This week and next I am in Pacific Harbor on Viti Levu for Phase II of training. All of Fiji Group 91 is staying at a really lovely little camp here across from a beautiful beach with views of Beqa island. We’re in training 8 am – 4:30 pm each day, which is quite a lot, but it’s been a really awesome training! I’m learning a lot of skills such as project planning and monitoring & evaluating that I have not had much experience with in the past. We’ve also been looking at different models for behavior change and PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action), and I’m feeling much more prepared to start projects when I return to my village. Trainings can for sure be dry with all of this dense information, but I have found the tools that they are giving us to be helpful in thinking through a possible projects from start to finish.
I have had the opportunity to think critically through one of the first projects I hope to start when I return to Koro, malnutrition counseling. Mareta, my nurse counterpart, and I discussed counseling mothers whose children are underweight. It initially seemed quite simple- sit with a mother for the day, watch what she is feeding her child, and give her some advice on healthier meals. After using some of the M&E and behavioral change tools we’ve been given, I realized that in order for this to be successful it will be quite an undertaking! Which, I might add, is actually exciting 🙂 I’ll want to think about how I will monitor the success of the project, whether and how I will do follow up, what kind of resources I might want to provide for the mothers… not to mention considering their own motivations for being involved. I also must consider what barriers exist for properly feeding their children– lack of knowledge? Motivation? Skills? Cultural norms? In order for any kind of sustainable behavior change to take place, I need to make sure I am approaching this project on the same page as the mothers I’ll be working with! I guess this seems quite obvious, but I’ll have to be much more deliberate about thinking through nitty gritty details than I had originally realized.
Sustainability of projects is a critical aspect of our work here. Unlike other aid organizations here in Fiji, the Peace Corps main goal is to create lasting change that empowers locals. We are to be the connectors, the change agents and supporters, but ultimately any lasting change must come from the desires of the community! If they aren’t inspired to make a change then any project we may try to start will never last.
A fellow PCV illustrated this point by telling us of her morning walk to work. Each day she passes an empty hole in the ground. It turns out that this hole was once a part of a tilapia farming project created by a past PCV. All of that planning, effort and funding, and it is now a useless hole in the ground. The ghost of this project is symbolic of the importance of engaging your community in the entire process of any undertaking, and remembering that sometimes your great idea just isn’t what the community wants! You need to understand their history, values and motivation.
Warren (our new awesome director of programming and training) told us yet another enlightening story of a PCV in Africa. This individual had a piping system built in his community so that the women would not have to walk many miles with heavy water-filled buckets on their heads each day. The community seemed interested- why note save time and effort, right? They built the system, and it was initially used. Over time though, the women stopped using the pipes. Slowly they began to return to their traditional water-fetching practices, choosing long heavy walks over the simplicity of turning on the tap. Why? Because this was the only opportunity women had to get out of the village, have some freedom, and talk amongst themselves! No water piping system can make up for the chance to have some down time with girl friends, even in Africa 🙂 So there you have an example of creating a project that seems like a great idea, but was ultimately unsustainable because the values and culture of the stakeholders were not understood well enough.
All that being said, I’m looking forward to beginning malnutrition counseling back on Koro. I’m excited to engage the mothers in my community in the planning process so that is their program and they are empowered to continue learning about healthier lifestyles for themselves and their children. I am also hoping that the nasi ni koro (community health worker/village nurse) will want to counsel together, this way the program will continue long after I’m gone. If it goes well we could even train other village nurses around the island!
In other news, today I did an outreach to a local village with another PCV, Lillian. We are technically on a break since we are at training, but they don’t call the Peace Corps “the hardest job you’ll ever love” for nothing! I love down time, but I also love the chance to talk about community and environmental health 🙂 The youth group of the village had a Valentine’s Day program focused on climate change and environmental stewardship. Youth leaders gave presentations on climate change and what communities here in Fiji can do to protect the environment, such as recycling. A group of 30 children ages 4-14 spent the morning collecting rubbish and planting mangroves… my heart was just bursting with joy seeing them so engaged and concerned about the environment! I really hope that I can inspire my village (and hopefully one day my whole island) to take better care of the environment. Now I also have some great contacts for bringing awareness to climate change in my community!
Lillian and I followed the environmental program by discussing hand washing and diabetes. We were asked to hand out certificates to the kids for participating. Before doing so, we challenged the youth to consider one way that they will better care for the health of the environment and their bodies. We told them that in accepting the certificate they were committed to these personal challenges… now let’s just hope they were inspired and informed enough to follow through! At the very least I hope that the seeds of change, environmental awareness and empowerment have been sown 🙂