Settling In: A Mutual Process?

I’ve seen a lot of YAV blog posts handling the question, “How are you settling in?” I’ve really enjoyed the responses and reinterpretations of the question, so I figured I’d give it a stab. After all, it’s more than appropriate to address when I consider how much I struggled at the beginning of the program.

This past weekend involved a lot of “settling in” activities.

First, I got a clearly assigned cleaning job. Not only will Jenny be pumped (she’s been subtle hinting that we all get a defined job), but it also felt somehow edifying to fulfill a clear role. It’s not particularly complicated or anything. I just sweep, mop, and tidy the living room. So I clean up after Ani and Franco who manage to mussy it up at least once a week. Still it felt great to have a task, to support.

Also, Paco and I moved a dresser into my room. I’d been living out of a suitcase for the last two weeks, in addition to the two weeks in Lima. It felt weird to do laundry, but put all my clothes into my suitcase. Like I was using my room as a base camp, but I was living there.

The dresser isn’t what you’d call intact. It’s missing four out of six drawers. Still, it holds my clothes (feeling glad I left stuff home) and more importantly, my suitcase now resides under my bed. My room feels lived in, not used.

Saturday afternoon was abuzz with activity. We attended a church member’s birthday party. The birthday girl swore she had to cook everything. (Celia later confirmed that she would do no such thing come her birthday in February. Apparently, I’ll be the master chef!)

Then we visited with Celia’s family in nearby district. Her sister and brother-in-law run a local general store and fried chicken place. Over phenomenal fried chicken (a second lunch after the party), we talked politics (October 5th is Election Day), religion, and general jokes.

After a few hours, we headed over to the “Juegos,” a staple in residential Ayacucho. They consist of massive trampolines, a line of fooseball tables, and usually some other type of fun-generating capital. Ani and Franco leapt onto the trampoline while I split my time being sitting with Celia and Paco and trying to capture a photo of every bounce.

I’m trying to cool it with the camera, but it’s hard. Ani and Franco are really cute when they’re having fun. Not to mention all the amazing sights around Ayacucho.

Then on Sunday, I went to a rural church with Paco. He was guest preaching, while I watched Franco and Ani. The trickiest part was keeping them together so I could pay attention to both. It wasn’t always easy and it involved a lot of time running after them in the blazing sun (I’ve got the toasted face to prove it!). Yet, I felt trusted by Franco, which added to the weekend of connecting with the family.

Paco preached for 2 1/2 hours on Sunday. Woah.
Paco preached for 2 1/2 hours on Sunday. Woah.

Of course, I’m still struggling with Ani. The thing is she cries and hits when she’s upset and she laughs and hits when she’s happy. She’s a little entitled at times and plays well into the nickname “princess” that Paco and Celia sometimes use.

That wouldn’t bother me much, except that when she’s not happy, she wants nothing to do with me. She doesn’t want me around.

For example, when she’s tired in the mornings, she gets upset upon looking at me. I immediately feel like perhaps I should not be around.

Worse, when she’s being forced to do something she doesn’t want, like eat or go to bed, she’ll tell Paco or Celia that I hit her. Paco and Celia brush it off, as apparently this is a common lie. I’m greatly for their trust, but this is not exactly comforting.

Why am I telling you all about this? Why pepper in all my discomfort about working with Ani? The thing is, I’ve found that the question of settling in can’t be answered from my perspective alone. The people I interact with regularly, so Ani, also need to settle in to my presence.

I can know my way around Ayacucho better than a local (unlikely), I can become a cleaning expert, I can visit churches as much as I want with Paco, and visit with extended family all I want, but if Ani doesn’t accept me in the house, I will still feel a little unsettled.

That’s a lot of power for the youngest member of the family. Yet it’s true. When Ani points her displeasure at me, I am reminded that I’m an outsider.

In some ways, that’s good. I am an outsider and it would be unwise to forget that. It’s part of my identity and the way others see me.

Still, I’m trying to brush it off. On becoming compassionate with how Ani acts when she is uncomfortable. As I explained to Celia’s cousin, when she’s tired, Ani doesn’t want to deal with me. She wants normal and that’s not me (yet). And on a brighter note, I should add, I think it’s starting to change. Take this vignette.

As we arrived back in Ayacucho on Sunday, I lifted Ani out of the van. Unfortunately, she took this opportunity to reach for my face and attempt to grab my nose. (I recently taught them, “I’ve got your nose.”) Seeing her uncoordinated hands rushing towards my face, I jerked back, thinking that she had solid footing on the ground. Of course, she was too focused on my nose to think about standing and promptly fell backward and burst into tears on the sidewalk.

I immediately bent to apologize, as she started to cry and she swatted me, saying, “Estás malo.” Here we go again, I thought, she won’t want me around. She hid for a bit, but eventually started to smile, clearly feeling better. And then she said that maybe she’d be able to forgive me tomorrow, but she didn’t think she could today.

And that felt awesome. As I see it, Ani is starting to see that our relationship extends into the future. Little by little, she’s growing to accept my presence. And nothing could help me settle in more.

Mixed emotions about “concursos”

One of the hardest parts of integrating into the CEDAP office and learning their methods is all the new vocabulary. I consider my Spanish conversational, but my vocabulary is still decades (almost literally) behind my English. As a result, I realized that I had totally misunderstood one of their main methods: the concursos.

Upon first hearing concurso, I figured it was a type of course in development offered by CEDAP. Essentially, people could enroll and learn about more productive sustainable farming practices or how to clean their water. Contextually, that made sense. Tulia had spoken about inter-aprendizaje (inter-learning) between campesin@s in different communities.

