When it rains in San Salvador, my water and electricity almost always go out. So, to keep myself occupied during the storm today, I put some chicken feed outside my screen door and waited. Mia was not pleased with me, the chicken, nor the screen door.
Listen to the mustn’ts, child.
Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the shouldn’ts,
the impossible, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves,
then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child.
Anything can be.
I still can speak hardly a lick of Guaraní.
So, while I sat sipping terere, sweat engulfing every inch of my body, my mind couldn’t help but wander as my host family sputtered off in heaps of indigenous sounds I can only dream of producing.
The past two months had been a whirlwind of traveling, camps, visitors, meetings, and classes. This meant that I was long overdue for a family meal.
Dinner for the night was fresh fish my cousins had caught in the river the day before and cow intestine.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Halfway through their conversation (or at the end, I’m not really sure) my host mom got up and told me to come with her. I assumed she wanted me to come help her prepare the food, but as we walked into the kitchen she went straight for the refrigerator and opened the door.
Then I screamed.
There, at the bottom of the refrigerator, lay an entire cow head; skinned mind you, but whole nonetheless.
Eyeballs and all.
My host mom was off to the side doubled-over from laughter. To which I followed suit. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for you, I didn’t have my camera on me at the time.
But I did, however, bring it the following day when we cooked and ate cow head for lunch. So while you won’t get the full, disturbing, and questionably unsanitary effect of a skinned cow head shoved into a bottom of a refrigerator, you will get to see what a cow head looks like hot off the grill.
It was udderly delicious.
What Dr. Ari Kohen lacks in girth, he makes up for in vast cognizance. For my last two semesters in college, I sat in the front row of his political theory classes terrified out of my mind but drinking up his every word. He had a way of gracefully pissing every one of his students off by his ability to adapt every angle of an argument as if it were his own; it was his art form. No student left Dr. Kohen’s classes with the same world view as when they entered. He didn’t just teach us facts, he taught us how to think.
One thing that was clear to all political science students was that one did not take Dr. Kohen’s classes to boost one’s GPA. He set his expectations high, fostered an environment for healthy debates, and changed how we saw ourselves and the world around us. Those who took his classes did so because they forced us to yearn for a greater understanding of our own humanity.
So, in December, when I began my Acción Juvenil class, I tried my absolute best to model it after Dr. Kohen’s classes. That is to say I wanted my students to have a space for critical thinking and trying out new ideas.
Accíon Juvenil is actually a Peace Corps manual of lessons designed to motivate youth to take action in their community. I taught it as a Monday, Wednesday, Friday course during the month of December. The themes in this class ranged from self-esteem, leadership, communication, teamwork, human rights, social responsibility, and we ended by brainstorming ideas for community projects.
In addition to these concrete lessons, we also touched on other more informal lessons such as why Alecia doesn’t buy your excuses regarding your supposed inability to achieve your goal. And how telling Alecia you will be in class and not showing up is much more disrespectful than just letting me know ahead of time that your brother’s 3rd grade graduation this Friday conflicts with class. Cultural literacy lessons, if you will.
Now, one cannot model a citizenship class after Dr. Kohen’s political theory courses without addressing human rights (and as it just so happened that was one of the class options in the manual). So, as we sat in our 6th class the pending assignment at hand was, “This class just discovered a new country and is now the government of the country in question. Each government official [aka. student] must come up with three rights they think everyone in the country should be entitled to.”
After each student wrote their human rights on different pieces of paper, we presented them. Their answers were impressive to say the least.
Once they presented, I told them to prioritize the rights. This lead to one of the most intellectual and fulfilling conversations I have experienced since arriving in Paraguay (never underestimate the abilities of teenage girls).
They debated between whether health or education was more important; one girl arguing if you don’t have health, you can’t function properly, including attending school to get an education. While another pointed out, “yes but without education you have no doctors which means you have no way to improve your health.”
They debated the meaning of equality; which ranged from socioeconomic, to gender, to age, to language (a problem in some areas of Paraguay).
They got frustrated at me for making them prioritize the rights. To which, I am proud to say, that in complete Dr. Kohen fashion I just smiled, said nothing, and they had no choice but to continue their conversation.
In the end they decided each of these rights were crucial to live in a society and they refused to prioritize them.
As selfish a comment as this may be, I have never been so proud in my life.
