higher risk of delinquency, probably El Salvador´s biggest problem nationwide. I plan to collaborate more with them, so this means more meetings and planning! But considering this is the end of the year (what, almost December???), the budgets are also at the end and funding comes in January. Also, all the schools are on vacation, and soon others will be too. Christmas and New Year´s are MAJOR events here. I am excited to experience them! Anyhow, November and December are months to finish up and plan for the next year.

I am feeling very positive about the work that is developing here. Of course, there has always been tons of things to do, and that has been the struggle- where are the best areas to invest your time when there are so many needs, and also, with who do you invest your time-who is really interested and motivated?-and finding the resources (human and otherwise) to make it feasible. I feel like I have begun to be able to focus on a few areas that have great possibilities and people who are truly willing to do their part and enthusiastic. It is an interesting time, and I am looking forward to getting started!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Development in Caluco

The last few weeks I have been spending my time in meetings, meetings, and more meetings. However, I am finding that for this site, this is part of the development process here. Because of the extreme poverty of this municipality, many NGOs and GOs are here, initiating projects, following up on past projects, and many things are in the works that I had no idea existed here. Lately I have been going to the meetings by the NGO called ADEL that gives money to micro-businesses, with a focus on women´s groups. And because this municipality is forming a women´s association with the hopes of income generation projects (funded by yet a different NGO), ADEL wishes to include Caluco in it´s activities. This means that all the women´s groups in our department are organizing and sharing information on where the markets and fairs are to sell their products and who is selling what. Eventually they hope to create some tourist route that will focus on visits to all the artisan groups in the area. As Caluco has yet to begin to think about some income generation projects for the women´s association, this will most likely happen far in the future.

But, because other projects are going, like the previously mentioned (by yet 2 other NGOs) project with pigs and chickens, the prospects for income generation here are still very good. The canton that started this pig-chicken project last spring has been having problems selling their products, and ADEL has suggested that some of these women with eggs and meat to sell start attending these meetings with me and going to the markets. I hope there is interest here. However, I am finding that as micro-enterprises, for helping women especially, is somewhat glamorized and misconstrued. While they do have the potential to alleviate poverty, at least in the context of this area, and El Salvador, the women´s groups that are having the most success are from women who already have disposable funds, and really aren´t the poorest of the poor. This is likely because these are the women who have time to invest in a big project, have the education to think of a business, and the luxury of making a time (and therefore monetary) investment in something that is slightly precarious and often takes a lot of time to see a payment or results.Furthermore, these women often live in bigger cities with more access to places to sell, whereas the poorest women live in rural areas with unreliable and less money available to spend on transportation. So in the context of Caluco, starting up a women´s micro-business includes many challenges that are often invisible in the big picture of income generation and context matters!

Also, I was able to witness two events that were really exciting personally, since they related to what I focused my studies on in school. The first was a pay day of direct cash payments that happens on one day every two months. People from all over the municipality come to town to receive about 20-40 dollars in cash. Women are the primary recipients, as research and experience has shown they show more responsibilty with the investment of the money. Families that are eligible are based on poverty of course, but mostly on whether the woman is pregnant, how many children under a certain age are in her care. Then, if the children complete the required number of days in school and the required number of medical check-ups over the span of 2 months, they will receive their cash payment. This is a fairly contested method of aid, even by people who live here, and there is really no mechanism to determine ultimately how the money is spent. But the hope is that cash will give them the flexibility to buy those things that aren´t donated or easily accessible, like shoes for kids, medicine, or other supplies.

The other event I got to see was the payment of a food-for-work program. In the 2001 earthquake that devastated El Salvador, a crucial bridge from a canton was destroyed, which made crossing the river very dangerous or impossible in the rainy season. This bridge was recently completed, and the people who worked on the bridge received their salary in the form of food, which was donated by the UN´s World Food Program, through El Salvador´s government agency, the Secretary of Families. This method of development also has it´s pros and cons, but today seeing people recieve huge bags of beans, rice, and oil was truly a magnificent sight.

And each day I learn more about the complexity that is Caluco, but through the tragic stories and frustration with the broken system and extreme poverty, situations like these continue to provide hope for a better future and show that little successes, even with setbacks, are part of the development process.