Yet as I looked over the paperwork associated with one concurso, called Pachamamanchikta Waqaychasun, a Quechua phrase meaning “Let’s conserve our Mother Earth” in English, I saw that there were premios (prizes) of S/. 1,725.00 ($600) for first place communities and S/. 250.00 ($87) for first place families. Likewise, there was detailed criteria for scoring on a 100-point scale. Was that for a test as part of the development coursework? That’d seem right.

If you are familiar with this word, you’re likely shaking your head at this point or possibly shouting, “JUST SAY WHAT IT MEANS!”

As it turns out concurso means “competition.” CEDAP is sponsoring competitions at the family, communal, and community delegate level, which started in March and ends in November. Communities are graded on the following criteria:

Community activities to evaluate Maximum Points*
1 Organization and Planning 15
2 Management and Conservation of Natural Pastures 30
3 Management and Conservation of Soils 25
4 Appropriate management of Seasonal Water 10
5 Health – Population Center or Community 10
6 Education – Population Center or Community 10

I’m still learning a lot about CEDAP and how they work, but right now I have very mixed emotions about competition for the purposes of developing. And I have found that mixed emotions make for great blog posts, so lucky me and (hopefully) lucky you!

As I get started let me preface this with one disclaimer. I am still learning. These are initial reactions and many may come to be unfounded, but I still thought it was worth sharing them below.

First of all I am struggling with whether competition directly contradicts some of CEDAP’s attitudes toward development. Central to CEDAP’s mission is cooperation between communities and creating opportunities for campesin@s to teach each other their different methodologies. So where does competition fit into cooperation models?

And what does inter-community and family competition encourage? Is the goal to develop better than everyone else? To make it into the top bracket of the top 5 communities or top families in your community?

CEDAP does offer very clearly detailed criteria as part of admission into the competition. Each criteria is broken down for communities and families. Top-scoring communities should encourage learning between campesin@s, rotate fields between grazing and crop-growing, plant forests, use irrigation technologies, and improve health services for children and families. Families that teach others about new technologies they have used, use organic fertilizers, feed and clean their livestock well, maintain a family farm, and take an interest in children’s education will receive top scores. There’s other criteria as well, but the scoring is clearly holistic and encourages well-rounded, sustainable development.

Yet all of these criteria come from CEDAP. I trust CEDAP. I admire most of their practical approaches to development. And the criteria promote participative development over more paternalistic models, which is essential at the micro level. It gets groups involved such that development lasts and recognizes the autonomy of those in poverty. Unfortunately, CEDAP puts out the criteria and judges how well everyone meets it, which is a little paternalistic.

I do credit CEDAP with offering full disclosure and breaking down the judgment of each criterion into very specific categories. At minimum, a criterion is scored on seven different mini categories on a scale of 0-3. In total there are 52 of these mini categories. And I believe this scoring information was disclosed to participants.

So competitors know exactly what they need to do to get a high score. At the same time this incentivizes competitors to develop exactly as CEDAP wants, which is inadvertently paternalistic.

I’m also concerned that competition could create a principal-agent problem where in groups will try to project that they have developed far more than they have. This could go as far as cheating, but it may also be that on evaluation day they portray a well-developed village, much like a restaurant working to be extra clean when a health inspector visits. That analogy isn’t perfect, but it gives an idea of a possible concern. Instead of investing in lasting development, communities and families may find it more cost effective to appear developed enough to get an award. That’d be concerning and counterproductive.

Still, I admire the criteria. The competition encourages the use of sustainable farming technologies and a focus on campesin@ standards of living. CEDAP does not ignore where science can assist agricultural output, but acknowledges that people’s well-being, not output, should be the primary goal. While the two often correlate, I value the people-first mentality, though it isn’t as easy to quantify or work towards.

So I’m conflicted. And more than anything this adds new motivation to evaluate this project. What is the outcome of this competition? Have all participants become more sustainable? Have incomes increased aside from the prize money for competition winners? Do participants continue using new technologies and following the criteria even after the competition is over?

Essentially, I want to know: Did it work and how well? It’s pragmatic, but more important to the funders and policymakers. We can debate all day about whether this is the right thing to do. And I bet members of CEDAP did just that, but at the end of the day, I know of no perfect strategy. I do know that there have been highly successful localized solutions that fail in other locations.

On another note, this competition has helped me move towards how I might be able to perform a useful program evaluation. The scoring card will provide a metric for comparison across levels of development. I can see whether higher development translates to higher economic success in income levels, health, education, etc.

Granted, this scoring card is not perfect. And I’ll run into the problem that the scoring captures not only the level of development, but also the competitive or entrepreneurial skill of the competitors. The higher score doesn’t just translate to more development, but also just more of a competitive spirit. Perhaps the more competitive or gifted in competition you are, the more likely you are to be more economically successful. Opposing that, those who overemphasize participation in the competition may lag behind in other areas of economic well-being, which the score also would not capture. Remember the principal-agent problem I mentioned?

So essentially, I’ve also got mixed feelings about the metric itself. It’s a start and one that could be very helpful in offering a more informed evaluation, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

Overall, I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about this competition. More than anything else, I’m eager to learn more. That process will be slow, not just because of my aforementioned vocabulary limits, but also because it’s a huge operation.

Next week, I will likely start heading out to visit rural communities and be a bit more involved in the workings of CEDAP. I’m hugely excited for the change of pace, but also for the chance to see these participating communities firsthand. To see how much the competition is part of their lives and interpret, at least qualitatively, how founded my mixed emotions are.