Their debates were mature and educational; so much so that I recommend the Fox and MSNBC news anchors come to San Salvador to take some pointers on maturity from these teenage girls. They were able to recognize the importance of such topics in which even an accredited US university can’t seem to find the full value. And, to top it off they landed on a completely out of the box decision by refusing to place the rights in order.
After our class on human rights, we had four more classes and each proved just as educationally stimulating as the last. The students seeming more confident in voicing their opinions, as I mostly sat silently with a quirky Kohen smile on my face.
I recently took a quick vacation to Uruguay and was asked by another PCV what it would take for me to leave Paraguay feeling successful in my Peace Corps service. I am not sure what my answer was at the time, because when you spend an evening drinking wine with close friends in a beach house in Uruguay, you start to lose count of how many glasses you’ve had. But I have had the time to think about this and I now have a soberly thought-out answer.
I will feel successful if I can prove to the youth of San Salvador that they don’t need me.
Or any Peace Corps volunteer for that matter.
I have gotten to know many of them well enough that I know they don’t need me. But I also have had enough conversations with them (and the adults) to know that they think they need me.
I want the youth to discover their own capabilities and view their weaknesses as opportunities. I want them to own their identity with confidence. I want them to hunger for a purpose, and boldly attack every obstacle along the way. I want them to think critically and try new things. But more than anything I want them to never question the possibility of acheiving their dreams.
I want to change their way of thinking so that they set their expectations high. I want to foster an environment for healthy debates, and change how they see themselves and the world around them. I too, want them yearn for a greater understanding of their own humanity. Only then will they be able to change their community, their country, and their world. Only then will they see me as no more than just a silly Peace Corps volunteer who runs around town taking pictures of cows while the youth do all the work.
This is painfully accurate.
I just purchased 3 watermelons for 66 cents.
And that, my friends, is what it looks like to win in the Peace Corps.
This is EXACTLY what my exercise class is like.
Last week I had reconnect so my classes were all canceled. However, they are back and running. For those of you following my health class, here is what we are learning this week:
WOMAN OF THE WEEK: SERAFINA DAVALOS
Serafina was the first female attorney in Paraguay and the first Paraguayan woman to complete a doctoral degree. Her doctoral thesis critiqued the use of biology to support sexism and advocated for the emancipation of women. Just one year after she qualified as an attorney, Serafina served on the Supreme Court (1908-1909). She was the only woman to serve on the Paraguayan judiciary until 1980.
In addition to her legal work, Serafina founded a commercial high school for girls and represented Paraguay at international women’s rights conferences.
Serafina is considered Paraguay’s first feminist. She died in 1957, four years before Paraguay granted women the right to vote (Paraguay was the last country to do so in Latin America).
A woman accomplishing this is not unheard of today and therefor it is easy to underestimate her accomplishments.
But lets think for a minute. She became an attorney, she received her doctoral degree, she even served on the Supreme Court.
But she was never able to vote.
At this time, it seem that she was accomplishing the impossible. But the reason she was able to achieve what she did was largely because she didn’t focus on the obstacles, she focused on the possibilities.
Which leads me to the thought of the day:
“Imagine what this world could be if instead of focusing on how difficult things are, we focused on how possible they are.”
For our exercise class, per request, I focused on core strengthening which as of yesterday, proved to be much more challenging than the flexibility focused yoga class I had last week.
Interestingly enough, that turned out to be very fitting for our theme of not focusing on a situation’s difficulties.
Our nutrition topic this week is on proteins. We are addressing the health effects of highly processed proteins like hotdogs, chorizo, and lunch meat and what benefits we can gain from replacing those with less processed proteins such as eggs, beans, chicken, milk, and fish.
1) Replace one processed meat for one unprocessed meat
2) Do something
Two weeks ago I was trekking around town – all 15 blocks of it – posting flyers in every community building I could think of.
I was preparing to start my health and exercise class the following Tuesday.
Like my English class, this stemmed out of a request; a request for me to start an aerobics class – which I am perfectly qualified to teach considering I once took a Zumba class for a sorority sisterhood event.
My initial reaction to the request was laughter as I considered the absurdity of getting up in front of a bunch of women; my extremities flailing about as I tossed out poorly conjugated verbs. However, the idea of a promoting health and wellness did motivate me to twist the class so I felt confident in my ability to lead the participants.
The hour-long class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00pm and is designed for women and girls of all ages and fitness levels.