Monday, October 8, 2007

El Campo

The last couple of weeks here in Caluco I have had the pleasure of going out to the "campo," or the countryside, just about everyday. Since the majority of the people here in Caluco live in the rural region, I have wanted to go out and visit them, since it is very hard to get to know them since I live in the pueblo. Also, for my own selfish reasons I have been going out to these areas, partly because I just love the rural towns of Caluco. It is cooler, full of beautiful tropical trees and flowers, and the learning about how people make their living is very interesting. Most of the people work in agriculture, whether it is just for their own substinance or they sell their crops as well. Here in Caluco, the crops are not that much different from the rest of the country, although there are some variations. The majority of people harvest maize and beans, and there is also a lot of sugar cane and yuca. In one high area in the hills, some people are still harvesting balsam, which has many medicinal purposes. This is fairly rare, and the process is fascinating; it is kind of like harvesting maple sugar from trees, as the trees are tapped.
Caluco is also rare in that cacao is still around. When the Spanish first came to El Salvador, Caluco was one of the first areas occupied by the conquistadors. At this time, the indigenous were still using cacao seeds or beans as a form of currency. The Spanish took over much of the production, and cacao became a major export in El Salvador. Today, very little cacao is still being harvested, and no one that I know of is growing or harvesting cacao. As a chocolate lover, I would love to see Caluco use their specialty here to make chocolate...
My main reason for going to the campo has been to visit the women who have attended the women´s groups meetings. So far, there has only been one meeting per group (and we have six groups for the 8 little towns). Each of these committees or groups is part of the Women´s Association of the municipality of Caluco. So I have been making house visits to talk to the women about their impressions of the meeting, discuss further what the women´s group is for, and why they want to be a part of the group and what they are interested in doing with the group. I have enjoyed talking with these women, and their families, and am encouraged by the number of people who seem genuinely enthusiatic about organizing themselves to work on projects. It is also nice to explain further to them who I am and why I am here. It is often difficult in a big meeting or passing by someone on the street to explain not only my role in the Peace Corps, but why being here is so important to me. I can only imagine, as so many people here dream about going to the States (or have already tried), how strange it must be to have someone from the States leaving everything to come here. I think I would be baffled as well, if I were in their shoes. In fact, sometimes I still am!
And in the pueblo, it seems like the whole school has now discovered where I live. A while ago I was on my bed reading, and looked up out my one window (about 6 feet of the ground) to see a kid that has scaled the wall and was peeking in at me. Knocks at my door are now normal, and I was just informed today (after being gone yesterday) that a kid was yelling my name in the street until someone came over to tell him I was not home! It is nice to be sought out, but it is also hard to adjust to a culture in which privacy is really not important, or not understood. But it is often quite funny, when these kids tell me they came by to keep me company to make sure I am not sad or lonely. Sometimes you just have to laugh at it all, meanwhile, becoming aware of your own cultural assumptions of "normalcy." I remember in training, numerous people mentioned that the language barrier, while frustrating, will probably not be the source of your biggest challenges; more than likely, it will be the challenges that come cultural barriers that are the most difficult to overcome.
Meanwhile, Spanish continues to be interesting. Today, when I was asking directions for a building and street, numerous people told me they couldn´t understand me. A little later, I was talking with a man who was telling me how great I speak Spanish. What a ride...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mes Civica

The beginning of September marked the civic month, as september 15th was when El Salvador gained their independence. for the first week, they had a civic event in the park everyday, with an artistic work, usually a dance or the band from a school played, and someone from one of the institutions in the pueblo gives a speech. as has become customary, i sat at the table of honor, much to my surprise at hearing my name called everyday. this has become a common occurance. i have headed a parade in town, given a speech on behalf of the city hall at the opening of a youth soccer tournement funded by world vision, who are very active here in Caluco. People have really accepted me with open arms here, and I feel very honored and humbled by their hospitality.