Museo de la memoría: Action during a time of turmoil

Finding myself with both free time, as well as the health to take advantage of it last Saturday, I decided to have a tourist day in Ayacucho.

Ayacucho from above!
Ayacucho from above!

I stopped at the Mirador del Carmen Alto (just around the block from my house), a fantastic view of Ayacucho from the top of Carmen Alto, one of the higher districts. Later, I ventured downtown and found that on Saturdays, the midday siesta lasts until at least 3:30.

I wondered around and took photos of the churches and other sites (many of which I lost due to a glitch loading them onto my computer, trust me, I’m kicking myself hard), but felt fairly pictured out after about half an hour. So I grabbed a map from a local hotel and started heading north.

Cathedral shot!
Cathedral doors and statues of Saints Peter and Paul.

I passed by several more gorgeous cathedrals and then came upon the Shosaku Nogase Mercado Artesanal. Given during Fujimori’s presidency, this market includes two buildings full of vendor shops, which you might find in most tourist locations around Latin America. Instead of artisanal works, I found largely factory made tourist fodder, though it was fairly unique to Ayacucho. I shouldn’t complain, this was the first place in Ayacucho I found with post cards.

Looking at the map, I realized I was not too far from the Museo de la memoría, founded by the Asociación Nacional de Familiares de Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos del Perú (ANFASEP). ANFASEP was founded in 1983 to call attention to the disappearances and provide safe resources for those in need during the years of violence. With the help of the German Embassy, they opened the museum in 2005 “para que no se repita” (so that it is not repeated).

Names of the disappeared or dead.
Names of the disappeared or dead.

It’s a powerful museum. The outside walls are painted with a mural of various human rights abuses. As you walk in, there are metal plaques listing the names of those who disappeared during the years of violence.

The museum itself is just three rooms and a walk-through took 15 minutes. Yet I found myself staying for an hour and half, needing to take frequent breaks to process. First, you encounter a hallway lined with pictures of members of ANFASEP who still wait for information about the lost members of their families. On the other wall are national, regional, and ANFASEP-specific timelines for 1980 to 2005.

"The women were caught between two fires." And they suffered for it.
“The women were caught between two fires.” And they suffered for it.

There is also an exhibit on the different affected groups during the years of violence: young men, women, speakers of Quechua, and many more. Another room featured a torture chamber and an excavation site containing a lone, mangled skeleton, which had been moved into the museum.

The final room was the toughest. There were several works of art, reflecting on the violence. Many contained panels of gruesome dioramas, each a different stages of the twenty years. Lining the walls and display cases in the room, were pictures of the disappeared alongside some marker of their identity. In some cases this was a piece of clothing, in others it was a journal, in one case it was the rope with which a young boys hands had been bound when he was found, dead.

Each garment is connected to one of the disappeared in one way or another.
Each garment is connected to one of the disappeared in one way or another.

Yet amidst these memorials to the loss and chaos, I found myself reflecting on ANFASEP. Their timeline is truly impressive. The group, largely founded by female relatives of the disappeared, took major action after their founding. They marched on Lima demanding answers, they fed those in refugee camps, they led searches for answers, and a founding member was given a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

ANFASEP did not stand aside and allow the tragedy to continue unopposed.

Whenever I hear about 1980-2000 in Peru, I hear about the violence. I hear about the terrorism, the equally terrible authoritarian response, and the sense of confusion. There are still so many lingering questions of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, adding to the message of hopelessness from these years. The main (and most important) message offered is: Never let this happen again.

Yet ANFASEP shows another part of the story that is equally important to remember. That of hope and grace. ANFASEP saw the confusion and tragedy, and decided to take action, even as it was clear that they could not end the conflict.

Theirs was not a message of sitting idly by, but one of action. It is so critical that this message is shared alongside the louder message of “Never again.” Turmoil and chaos can and do rage around the world, yet there are still groups who act for hope and grace amidst it all. Their actions may not end the chaos, but they are gestures of true humane action and reminders of the peace we seek.

While at the museum, I met Clint, a doctorate student from UCLA, who is finishing up fieldwork on Transitional Justice. Not only had he heard of CEDAP, but he plans to visit because they served a critical role during the years of violence, creating one of the first comprehensive lists of the disappeared.

I left that conversation reinvigorated for my work. Not only had I been a witness to ANFASEP’s message of hope, I learned a bit more about CEDAP’s role in promoting peace. CEDAP carried its own message of hope, instead of fleeing Ayacucho when the violence started shortly after its founding in 1978. Even when one of their project teams was captured and tortured during 1988.

As I start my second week at the office, I’m reinvigorated to work with CEDAP. Things may not be moving as quickly as I’d hoped, but I’m excited for all I will learn through my accompaniment. They worked for and made changes, during a time when it’s considered impossible to improve society. And that left me invigorated instead of drained by el Museo de la memoría.

Questioning my presence and resisting irrelevance

I really wanted to write a more positive post about work, but that would be dishonest. So before I begin another lest than positive post, let me preface this with the fact that I am having an amazing time in Ayacucho. This weekend I’m going to try a few tourist draws in the area, to get to know my city. I’ll be sure to post thoughts on that.

Yet, enjoyment wasn’t the reason I came here and as my first full week in Ayacucho draws to close I feel irrelevant and a little frustrated. I also feel a bit jealous, reading about fellow YAVs’ dynamic, engaging work environments. This has led me to question my presence at CEDAP.