The purpose of the class is to focus on healthy living, learn the importance of setting goals, reevaluate our ideas of strength and beauty, and honor inspirational women who have contributed to improving our world.
The class is broken up into 4 main sections:
- A 10 minute discussion about the woman of the week
- A 30 minute exercise class
- A 10 minute information session over our nutrition tip of the week
- The remaining 10 minutes is to focus on our weekly challenge.
This past week, for example, nine girls shuffled into the Centro Social where my class is held. We began class at 5:00 Paraguay time (meaning 5:22) with the question, “Who is Mother Teresa?” Given Paraguay is 98 percent Catholic, I was correct in my assumption that I did not need to go into detail about who Mother Teresa was; so I decided, instead to focus on who she wasn’t.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love” - Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa is an amazing and strong women for many reasons, however one reason she was so incredible, was precisely because there was nothing incredible about her. She wasn’t remotely wealthy, she wasn’t particularly talented, she wasn’t extraordinarily beautiful*, she wasn’t even excessively educated**.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was exceptionally ordinary. She was just an ordinary woman who chose to act with incredible love and compassion. Mother Teresa achieved what she did because of her perseverance and passion to improve the lives of others.
She suffered. She sacrificed. She persevered. And she changed the world.
THAT is strength. THAT is beauty.
After discussing our woman of the week we transitioned into a 30-minute [very basic] yoga class.The girls had never experienced a yoga class before which resulted in much more laughter than any yoga class I had taken part in.
It may have been my favorite yoga class to date.
After the yoga class, I went in to a mini nutrition lesson about the health effects of drinking pop*** as well as the health benefits of drinking water.
To finish the class and tie everything together I gave them the following weekly challenge:
- Eliminate pop from your diet for a week. Replace it with water or natural fruit juice.
- Do one small thing with great love.
WHY THIS FORMAT?
As my love for Paraguay strengthens, my struggle with the extent to which women are sexualized and objectified in this country also deepens. It is easy to assume the relationship of this objectification is male to female. However, as I examined my own life and those of women around me, both in Paraguay and in the States, I realized we [women] tend to, though not purposefully so, objectify ourselves and other women.
We hate our fat ankles and our squishy stomachs and our cellulite-filled thighs. And to remove these perceived problems we exercise and improve our diet, as we should. But clearly the issue is not that we are exercising and eating healthy; it is why we are doing these things.
Too often women (myself included) are going to the gym and analyzing their calories not to improve their health and fitness but to improve their appearance. There is a magnitude of reasons to reach a certain BMI or weight range, but your physical appearance is not one of them.
It is important to understand that being a healthy, strong, beautiful woman is absolutely something for which to strive. But that cannot be achieved if we don’t understand that ‘healthy’ does not mean ‘thin’; and ‘strength’ has a multitude of meanings; and ‘beauty’ should be sought from within.
Which is why, after only teaching a couple of classes, I realized I am not just the teacher I am a participant.
This is where YOU come in.
The purpose of my extensive explanation for this fitness class is not only to inform those of you who read my blog, but also to invite you to participate in my class.
Since arriving, I have had a heartwarming number of people ask how they can get involved in supporting my service and my community. It has been one of the many aspects of my service that have opened me up to the realization of the quantity and quality of people who have entered my life. Unfortunately, when I have been asked about this in the past, I have had a difficult time giving a feasible answer.
Each week, I will be posting the woman of the week, the type of exercise we will be doing, the nutrition tip, and the weekly challenge.
It is our job, as human beings to promote the value of other human beings; to build them up.
So I invite you to take part in my class. Educate yourself and/or someone else on the woman of the week, exercise, read the nutrition tip, and take-on the challenge.
We all have women who have inspired us and stories that need to be shared. I encourage you to comment or post your stories or stories of strong and beautiful women in your life so I can share them with my class.
I am not blind to the amazing women in my life and know what an impact those in the States can make on the women here and vice versa.
I hope you take part in my class; it sure would be a small act of great love.
*Society’s definition of physical beauty
**Exception: Mother Teresa spoke 5 languages fluently
***Pop is how Nebraskans refer to carbonated soft drinks
The last homework assignment I gave my English class was to write about their dream job. I received many surprising answers but this was one of my favorites.
It should go without saying she has received previous English education… we never covered the conditional tense.
It should also go without saying, she passed with flying colors.