The rest of these last couple of weeks, i continue to attend meetings at the city hall, travel to the rural towns for women´s groups meetings and just generally chat with people. I am starting to get anxious about starting a project, but I need to continually remind myself that I need to get to know the people very well first, and let things develop. I have started teaching an english class to the 4th grade at the school in caluco, since their teacher is out on maternity leave. it is only 45 minutes one morning a week, as that was all i wanted to commit to. there is a fine line between helping out, and simply doing a teacher´s job for them. lots of teachers ask me to teach their classes, but this is neither sustainable nor my job. it is difficult to explain this to them, that i am here to help, to provide training or knowledge rather than just doing it for them, which is a huge mistake that development agencies have made in the past. the english teacher at the school also asked for my help to practice speaking, since practicing a language is vital to retaining it. recently, the school director asked for my help in starting a girl´s softball team, which is really exciting. i am so glad i decided to bring my mitt! the subject of girl´s education is something that is particularly grabbing my interest right now, so maybe this will turn into more. But for now, i am trying to become a familiar face. my biggest break through yesterday-my old neighbor lady started up a conversation with me about the weather, rather than just eyeing me suspiciously when i say hi!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

This weekend was my first weekend out of my site, as I went to the capital of San Salvador to hang out with some of my PC friends, and celebrate a couple of birthdays. It was quite an adventure the first morning, as it was also the first time I went into the capital from my site, trying to find how to get where I needed to go! I had a Gender and Development meeting in the morning, since I was elected a representative to this PC El Salvador group, which meets to promote gender education activities and awareness in PC El Salvador. In the past, GAD has sponsored camps for youth on gender roles and stereotypes, and other issues, since gender equity is not only a goal of the PC agenda here, but also on the development plan of El Salvador's government. Anyway, I definately took the wrong bus and ended up on the total opposite side of town, completely lost. Needless to say, I learned my lesson and am in the process of learning buses better here in El Salvador. Taxis are nice.

This last week went by very fast. The most exciting thing was an event hosted by about 3-4 NGOs for the opening of a new project in 2 cantones (little towns in the municipality). This project is very similar to the Heiffer Project and I am very excited to see how it develops. The idea is that about 50 or more families will be given a "herd" of pigs or chickens, and be trained how to sell the eggs from the chickens and meat from the pigs. The idea behind this is sustainability, because if people aren't trained how to raise enough of animals before they are sold, they are out of "product" and thus, out of money. So in the beginning, only the eggs are sold from the chickens, until enough more chickens hatch to eat for the families. Same with the pigs-minus pig eggs. And the cool part is that the project is arranged so that the families in the communties are not competing with each other, but investing part of their earnings into a community bank, so it is a community business rather than an individual job. It was so great so see so many people involved, men and women, young and old, and were so hopeful and enthusiastic. And the people from the NGOs are amazing; they work with the people, learn with them, rather than just throwing them the money and capital. It is a truly human development project, based on developing knowledge rather than just cash, which is expendable and often runs dry. This is a very similar development philosophy to the PC's, to build human assets and knowledge, rather than just giving things. It is more sustainable, more rewarding, but also takes much more time and effort. However, as most of us have found, the things in life that are the most valuable and with the greatest payoffs (personal and otherwise) come with hard work and time, and a lot of heart.

While I was chatting with the people from the NGOs, many of them are interested in where I am going to work. Although I only have been in my site for three weeks now, I am starting to get antsy. The more people I meet and connections I make here, the more I desire to start giving back, as I have received so much from these generous people. But I also must continue to be patient, as rushing in to a big project spells disaster. It is a fine balance, I am beginning to find out, wanting to get going, get things done, but also having to be patient, not to push, and let things develop as more trust and understanding, on all sides, grows. I have much to learn about this culture; yes, language is a large part of this, but in the long run, it is cultural misunderstandings that lead to problems rather than silly miscommunications!

The latest language blunder (by the way, the more Spanish I learn, the more I am aware of my mistakes...another mixed blessing): I had cooked lunch with my counterpart for a lunch with the community leaders of the institutions in the town, and was talking with them. Well, the priest from the church was there, along with my mayor, the director of the "casa de la cultura," and the police chief. To make this short, the priest asked me, "So you are a vegetarian (many times Americans are assumed to be vegetarians)?"

And I responded, "No, I am Lutheran."

Good job, Kelsey.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

"Senorita Kelsey"

I have spent just over two weeks here at my new home in Caluco. Caluco is a sleepy little town of 600 people, with a total of 8300 in the municipality. So most people live in the hills above Caluco, with beautiful views, sometimes of the sea on a clear day.

