I have started a new project here in Guido Almada. This project is coming from a newly gained perspective: I realized that the key to successful development (at least here in my community) is through encouraging shared experiences and support among members of the community.
My neighbors are incredibly knowledgeable and unbelievably capable, but their reluctance to pursue change comes largely from lack of tangible motivation. Therefore, I have decided that whatever project I implement next, it would be best served to tap that potential within the community itself—an “auto-catalyzed” process of internal development.
To do this, I want to stimulate communication and ideas between my Paraguayan neighbors. They all have experiences with a variety of organic techniques (partly from working with me, but also from years of farming and work with other governmental and non-governmental groups). The goal is to create a forum and a platform for them to engage with these experiences, share them, and motivate each other to implement them.
I am currently developing a manual that covers a variety of organic and sustainable gardening and farming techniques. As opposed to being a detailed technical manual, it is a very general reference packet that is written in Spanish (most of my neighbors, though they speak Guaraní, cannot read Guaraní) and relies primarily on illustrations to communicate basic organic techniques and principles. After I complete this book, with help from Peace Corps friends who are far greater artists than I, the plan is to hold a community workshop to teach and demonstrate the basics of the manual. The manual will include topics such as deep-bed methods, companion planting, homemade pesticides and herbicides, composting, worm composting, crop rotation, green manures, and several others.
After the workshop, my idea is to give every neighbor a copy of the manual. I will then spend several months working with many of them on a variety of these techniques. Using the manual as a communication platform and their personal experiences as a sort of currency for them to share, I hope that the notion of cultivating these practices will be automatic among community members.
Of course, it won’t be perfect, and I am going to continue spending the next year of my Peace Corps service working with families one-on-one and trying to convince them that my ideas aren’t crazy. Hopefully, as this collective community experience grows, more and more will be willing to accept and attempt such organic practices—especially when the encouragement and stimulus comes from their own neighbors instead of some long-haired, strange-sounding North American in desperate need of a meal and a shower.
This is the plan at least. I have learned enough by this point in my experiences with development (and life, for that matter) to know that the reality will likely not be even close to this ideal. Still, I hope that this project and the concepts I will try to instill along with it will create some sort of dialogue among my neighbors. Maybe that is the key to getting though this communication barrier: to side-step it altogether. Jahechata (which means “we will see” in Guaraní). —Mario Machado
I am not going to lie, and hopefully this won’t sound like a complaint, but sometimes work in development (especially as a Peace Corps volunteer) seems completely unfeasible, mind-fuddling, and just absurd. Communication is an obstacle in almost every job or human endeavor, but here in Paraguay, it seems to be the Achilles heel of not only every developmental effort, but even daily interactions. It is an unavoidable challenge of cultural and linguistic boundaries. With time, however, the picture usually gets less hazy and I have at least begun catching glimpses through the fog.
In the village of Guido Almada, I have been working with many neighboring families one-on-one in the past few months, specifically with implementing organic techniques in the garden and the field. The work I do with these family seems to really “take” about 50 percent of the time; that is to say, people are able to demonstrate understanding and repeat the processes on their own in the days or weeks following our initial session. In some cases, I am amazed with their grasp of complex ideas and proud of their enthusiasm and willingness to accept new things. Other times, I realize that many people just want me around as an extra hand of free labor (and I can’t blame them).
The other day while drinking tereré with a neighbor after working in the garden, he shared with me an incredibly insightful and profound perspective. “Mario,” he said, “It’s not that we don’t know the stuff you are teaching us. We’ve seen all these practices in the past from extension workers from the government and non-governmental organizations. The problem is that it is difficult for rural Paraguayans, who are already doing so much, to find the motivation to put in the extra effort to actually implement these changes. Your coming to our homes to work with us, that makes the difference.”
In a way, I think most people already know the truth of this statement. Surely this is one of the major problems with development work anywhere. What my neighbor offered was not a revelation for me, but an acknowledgment of self-reflection. The foundation of knowledge already exists in Guido Almada and in so many other impoverished rural communities across the world. The difference between progress and the status quo is just being able to be there to work with the people, to offer motivation and support. It’s an unconscious economical analysis for them, but one that is tipped favorably when someone shows up with a shovel in hand.
Ideally, however, these things need to be self-sustaining enough to last when there are no Peace Corps volunteers or extension agents there to break that initial barrier. In the end, there is a need for communication to connect the dots between resources and individuals within the community. That way, even when there are no external motivators, community members can self-catalyze by finding that force in the neighbor next door or down the street.
These people are smart—incredibly intelligent in so many ways that most Westerners might not appreciate fully, but could never deny. With a lack of financial means and governmental support, Guido Almada’s greatest asset is its people. If you can tap that reservoir properly, the potential is unlimited. Which leads me to discussing my newest project for Guido Almada—but I’ll save that for next week. —Mario Machado