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Monday, November 21, 2011

Where will all the Garbage Go?

A tale of Spontaneous development work

In the Peace Corps there are some projects you plan out meticulously. You pore over calendars and schedules for months and brainstorm a 5 step plan for development or empowerment or education. Other times, you go to someone’s house to sit down for five minutes to drink terere and the next thing you know you are trying to explain in Guarani why the ozone layer is important to a bunch of sixth and seventh graders. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This post is about waste. Garbage. And how we 'dispose' or, to use a term that almost hides the negative part about garbage, 'manage' it. Some fun facts:

-The mounds of garbage south of Chicago near the Altgeld Gardens housing projects were so steep a few years ago that an avalanche of trash was feared. After considering various solutions, a flock of garbage eating GOATS were brought in to consume some of the garbage and make the structure of the mound more secure and prevent a disaster.

-Anyone who has driven out of St. Louis into Illinois has seen the massive mounds of garbage that are located right next to the poor neighborhood of East St. Louis. It’s no secret that landfills are generally located next to poor areas who lack economic and political power. Just imagine how fast a proposal to build a landfill next to oh, I don’t know, Hinsdale, IL would get shut down. It would be a quick case of Nimby, aka Not in my backyard.

The garbage problem of our throwaway culture is obviously more readily observable to someone who lives next to a landfill. In the suburbs, we have trash pickup, recycle, and the problem is easy to push out of our immediate priorities. Out of sight, out of mind. I remember how in one of my undergrad courses at Knox it was easy for our discussion group to gang up on the ‘evil and misleading corporations’ that profit from waste management in the U.S. How dare they put landfills next to poor people, man! Looking back on that discussion, my 25 year old self wants to go back in time and give my 22 year old self a reality slap in the face: If the waste management companies are so evil, then what is your solution, man?

Honestly, where WILL all our garbage will go? As more areas in the world develop a consumer mentality, the problem only becomes worse. Living in rural Paraguay has shown me what happens when the culture of consumerism outpaces the culture of waste management. San Blas got electricity here in just 1998. Cell phones arrived in the mid 2000’s (we skipped over land lines). The town now watches as much TV as anywhere, and as a result people here are exposed to the same adds for Hellman’s mayonnaise and Coca Cola along with other consumer products. (With genius add campaigns specifically tailored to them). And I can guarantee that people here produce less per-year waste than the average American since so much food is consumed fresh. But a cursory glance or walk down the main road makes it evident that managing waste is not a top priority, as one will find it littered with all sorts of plastic, paper and glass garbage.

One of two things is usually done with an empty plastic yogurt container, plastic wrapper for a sucker or other throwaway item here: it is either a) tossed on the ground or b) burned in a garbage fire. Sometimes garbage is tossed into a garbage bucket, but normally that is just to be burned later anyway. The municipality has listed in its job description that it should provide garbage pickup for all of the companies under its jurisdiction, but so far the infrastructure hasn’t reached San Blas. So what SHOULD BE done with garbage here, especially toxic plastic waste that one shouldn’t be burning? The best solution is to build a garbage pit in your backyard and just burn whatever paper or cardboard waste you have.

I say ‘should be’ because in my experience most people burn all garbage, toxic and non-toxic, in a weekly garbage fire behind their house. I haven’t seen a lot of garbage pits in my town. The other day, I am over at my friends’ house and heading to the latrine after a round of terere when I see one of the daughters of the family sweeping garbage into a big pile.

“Are you going to burn that?” I ask her.
“Yep,” She replies.
I notice that there is a lot of plastic in her pile, so I say “You know it’s toxic to burn plastic?”
“Yea, I know,” she goes.
“Well why don’t you dig a garbage pit?”
“Why don’t you dig a garbage pit?” she said in a sarcastic, joking way.

I’m pretty sure she was just joking, but I decided to call her bluff. I agree that digging a trash pit is a fine idea, so she hands me a shovel and I start digging in her backyard. An hour later we have a pit that is about 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide. We then get her little brothers and sisters to gather the plastic laying around her house and toss it into the pit. Peace Corps grassroots development work for the day: accomplished.

Sometimes, I don’t think the words “Burning plastic is toxic” have much weight to whoever is listening to me. It’s hard to explain that the smoke will travel a short distance, probably settle into the ground and seep into the water supply and result in greater incidences of cancer, deformed offspring and reproductive failure. I get a look sometimes when I say that like I am crazy. Even though, tragically, an extremely healthy 19 year old one 2 miles from my town has just contracted cancer. I mean, its good that burning a plastic bag and inhaling the smoke doesn’t make your face peel off or anything but, at the same time its effects are potentially fatal. Yet my friend knew toxic was plastic on some level, but that wasn't enough motivation for her to dig a pit to dispose properly of toxic plastic instead of burning it.