You see, right now it feels as if I’m an irrelevant 11-month fixture in the office. That is a really harsh critique, so I’m trying to work through it, to find some higher message or hope for the rest of the year.

On my first day, Tulia spent an hour introducing me to CEDAP’s work and team. Although I still felt slightly unclear on my role, I was very excited to hear that I’d be creating an economic program evaluation. Something I’ve actually been trained to do and I’ll admit, won’t look to shabby on my résumé when I start searching for post-YAV employment. I had a laundry list of questions, but Tulia said they were too busy right now designing a project and they would attend to me later.

No matter, I told myself, this is part of accompaniment and navigating a new organization’s culture. YAV orientation prepared me for this. I needed to take my own initiative, so I started reading about CEDAP. This include a massive evaluation of 30 years of their work from 1978 to 2008. CEDAP has been a powerful presence for sustainable development since 1978. As the materials are all in Spanish, the reading was slow-going.

And I was given more than enough time. I arrive at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m. for lunch. Then I am back from 3-7 p.m. It’s quite a while to sit there without active projects, and I admit that I have used the time to enjoy the internet. I feel guilty for it, but without a connection in my home, the office offers an opportunity to stay in touch with family from home. At first this provided a  mental break from reading, but once I finished the books, it was the next best option to sitting around.

I am managing to interact with my co-workers some, though they are all quite busy planning. I’m a little unclear on what exactly the plans are, but this is definitely budget-planning season. I’m hoping to find out more information, but haven’t had an opportunity to properly ask without distracting everyone from their work.

I have had a few amazing conversations with members of the office. We have talked culture backgrounds and the pros and cons of quantifying development through economics. I have savored those moments, as they are what I’d been hoping for out of this placement.

And of course, I played soccer. Surprise, surprise I was easily the worst player on the field, but at least I enjoyed playing and as far as I know I’ll get invited in the future. Marco Antonio who has a desk in the same room as me added that he’s excited that I’m going to be around for all kinds of holidays this year. What’s more I can always count on Olgita, the temporary secretary to be friendly and engaging when I come in during the mornings. At least socially, I am present.

But work-wise, I feel irrelevant. I appreciate that Tulia means no offense when she turns me away. The non-profit world is one of constantly feeling behind and I am here to accompany, not add another burden.

Yet, I really want to contribute. I want to be involved in a comprehensive evaluation process, one that reinvigorates the organization with funding after they recently closed down a project area.

Tulia suggested I write a proposal for my evaluation of the projects during 2014 after she again ran out of time to meet with me. She said we could talk when she returned from a conference. I was happy to comply and figured I could put something together. Soon I realized that I had little idea of where to even start. I had no idea what data or information was available on the year. All I had was the proposed set of goals for the year.

The proposal started to feel like a setup for failure and disappointment. In messages with Jenny on the subject, she advised me not to panic and that I should not worry about disappointment. Instead, she suggested I treat the proposal as an opportunity to introduce my ideas for the organization and include my thoughts on what I would need to accompany in a more beneficial way for both parties.

Jenny suggested that I meet with Tulia regularly for the first few weeks to discuss the office environment, my role, and generally go through questions and answers. Additionally, Jenny suggested I shadow members of the office to learn about that work for the next few weeks. I liked both those ideas and included them in my proposal, trying to say that this investment in me would pay off dividends for the rest of the year.

So I wrote up the proposal and felt cautiously optimistic about meeting with Tulia. I turned down an invitation from Paco to join him on a trip to the campo as part of his seminary outreach work. I explained that I couldn’t miss work, especially my first chance to speak with Tulia upon her return.

Today, I gave Tulia my proposal. A process that itself was more complicated than I expected, when her computer failed to read my jump drive. (Email to the rescue!) Then she informed me, regrettably, that we would again have to put off a meeting while they finished off planning the project. Out of some divine intervention, I stifled a sigh (Should I have just gone with Paco?), smiled and said I hoped we’d be able to speak in the afternoon.

Perhaps I need to take a second and breathe. I need to remember that this is only my first week. There is plenty of year left ahead of me with promises for fantastic opportunities to experience CEDAP’s work in action.

Jenny pointed out that my presence alone is valuable just because I am willing to accompany CEDAP. I appreciate the sentiment, I’ve sacrificed my privileged comforts, and brought unique training in economics to work with an organization of which few outside Ayacucho have ever heard.

At the same time, that’s a really loaded justification. The reason comes out of my privileged identity as a white North American. Being present is great, but am I perpetuating structural problems by only being and not contributing to the office?

And what does that mean for my hope that I can meet with Tulia every day and shadow members of the office? I’ll inevitably get in the way and slow down work in attempts to learn the organization. Is it best for me to just stay seated in my office, a passive presence, waiting to be engaged? I honestly don’t know and I think that’s the root of my frustration right now.

My hope is that soon the sentiment in this blog will be a thing of the past. Soon Tulia will have time for me and I will integrate into the office, an active presence in the work of CEDAP. The nice thing is I can do more than hope, though I sense that path won’t be an easy one.

The economista: Qualifications across cultures

So within the first few minutes of meeting my boss, Tulia, on Monday, she explained how excited she was that Jenny had sent her an “economista,” or economist to start evaluating CEDAP’s work. I smiled, while my insides turned. Where did this idea that I am an economist come from?

Sure, I majored in economics at Macalester College. I am very proud of what I accomplished there, but an economist is something entirely different. Where I have a BA, an economist has attained a Ph. D. Where I have an honors’ thesis peppered with methodological holes, an economist has an iron-solid dissertation. They also usually have a placement in some think tank or a professorship.

