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