So far I feel very blessed to have been placed here. The people are generally very nice and welcoming to me, although I am sure many of them are curious to why I am here and what I am doing. It is quite a strange thing to have someone come from a great life in the US to live in a tiny town in El Salvador for two years, as most people here are trying to move to the US. People are generally astonished when I tell them how long I will be living here, and quite honestly, I am too at times!

My daily life is pretty relaxed. Mondays through Fridays I go to the local city hall in the morning, and spend the majority of my day there, drinking coffee, going to meetings, and sometimes going for rides up to the rural towns to meet with people there. I have not begun any large projects yet, as the first three months my main job is to get to know people, the area, and build trust. Oh yeah, and learn Spanish! However, some projects are in the works already, and I am starting to carve out a little role for myself. I think I volunteered to organize the Gender Assembly here in Caluco, which is a project funded by numerous Salvaldoran gender-equity organizations, and also from a NGO in Spain. Caluco was selected to be part of a country-wide project to start women´s committees in the rural towns, orchestrated by the city hall, to increase equity and citizen participation. This means that numerous classes about gender issues will be given, along with providing important educational classes to the women´s committees, so that they may be more empowered and be better equipped to take care of themselves and there families.

I have met numerous people from the NGOs here in Caluco (there are many here helping out, as Caluco is the 5th poorest municipality in all of El Salvador) and it is exciting to be around so many motivated people!

I live in a nice little house with an older woman and her brother. During the week, their niece and nephew stay at the house, since they have to travel far to go to their high school and arrive at home late. They are very nice to me, and I think being called by anything else than Senorita Kelsey would be strange! I have my own room to myself and close access to a bathroom, which is quite nice (especially in those moments when a pupusa is not sitting well...). In a while I will move to a different room across the courtyard, so I can be on my own, although I have considerable privacy as it is right now. They are both very relaxed. The woman especially loves teaching me new slang terms and giggles incessantly when I make a silly mistake, like saying "good morning" instead of "good afternoon." They have two dogs, a wiener dog named Tiffy and a cocker spanial named Pooky, along with three cats, two toucans, and supposedly a tortoise that lives in the garden. Both are semi-retired, although the woman runs a tiny little restaurant, so during meals I have the opportunity to chat with the local police, students, and who ever else wanders in. Also, the guy is building an addition onto the house, where he will start selling food, candy, phone cards, and the like.

Now that I am getting settled in, I will update more frequently. But all is well, I am loving it here, although missing you all at the same time. I greatly appreciate your thoughts and prayers, and know that you are in mine as well!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Almost a Volunteer...

Hello all! and world, as this is my first publishing effort online...

I have been in "The Savior" for just over two months now. I have two weeks left of training, and then I am off to Caluco, Sonsonate, El Salvador! So far, it has been a crazy ride, filled with many highs and lows. Ring a bell, fellow camp people? First of all, I would like to make a disclaimer: my English and grammar is going to suck. Bad. It is amazing how your native tongue can become so rusty in such a short while, but also, I am using a Spanish keyboard. For instance, does anyone know what this ç is?

It is hard to know even how to begin to explain what has happened here so far, as so much happens daily and I am constantly learning. So, if anyone wants the dish on the last two months, email me or ask anyone of my close peeps. It is easier for me to start with the here and now. forget capitalizing last week i visited the site where i will be working for the next two years. the pueblo is called caluco, and is very tiny. there are over 40 little settlements that are included in the municipality of caluco, all very rural and quite poor. ngos like world vision have projects going on in my municipality. since i am a municipal development volunteer, this is my domain.

I am not exactly sure what i will be doing, but i am working with the mayor and the local government center very closely. they have all kinds of projects for me, from tourism to local women´s groups and enterprises, to a youth softball team, to teaching english, and helping organize the local government jobs and offices. this local government center, the alcaldia, is present in every pueblo for each municipality. when the central government of el salvador was restructured after the peace accords, they have been given more power and responsibility to the local governments. thus, this is why municipal development volunteers are in el salvador. there is much work to be done, and historical problems are still very fresh. although life is challenging here, i have found the people to be kind, generous, hard working, and generally joyful people. i have much to be thankful for here.

the big date of swearing in, that is to become a volunteer and leave for my site, is aug 16th. the 17th i will move to my new home with my new family. i will try to update often, and always, emails are welcome!