Of course, I think this may stem from cultural differences in how we each define a profession. I am working in an office with several agronomists, a nurse, a surgeon, a professor of education, and a couple of engineers. Each has gone to school for a varying level of years to take on that profession and now identify as such, though their job responsibilities may not align with everything perceived of an agronomist, nurse, surgeon, professor, or engineer.

For example, Tulia is an agronomist, but on staff she works in the focus area of governability and directs the technical team at CEDAP. This team includes directors for each type of focus area: governability, dynamization of economies, natural resources and environment, health, education, and communication and political incidence. As I learn more, I’ll make a point to touch on each of these areas to highlight the multifaceted and impressive approach CEDAP takes toward development. For now, let me just tell you that the numbers reveal a notable reach.

A display board of the many focus areas here at CEDAP. I'm still wrapping my head around each one.
A display board of the many focus areas here at CEDAP. I’m still wrapping my head around each one.

With that in mind, I feel a bit better about my labeling as an economist. Within the office, I expect that I have studied the most economics, so relatively speaking, I am the relative economist. I just call myself a volunteer and Tulia acknowledged that part of my role as well.

Tulia also explained her hopes and dreams from what I would do this year. She wants an overall evaluation of the work CEDAP does to be reported to their donors and for application for future grants and support. While this includes qualitative evaluation, which they have done before, as she showed me, she is hoping I will also do an economic evaluation.

I’m thinking we may run into another difference in understanding. To me, an economic evaluation is one that attempts to determine the causality between a specific program or intervention and the output. This is best accomplished through Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) within the area of intervention. Unfortunately, RCTs are highly planned methodologies, which should be input from the beginning. I haven’t heard anything about one yet, so I’m not hopeful they’ll drop that kind of data in my lap.

Instead, I think Tulia perceives economic evaluation to be a look at how the economic lives of families have been changed by the interventions. Of course, that’s central, but my thoughts are a little more operationalized, perhaps impractically.

Today, I finally get the opportunity to talk with Tulia and Alberto, the head of CEDAP. I am hoping to gain a little more insight into what type of evaluation they exactly want and let them know what ideas I have. I’m highly thankful for the opportunity, as I’ve spent the last two days mostly sitting in the office, taking advantage of the internet.

It’s not that I think they don’t need me, I think it’s more that they are quite busy. It’s budget season and so everyone is planning for the upcoming year. Plus, they just finished some program intervention. In fact, I was the first in the office on Monday, and waited 45 minutes for Tulia to show up, as she was coming back from trip into one of the rural communities.

Thankfully, the YAV program prepared me for this, but I was starting to worry as I sat in the office without being assigned any tasks. I read many of the materials on CEDAP provided me and also did my own review of “proper” impact evaluation methodologies, seeing most offered little insight on what to do after the fact.

Still, I’m very excited. How could I not be? This is kind of what I was trained to do at Macalester. Plus, I’m finding a community at work as well. Tuesday morning, we had a half-hour snack break to joke over coffee, bread, and avocados. It was like organized water cooler gossip time. They were all shocked to learn I was only 22, but didn’t seem to let it affect their perception of what I will be able to do.

Later, four of the guys in the office* invited me to play soccer with them tonight. I told them I’m no expert, but they said that’s no worry. Two said they used to play in school. My only advantage seems to be that the youngest is 33.

One of these four, Marco Antonio, suggested that I treat this like a thesis, because it’s as much work as he’s seen those writing theses do in the past. He also encouraged me to take any data or findings with me, which I smiled at and said I’d only do with permission. He agreed, but I found it interesting that he suggested something that can easily come across as extractive. I’m not here for myself, but he said, that a Ph. D candidate from the US once said, that it’s always worth taking back data with you, because you never know when you’ll get more of it. I really appreciated the conversation and will consider whether this a respectful way to follow his suggestion.

I’ll write more after the conversation with Tulia and Alberto about the specifics. I’m nervous for the conversation as it will need to be a slow, deliberate process to make sure everyone is understood. Hopefully, I’ve got what it takes.

*I still have barely learned any names. I met 15 people the first day, more the next, and remembered probably 5 names? D’oh.

A bilingual service: No loss in meaning

So Sunday, I went to my first day of church, La Iglesia Evangelica Presbiteriana Monte Olivos. I was apprehensive, because Jenny had warned me that the Iglesia Evangelica Presbiteriana is much more conservative than up north. No doubt she’s right, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. And in hindsight, as drawn is as possible while still functioning below 100 percent.

First, of all they let a woman lead some of the songs! Hurrah! She also prayed. She was one of five worship leaders during the service, but I was at least pleased to see this much.

And a note there, the service was half Quechua, half Spanish. Something I hadn’t expected, but something that drew me in rather than push me away. Paco, handed me the Quechua songbook and I did my best to read the text. Peruvian Quechua orthography is different than what I learned in Bolivia, plus it’s been awhile, but I think I did alright. Plus, it’s not so hard to guess at the meaning of words when all you’re seeing is hymns. Who knew I’d be improving my Quechua in church?

Bilingualism was amazing. Everyone spoke Spanish and Quechua at different levels in that congregation (myself included) and we were able to meet each other where we were, in true hospitality. And I saw no meaning lost. I find language integral to hospitality, so I was beside myself that bilingualism was enriching, not reducing the experience.

