Having served two tours in Iraq with combat arms units, I was certain the challenges of Peace Corps would be inconsequential. However, living and working in a foreign environment with a very different culture many months at a time tests anyone’s mettle. That said, the challenges are just part of a fantastic adventure and an incredibly rewarding endeavor. I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my on-site experiences and some of the challenges a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) may face. First, let me set the context from which I write.
Jamaica is a low-middle income country with a stagnant economy and significant income inequality. Smallholder farmers have been marginalized by insufficient investment in agriculture and competition with cheap imports. Food insecurity is not as acute as many places in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but vulnerability to climate change and global economic trends are real and present hazards. Coastal communities, like the one I live in here in Bluefields, are especially vulnerable to sea level rises, severe weather events, and increased rainfall variability.
On paper, I am an Environment sector volunteer. On the ground, the majority of my work is related to organizational capacity building, promoting adaptive agriculture, and farm/business management. I finished training and was sworn in as a PCV in May 2012. My wife (also a volunteer) and I were dispatched to Bluefields immediately after the ceremony. We live in a 390 ft2 wood-frame house on a property with the four homes of an extended family. We carry our drinking water to the house in jugs and buckets from a nearby stand pipe and sometimes rely on our rainwater catchment to operate our shower and toilet. We are fortunate to have electricity and ready access to internet. The internet definitely comes in handy for thesis research!
Most Peace Corps countries require language training and Jamaica is no different. Here the official language is English, however Jamaican Patois is widely spoken. It has taken some time, but I think I am getting the hang of it. Patois is not a written language, making it difficult to study.
Once placed in their community, PCVs are discouraged from initiating any projects in their first four months of service. This period of time is to be dedicated to community integration, relationship building, and learning local needs and assets. After the initial four months at site, PCVs must submit a Community and Sector Inventory (CASI) to their program manager at the country office. This is a document that outlines demographics, infrastructure, historical events, key leaders and organizations, sector specific information (environment, agriculture, health, etc.), and results from Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA). The methods used in PACA are similar to Participatory Rural Appraisal, a commonly used community-level assessment tool in international development.
The result of focusing on integration in the first four months is a better understanding of the people and factors that contribute to conditions in the community. I had to constantly revise my assumptions and beliefs about the source of problems, because a new interaction, conversation, or event would provide a new perspective or reveal information. I sometimes wonder how many of the failings in international development could be avoided if donors and practitioners could take the time to reach the level of understanding PCVs achieve in their communities.
Peace Corps provides volunteers with training in program design and management and even offers the opportunity to apply for grants up to $3,000 for projects. Still, PCVs are putting their knowledge and skills to work with fairly limited resources. PCVs need to be creative, innovative, and build the capacity of passionate people with whom they work. A PCV may find him or herself the most educated and competent person in the room, but he or she must be mindful that they are there to empower and build others. Leading from the back or from the side is better than from the front in most situations.
Serving as a PCMI volunteer adds an additional layer of complexity. The approach I took for the thesis research was to integrate with my community and then identify a meaningful topic before writing a research proposal. Fortunately, I have access to internet, because I needed to gain some new knowledge to be able to write my proposal. Specifically, I needed to better understand climate change vulnerability and adaptive capacity as it relates to agriculture. Other PCMI volunteers use their service as a time to research and write just one chapter or an appendix to their thesis. Writing a portion of a thesis might be a better option than an entire study, as it will allow a volunteer to use more of their free time to enjoy the experience. Regardless, I look forward to carrying out my study and know I will be better for taking on this challenge. Whichever option one chooses, prepare to be flexible. Site placement does not necessarily take research interests into consideration; the ability to adapt may be helpful.
The Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) program was a leading criterion in my search for a graduate program. Ultimately, I was drawn to Texas A&M because the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers PCMI and has a good reputation for international research and development through the Borlaug Institute. I understand that the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications is drawing graduate school applicants from the Midwest (where I am from) and from Mid-Atlantic States because of PCMI. The PCMI program is one I highly recommend. Even if you do not feel graduate school is right for you now, if you are interested in gaining meaningful work and cross-cultural experience I highly recommend applying to Peace Corps.
Kevin Fath is a Master of Science student studying International Agricultural Development. Fath has been serving in Jamaica since March, 2012. In 2011, Kevin was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve after serving eight years, attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant, and serving two combat tours in Iraq. He graduated in 2010 from Ohio State with a B.S. in Animal Science and minors in Agricultural Education and International Development. Fath’s professional and academic interests are in peacebuilding and food security through agricultural and extension education. You can follow Kevin’s experiences at http://kevinfath.blogspot.com