A Tale of Two Cities…er, Villages

24 10 2012

After a full week of no rain, I woke up this morning and realized the streak was over. I got out of bed immediately to call the village health volunteer who works on the nutrition project with me. I knew from previous experience that when it rains, it’s best to cancel project activities. More often than not, paid government employees like teachers or health center staff won’t go to work if it’s raining, so it’s even less probable that community members will volunteer to come to projects when it’s wet outside.

I called the volunteer and asked if we should still have the planned feeding session, the second in a series of ten. Yes, she assured me. Yes, the mothers will come. Let’s still have the session. I was skeptical, but trusted this volunteer. She told me that the mothers would come so I believed her.

Volunteers mapping where the underweight children live

At least, that’s what I thought she had told me. But when I arrived in the village a half an hour later, I realized I had misunderstood. Since the Khmer language doesn’t have tenses, I hadn’t realized when we were talking that the volunteer had told me, “Yes, the mothers came” and not, “Yes, the mothers will come.”

So I showed up on my bike, a little wet, and was greeted by more than 30 smiling faces who were sitting underneath the stilted house eating their nutritious weaning porridge while a light rain fell around them. Everything about this situation was surprising to me. First, it was only seven in the morning, and they had already made and started to eat the porridge. In the other village where we did the project, it was a battle to get the porridge finished in time for my 11am class. Second, there were 30 people there, including every single child on the list of underweight kids. Again, this was nothing like in the other village, where we were happy to get half of the participants to show up. And, finally, the volunteers were enthusiastically teaching about nutrition to the mothers, using the education tools they had been trained on. In the other village, I had to do a large portion of the education because the volunteers refused to do it. And when they did teach, they certainly didn’t use as effective of methods. All of this, and it was raining to boot! I sat and watched the whole thing unfold, almost feeling unneeded. A bittersweet feeling, indeed.

Volunteers learning about behavior change communication

Consider this is another situation to file under “things that baffle me.” (Although, to be fair, it would be unusual if more than a couple of days went by without having something to add to that list.) Volunteers from both villages received the same training. The villages are a mere 500 meters from one another. As far as I can tell, they have approximately the same level of income and resources available. Yet, I’ve seen drastically different results in the two places. It’s been like night and day since the beginning of the project, but this morning was the perfect illustration of the competence – and confidence – found within the second village.

This morning, one of the project volunteers from the second village excitedly approached me saying, “I think the mothers trust us already. I think they have confidence in us and understand that our method will help their children. Mothers won’t change their behaviors unless they trust us – and trust this project – but they do! All of the mothers in the village want to come participate now. They all want to learn how to help their kids grow up to be healthy and strong.” And then, after a pause, “This many women didn’t want to participate in [village one], did they? In our village, the mothers want to learn, they want to be healthy. Today, every single mother brought money to contribute. All of the mothers made time for their children. They want to be lazy, but they are not because they know that health is important. I think our two villages are different.” Truer words were never spoken.

Letting the porridge thicken

This whole thing leads me to a perennial question for Peace Corps Volunteers: Who should we be working with? People or groups who, like the second village, have the desire and a foundation of skills to help themselves? It certainly seems as though that’s where we can be most effective. Connecting willing and able communities with resources and knowledge seems like a great role for PCVs. But then what about those other communities? Why are they more difficult to work with? Do they really not want to help themselves? Are they “lazy,” as the other villages will quickly label them? Or do they lack the capacity? Should we be focusing on building the abilities of these villages to self-organize and manage projects instead of putting resources into villages who already have these skills?

It’s a tough question. Maybe in the long-run, it is best to focus on villages like the first who can’t do it themselves yet, even if it is more difficult. However, when it comes down to it, when I plan my next project, it’s much more likely that I’ll continue to work with the volunteers in the second village. If nothing else, they show up when it rains.






3 responses

24 10 2012

AKA Steven

So, this reminds me of two things, both of which pretty much lean toward the second village. The first is opportunity cost. (Perhaps a lazy interpretation) Your time is much more effective at the second village, and more costly at the first. There may not be anyone who could get more response out of the first village, but their time may at least be in less demand (ergo, less costly).

The second thing is authority. People have to be willing to listen to you. If they aren’t, if they don’t trust you and recognize the value and authority of what you have to tell them, then you can’t make them listen. If the first village doesn’t want to listen or learn, even though you most definitely know what you’re talking about and doing, then it is a bit of a waste of time.

That said, there may be other things you can do, or other people who will listen to you. By all means, do what you can. :) But you can’t make people listen, even if it’s for their own good.

27 10 2012

True story, Steven. Thanks for posting this.

9 11 2012
‘Maan kilo? « TimKat's Travels

[…] too long ago, I posted an update on my PD Hearth project, but since then there have been quite a few new developments. First of all, […]

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