Then came Paco’s turn to preach, as the weekly guest. He got up there and started on a bilingual sermon, turning from Spanish to Quechua without notable pattern, but ensuring all could hear his words. Just that alone would have left me totally impressed.

But then I’d ignore his incredible sermon. He preached on 1 Peter 2: 1-2, which points that those of us discovering God’s mercy crave spiritual milk like babes.

And this is where I learned Paco is really smart. He knows his Biblical literature well. I’m not surprised, as he’s a Professor of Old and New Testament at the Andean Theological Seminary here in Ayacucho, but it is one thing to know and another to witness.

Peter draws on one of the universal letters of the Bible, which I’d get wrong if I tried to write here. Specifically, you can find “spiritual milk” in Hebrews 5: 12 a few pages earlier. There, the message is that the righteous must remember to drink milk, before they have the food and drink of spirituality. It’s a nice parallel to the more familiar “crawl, walk, run” metaphor.

Unfortunately, I lost some of his message here between his rapid translating and my own inability to hold my Spanish comprehension for more than ten minutes. My understanding though, is that Paco said we must remember the spiritual milk, but that we should not just satisfy ourselves all the time with the basics. At some point he said, we have to move forward to the more challenging aspects of “sopa y “segundo,” the colloquial terms for the standard two-part lunch of soup and a second meal. I take these to mean the more complex issues of faith: confession, salvation, forgiveness, etc.

Considering where I am, I very much appreciated that message. For one thing, he reminded me that there is nothing wrong with taking the spiritual milk. I’m new to this, I’m nervous, and want to try and eat the complex stuff while I drink the spiritual milk. It was a message of patience, but one that promised I’d get a crack at the tougher stuff with time. In fact, it seemed quite normal that most people drink the food and take the substantial food together as they grow into the adulthood of their faith.

So, I was not only impressed, but very engaged. Paco really gave me something to chew on and I’m thankful for that. Also, he brought me to a community that really wanted me.

Each member told me to be like I was in my own house. They wanted me to feel welcome and in community for the year, intuiting my own apprehension of the past few days. And as soon as the head pastor, Emerson, learned I played guitar he pressed me to tune his up and maybe learn a few Spanish songs for the coming weeks.

I’m super happy about that. The music was nice, but the sharp keyboard and accordion could do with a duller timbre underneath. Plus, this will help me get far more engaged. Now I just need to get myself one of their songbooks.

So tired: A day with the children

“¡Kyle!” exclaimed a certain six-year-old.

I sighed and turned my head to see Franco poking his head through my door. After an hour of playing with my host siblings Ani and Franco, I had tried to slip away for a break. Franco decided that ten minutes was sufficient.

I smiled slightly and asked, “Si Franco, cómo estás?”

“¡Quiero jugar!” he responded.

“¡Franco no puedes entrar!” Lucas, their twelve-year-old cousin, said, appearing behind Franco.

I was a little frustrated. I knew it wasn’t a defining YAV moment that I chose to slip away and sit quietly in my room, but I just wasn’t exactly in the right mood. I’d spent the morning alone in the house and had felt an unexpected weight of homesickness and loneliness. Between that and my slight illness, I had felt distant and chose to remove myself. Plus, Ani had been too scared to look at me the night before. They would hardly miss me if I put self-care first this time.

Naturally, I was completely wrong. I smiled and told Lucas not to worry.

“Está bien,” I said, “Pero tal vez vamos a ir arriba.”

I tried to move us upward, but Franco was very keen on looking in my room. “Ve tus fotos,” Lucas explained.

I asked Franco if he’d like to see the photos of friends and family I put above my desk. “¡Sí!” And so I lifted him up and explained the 11 photos. He did not ask any questions, but seemed happy enough.

I was touched, but still felt distant. I just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to be present.

I was thinking about other ways to catch a break as I brought Franco back upstairs to the kitchen when Ani appeared. Scared Ani, who wouldn’t make eye contact the night before. She was crying and said something that I could hardly understand.

Then she took my hand and led me with a soft confidence up the stairs. It was clear, I was meant to stay. Thank God I have spent years building up barriers to emotional responses so I did not let out the sob that had caught in my throat. Ani wanted me there! There was a mix of emotions and thoughts at play, but the dominant one was: “Try really hard to be present, stupid.”

And so we played. And played. We solved the same two jigsaw puzzles at least ten times each. They showed me their room and all their toys, ranging from a bunch of plastic cutlery to a duplo truck set. I pushed them around on a tricycle. I lifted Ani up so she could touch the ceiling and be the tallest person in the room. Lucas pushed the couches together and we imagined that we were in a boat. Each of us took turns being the captain.

On that note, a huge thank you that Lucas was around. He is an expert. He had a game for every situation. He could turn any tear over a small matter into a burst of giggles. He shined with confidence as the cool, older cousin. At the same time, at no point did that seem to go to his head. He loves being present and having their trust. He is a fantastic kid.

I’d like to say that I never felt another pull to slip away. That would be a lie though. I attempted to leave once to head to an internet café, rationalizing that I had to communicate with Jenny about a few things. In reality, those things could wait. I was seeking the known while struggling through the unknown.

I brought up the possibility of heading out the door and Franco wanted to go with me. Lucas suggested that that would be alright, but I was not sure if Paco and Celia would want that. Plus, it made no sense to bring Franco with me if I was attempting to get away. So I stayed and I am happier for it. I feel stronger for overcoming whatever sentiment was pulling me away.

