Several months ago I began a simple project with the school in my community: painting a map of the world to be used in geography classes and for general reference. The project was almost immediately delayed by a teachers’ strike, then put off till the next school year as summer vacation took effect, then it was further postponed by lack of materials and finally some technical difficulties. This seems to be the norm for trying to get anything accomplished in the Peace Corps. More specifically, this is par for the course for even the most basic of things in Paraguay. But after months of waiting and stutter stepping, the project is complete.
The world map project is a classic Peace Corps initiative to help broaden the world view of students in often isolated, rural communities who attend schools that lack resources and other educational opportunities. There have been hundreds, likely thousands, of world maps painted by Peace Corps volunteers over the 50-year history of the organization in countries and communities across the globe. While I always liked the idea of the project, I wasn’t sure if it was worth the time and effort in Guido Almada, seeing as there were so many other obvious areas of need. This all changed last school year when I was invited to teach a geography class with the students.
To begin the class, I asked the students to trace an outline of the continents of the globe on a blank piece of paper. This request was met with vacant stares, a few giggles, and the inevitable shuffling of papers as kids at the back of the classroom began inconspicuously searching for a picture they could copy out of a notebook. When not a single student could fulfill this request, I decided to narrow the question. Can anyone trace a rough outline of South America? Again, nothing. How about just Paraguay? This I thought for sure would yield some better results. Not so much. I persisted, insisting that they try to produce something—anything. They begrudgingly obliged.
What the students lacked in actual knowledge of maps, they certainly made up for in creativity. At the end of the class, I received papers filled with any number of indescribable forms, all of them showing a misshapen Paraguay at the center randomly surrounded by neighboring countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina) and occasionally other distant nations as well (China, the United States, Russia, Germany, etc.). After this experience, it seemed quite obvious to me that the world map project was not only quaint and novel, but entirely necessary. So began the long process.
The idea behind this project is simple. For students that will likely never venture far from their homes in rural Paraguay—maybe to the capital on occasion, or over the border at some point to look for work—gathering a more realistic world view is still an important part of their personal education. It will help them to visualize their physical location on Earth, which is part of a much bigger process of understanding their position as human beings. Concepts such as historical events, global warming, and modern-day geopolitical changes (all of which affect the lives of these people every day, whether or not they notice) take on a whole new meaning when you can point to places on a map.
This is Paraguay. This is the United States. This is how big the oceans are.
Of course, as a student of geography, I am perhaps biased in my interpretation of this project. For some, painting this world map is likely just an opportunity to do something different and create a pretty picture on the otherwise dull and drab whitewash of the crumbling school building. But even that has its merit.
As students in the United States, I think we are often spoiled in our comparatively well-funded schoolrooms with seemingly infinite resources and opportunities. It is hard to even imagine not knowing what the world looks like. Once again, like all of the projects I have done and am doing in Paraguay, it seems as if I am getting as much, if not more, out of the experience than those people with whom I am working. But as far as making a small difference is concerned, I know that I have already accomplished at least that much: The students have been eager to share with me their newfound knowledge of the globe at every opportunity. —Mario Machado