I haven’t really talked about what my job as Sanitation Coordinator is. I coordinate sanitation, obviously. But what that means is that any Peace Corps Volunteer that wants to do a latrine project works with me to help make their project as sustainable, effective, and self-sufficient as possible. I share with them resources and best practices I have learned from my personal experience and the experiences of others, and together we try to make the process better in a multitude of different ways.
This job is personal to me, because it plays on what I learned in Playona. It also works to address a huge global development issue of sustainability and capacity-building. What does that mean?
“Handouts are bad.” Most people have heard that. They have heard that giving people free things is counterproductive and does not actually help them. Hand-washing is important, and most people have heard that too. But like hand-washing, just because they know something is bad doesn’t mean they actually do anything about it. (How many times have YOU washed your hands today?) Many governments still do handout projects. Many development organization do too. Frankly, they are a lot easier. It is hard NOT to.
Try as we might, even as Peace Corps Volunteers, sometimes we mistakenly do too. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to establish a buy-in, to address a need the community recognized rather than to give a free unasked for gift that might be culturally or environmentally wrong.
Panama has a lot of latrine projects that are not well cared for or used correctly because they were too much like handouts and not enough like empowerment projects. I am working with PCVs here to improve how we implement latrine projects and to renovate the training materials we use to prepare a community for said project.
Yes, we’re building latrines to improve people’s health, but that’s not the REAL goal. The real goal is to empower people to make positive changes in their lives for themselves and their community. By ‘capacity-building’ we mean to foster leadership and support education. This is where theatre comes in.
Throughout my service in Playona, I noticed that the most effective parts of our training seminars, the most memorable pieces from our sessions, were the skits and role-playing. Watching skits and then pushing the community members to re-enact them, not only teaches the material but also engages them on an emotional and physical level. I am rewriting the training curriculum for sanitation projects to include a lot of skits and role-plays, to give community members a voice. It forces them out of their comfort zone and gives them time to practice teaching the material and leading the discussion in their own home.
Theatre also does something incredibly special. All of us within the performing arts cherish the ‘magic of theatre’- that invisible bond that is created not just amongst the ensemble, but with the audience as well. It’s a relationship, a connection, and a social equalizer that brings everyone in the room down to the same level to share what it is like to be a human being. I can see no demographic that needs this kind of connection more than the people who live in developing countries. They truly believe that they are incapable of improving their lives and themselves. They truly believe that they must wait for the government or white people to give them things. They truly believe they have no power and no voice, that they are insignificant to the world at large.
I want to host a Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) Theatre Camp for teenagers, a place to give them a chance to tell their stories and find their voice. I want to use theatre to train leaders and inspire behavior change. I can write a lesson plan anywhere, but I want to test these sessions and seminars in neighboring communities with other PCVs to see what actually works. I want to teach PCVs how to be better actors and better improv players to give our skit performances even more of an impact. For that, I need more time.
My successor for this Sanitation Coordinator position will not leave their community until August 2015, so the beautiful thing is, I can take more time. That’s exactly what I decided to do. I have requested to extend my service (this time it was my idea!) through next August. If approved, it means that I will finish my service in Panama on August 7, 2015.
Making that decision was not easy. It was a sacrifice to know that I am missing yet another year of major life events for my friends and family. It means missing many more birthdays, a fourth Grand Assembly, and some holidays. I will get a special leave that will allow me to be home from Thanksgiving through New Years’, which I am incredibly excited about.
However, I realize that it is an emotional strain on many, many people and for that, I am incredibly grateful for your enduring support and encouragement. I miss Mom, Dad, Nathan, Grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I miss my Rainbow Girls and Masonic family. I miss my theatre family and colleagues. I miss so many friends from the different phases of my life. All of these amazing people made this decision challenging as it becomes harder and harder for us to share our lives together when time and distance are so actively trying to separate us.
I hope that each and every one of those people understand how much I love and appreciate their role in my life and how incredibly grateful I am that this news has been met over and over with overwhelming optimism and reinforcement. Despite its challenges, I truly feel like this is where I am meant to be right now, and hearing that my friends and family are overwhelmingly supportive of my decision is priceless. Thank you.