And I also sense more love is present here. Paco and Celia were thrilled to learn that we played all day, though they understood how tired I was. We were able to chat over dinner about their children and their lives in a much more familiar way. They laughed when I explained that this might have been the hardest day of my YAV year. (Honestly, sustainable agriculture will be a breeze compared to those three rays of sunshine.)

So went my first day. I’m delighted that they want me around and hopeful that with time I will feel less distant. It won’t be a linear process, but overall I’m hopeful for a strong connection between myself and mi familia ayacuchana.

Franco y Ani play!
Franco y Ani play!
There's puzzles in that bag!
There’s puzzles in that bag!
Paco was very curious.
Paco was very curious to see these photos.


Imaginary soup is the best!
Imaginary soup is the best!


Lucas pushed the couches together to make boats!
Lucas pushed the couches together to make boats!
A hanging from Guatemala!
A hanging from Guatemala!
A little dark, but the best shot I got of us!
A little dark, but the best shot I got of us!

A tough arrival to Ayacucho

My trip to Ayacucho was arduous for a variety of reasons from my own health to the altitude. The original draft of this post contained numerous details to bring the trip to life, but I realized it felt gratuitous. Additionally, while stories of sickness always have humor, this one had a solemn tone that did not do much to extend a main point: the trip drained me physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. As such, I’ve chosen to censor the original draft, but if you are interested I can send it to you.

Smiling before the trip!
Smiling before the trip!

I got on the bus to Ayacucho with an unfortunate bit of stomach sickness. Hours later the altitude added a new dimension to my discomfort. Things went from bad to worse, and sleep was completely out of the question. Sore as I was, I spent a good portion of the ride immobilized with only contemplation of the world to distract me.

And boy did I contemplate. I consider matters of life and death, structures of poverty, how gender roles differ across the world, and whether GMOs or organic farming can end world hunger. I thought about my fellow YAVs around the world and realized I am the YAV stationed highest in the world, for those who enjoy superlatives.

I thought about the notion of prayer and what exactly it meant that so many said they were praying for me on my journey. I doubt they lied, so was my suffering evidence that the prayer wasn’t doing much? That was the easy response, but somehow traveling at well over 8,000 feet above sea level it didn’t seem to suffice.

Perhaps I would have been worse if all the prayers were not there? That didn’t seem right either. It is disingenuine to measure God’s will or power against an absence.

Intrinsically, I felt better knowing that others cared for me. So were their prayers equivalent to thoughts and care? Markers of the communities of which I am a part? There’s value in that and it matches well with how I’ve heard the study of religion and ritual described.

Yet, I really wanted more. I want religion to be about more than being in community. As always is the case with religion, I feel I’m leaving the terrain of logical conversation and entering a new plane. It’s uncomfortable. I learned to think rationally about issues. Still I want to press on.

I found a deeper answer about prayer when I realized something I had not contemplated during the ride. At no point did I reconsider my decision to be in Peru or work in Ayacucho as a YAV. Of course, that would have made little difference on the bus, but it is worth noting.

I was by no means excited or driven. If someone had asked me to divulge why I was doing a YAV year, my answer would likely have been biting and sarcastic. I was tired, grumpy, uncomfortable, and spent, yet I wasn’t giving up. Even passively, I was invested in this year and being present, even if I might come up short given my current unwell state.

And therein seemed to lie some of the power in the prayers. I don’t consider myself weak-willed, but I did feel particularly paralyzed in that moment. Yet, I felt empowered to keep moving and I do not believe that originated from within myself alone.

As I sit in my bed in Ayacucho, just a day after that terrible bus ride, I’m still nervous and apprehensive. More so than I ever felt in Lima. I’m much more disconnected from the rest of the world here. My family decided to cut off their wifi a little while ago because they did not use it, which I can admire.

I’m so disconnected that it took me 15 minutes to realize what all the “I WILL NEVER FORGET” statuses were about when I finally got to an internet café yesterday, September 11. I won’t apologize for forgetting, I do not think it is a dishonor to those who were lost on that day, but the disconnect does worry me.

I have drawn much of my support from remaining connected home, in contact with my family, my friends and my fellow YAVs. Having lost that connection, I find that I am putting all the more value in prayer, as awkward as this may feel. If you don’t like the word prayer, call it “love and support.” The point is, the power of prayer I came upon in the bus is one that can reach me here in the mountains with more consistent signal strength than the internet.

I just need to learn how to sense it.

A Loving Goodbye in Lima

Well, the day I leave for Ayacucho has finally come. I’m much more apprehensive than I expected. You’d think after the third week of moving from one place to another I’d be ready to just settle down in a new home for the year. I’ve enjoyed the moving around and creating connections in both Stony Point and with my temporary host family in Lima. While those connections have made this time more enjoyable and communal, it has made each departure all the more difficult.

I’m going to miss my fellow Peru YAVs, just as I miss the YAVs I connected with who are now around the world. I’m going to miss Jed and Jenny, as well. They’ve provided a safe, but challenging space to grow and experience Peru. And I’ll miss Cente, Mario, Christian, and Ara my host family here in Lima. I haven’t talked much about my host family in Lima, but let me tell you they made it really hard to say goodbye today.

I think this story will make the most sense if I add a little context. You see, last night the YAVs got back from a brief retreat in Huacho, Peru. It was three hours north of Lima, right on the coast, much sunnier, and all-around beautiful. It was a great chance to get out of Lima and clear our heads a bit before we head out to our placements.

There were of course beautiful moments on the retreat. On a programmatic level, our group wrote a covenant, celebrated communion together, and we each offered up some goals for the first phase of our YAV year. And we saw some amazing waves crashing along the beach and the ruins of Caral, an archaeological site that the Ministry of Culture in Peru has only just started excavating in the last 20 years. They’re the same age as the Egyptian pyramids and yet I swear I’d never heard of them.

Unfortunately, I also entered into a period of Montezuma’s Revenge that is ongoing at this point. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that bit of culturally-insensitive vernacular, think squirts. Now that we’re hopefully all on the same page, you can understand why this retreat was not the recharge I had been expecting.

So when I got back to my host family’s last night and found them absent, I slipped into my bedroom and feeling too tired to pack, took a nap. When my host brother Mario got in I said hello, but then took another brief nap. Again I woke to say hello to my host mother, but only for a brief moment. I found myself too tired to do much more than toss my clothes into my suitcase and read a snippet of Game of Thrones.

I felt pretty disappointed that drained as I was, my last hours with my host family in Lima would be so lackluster.

Luckily, my host family intervened with some absolutely touching hospitality. My host mother, Ara, had prepared a breakfast and for the first time since I’d been home, everyone ate together. This is a rarity in my family as Chente, Ara, and Mario (who is younger) leave the house as early as 7 am most days. I honestly still haven’t worked out their schedule, but I could sense that Ara had a hand in bringing my brothers out to eat.

I was still pretty tired, but it lightened my spirits some. Over a banana smoothie, sausage omelet, and hot chocolate we discussed the weekend retreat and they pressed me for details about when I would leave. Would I be around to lunch with them as well?

I wasn’t sure, but soon Jenny called and said she’d be coming to get me at ten. According to Chente, that wouldn’t do. He was persistent from that moment that Jenny walked in that we should all have lunch together after I brought my things to Jed and Jenny’s apartment. And so that’s exactly what happened.

So we left and brought my things over and then Sara and I spent about three hours waiting for Jed and Jenny to finish a few tasks. Around 1:30 we headed back over and found that in the last three hours, they had all been hard at work. Chente had prepared a pesto, pasta, and anticucho (cow heart) dish, Ara had fried up potatoes filled with ham and cheese, and Mario had made a tomato and avocado salad. And this was entirely spur of the moment. Luckily, Jenny thought to bring a chocolate tres leches cake to share. I was glad that we had something to offer in exchange for this incredible outpouring.

The incredible feast aside, I was touched by the joy in their company. We joked and laughed and worked through the various language and extroversion levels at the table to have an altogether joyful time discussing topics ranging from past YAV groups, to favorite foods, to our jobs, and more.

And I can’t figure out how to articulate exactly why I’m so touched. This outpouring of kindness was at once a complete surprise as it happened, but it seems to make complete sense at the same time. I didn’t see it coming and yet it is totally in alignment with the kindness and care they expressed throughout the last two weeks.

It’s something I’m noticing about my year. There are good relationships to be found in a YAV year whether with fellow YAVs, your YAV coordinators, your host families, or the random people you happen to meet in a taxi. So… I’m sad to leave my host family and the YAVs to head off on my own and also very hopeful to stay on this streak of being in immediate loving community with those around me.

And if that sentiment seems vomit-worthy, I think the Montezuma’s Revenge is worth it.

My Lima family.

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Reinterpreting Fair Trade after a visit with Ima Sumacc

Yesterday, we visited with Ima Sumacc, which means “How Beautiful!” in English. This is a group of women weavers who live and work in one of the poorest districts of Lima. This group works with the fair trade organization, Bridge of Hope, to get contracts and sell their weavings around the world.

I go back and forth on fair trade. I understand the sentiment. Workers are not able to live well if they work for factory wages. So encourage them to act as entrepreneurs and allow them to earn a fairer wage in exchange for more expensive, but often handmade and higher quality products. It’s created a niche market that keeps artisan wares out of competition with lower quality and cheaper products, which seem equivalent to the ignorant consumer.

Fair trade deals in equity, a concept economics tends to discuss poorly. As Professor Sarah West, my adviser at Macalester College said, economics offers no guidance on equity, only what is efficient. Equity or “fairness” requires a system of values on what is right. Pareto Optimal models of efficiency so that there’s an infinite number of allocations of resources from the least to most equitable. Fair trade is an attempt to pick up where economics falls short on values.

Still, I sometimes take issue with the fact that some group defines fair. Who is to say if this amount or that amount is fair?  It risks the possibility of creating dependency. A fair wages varies across the global economy. Likewise, I don’t think the fair trade market is large enough to employ everyone and make a sizable change in the wages of most members of a country. Likewise, fair trade markets are too small to notably impact the sales of lower quality standard free trade items. So, fair trade makes a difference for a few people, but it doesn’t seem like it is going to revolutionize the system.

Of course, that is no reason not to do it. Our conversation with the woman from Ima Sumacc proved that to me yesterday. These women were driven to Lima by the twenty years of violence. They were displaced. They did not have stable families. They all worked hard and studied harder in hopes of pulling themselves out of poverty. This included a few classes in weaving by their founder, Idelsa.

After taking classes, she decided that this might be a good way to start making money to support herself. So she sought out women who might want to join in working with her. She found Isabel, Giovana, and Esperanza, none of whom had much weaving or sewing experience. Yet, they invested the time and worked to perfect their craft before moving to sell it on the market.

It was through their connection with Bridge of Hope that they were able to take the next step to sell their woven scarves, blankets, and dolls to make a positive return on their investment in learning to weave. And for that reason, I think fair trade is still very necessary. It offers incentives and mechanisms to make investments in skills pay off in ways that they would not in existing markets.