Creating the right incentives for behavior change is tricky, and more-so in a foreign land and language. Motivation for behavior change depends on the effort needed to make that change, and the immediate benefit or threat of the problem being presented. This is where education comes in. An educated population is more likely to take more preventative measures to problems as opposed to reactive measures. And digging a single garbage pit and explaining to one family why it is toxic to burn garbage could be the start of a green revolution in Paraguay.
At least, this is what we volunteers tell ourselves. But hey, you never know.

A big thank you to everyone who donated to San Blas’ school library. Most Peace Corps Partnership projects that are submitted to the internet take months to get funding, and within less than 3 days we made it to the $360 mark. I guess I should have asked for more money, but live and learn. The students of San Blas will be extremely happy to have some new and very awesome books for next year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

It’s late in the afternoon and I’m getting ready to make an exquisite dinner of veggie rice stir fry. My across-the-street neighbor, Ovidio, appears outside my front window and give a few claps, as is the custom since doorbells don’t exist here. I step outside to greet him.

“Come, you did a bad thing,” he says. “Your dog. It’s very bad.” Say what? I follow, and my heart starts pounding harder and faster. My dog Yuyo ('Yuyo is a Guarani word that means 'remedy') is at my other neighbors’ house right now, but I’m fearful that he may have been hit by a truck just like my previous one.

We walk across the dirt road and arrive at young Ovidio’s house. We sit down and he begins to talk sullenly yet rapidly to me in Guarani. I understand about 60% of his words, but the gist is very clear. He is angry at my dog Yuyo, who he accuses of killing not one, but two of his ducks. He brings me a dead duck that he just found, throws it on the ground in front of me and explains the evidence.

Three days ago his mother-in-law saw from up the road a dog attack a duck and was certain, from 100 meters away, that it was el perro americano (the American dog) doing the deed. That was the first duck murder. Today, another one of his flock of ducks was found dead. As a result of his alleged guilt in the first attack, Yuyo is the prime suspect in both killings. “So it looks like we are going to be eating some fried duck tonight,” he says sarcastically.

After hearing the accusation, I am in denial. I feel like a parent after a call from school about their teenager who was caught in the act of some serious misbehavior:

My kid? Sarah? No, no, you must be mistaken. Sarah would never plagiarize. She’s a good kid.

I know, Mrs. Johnson, this is probably difficult for you to accept. The thing is, if you google “Birds of south America” in Spanish, the third link from the top is verbatim the report that your daughter turned in. She didn’t even bother to change the font. She will be receiving a zero and will be reported to honor board. I’m sorry.

That’s not possible. Let me talk to Sarah. This is clearly a misunderstanding.

I still felt that the evidence was a bit sketchy and attempted to do a quick cross examination. So you didn’t actually see my dog kill the duck today? Is your mother-in-law sure of what she saw? How good is her vision from 100 meters? I understand you are upset, but are you sure you aren’t jumping to a conclusion here? etc. Unfortunately I don’t think my Guarani came off as articulate as Perry Mason, because Ovidio was still sure that Yuyo was the guilty party, and his grim face was angrily staring through me.

When you are responsible for the death of a chicken, duck, or other farm animal here, it is customary to pay the owner its cash value. Guilty dog or innocent, I was not about to start a feud with my neighbor. I went back to my house and grabbed the 50,000 Guaranies that the ducks were worth. I came back and handed him the cash, saying again how sorry I was. I also brought Yuyo over, let him approach the dead duck as if he could eat it, and then gave him a disciplinary smack and yelled at him. I figured this would satisfy Ovidio and prevent the behavior in the future, if indeed it were true.

Ovidio, though, still looked as angry as he was when he came to my house. So I said, “Well, he won’t be eating any more ducks, that’s for sure. Is there anything else you want me to do?”

Raising his head slowly, speaking deliberately, he looked me in the eyes and said, “If my dog had killed a duck, I am going to kill the dog.” The clear inference was that I should kill Yuyo.

I diverge from the story for a moment to explain a cultural difference about dogs here. Dogs in rural Paraguay are not “man’s best friend” as they are in the U.S. With few exceptions, dogs don’t do tricks, don’t have collars, aren’t on leashes, don’t have food bowls and are not fed dog food. They roam around different houses looking for table scraps, howl all night (especially when there is a female dog ‘in heat’), camp outside and bark at anything and everything that walks by. One thing they don’t do is kill chickens or ducks.

When I first arrived to here, I didn’t understand why dogs don't hunt chickens all the time. The dogs are starving. You can see the bones of their ribcages. Why don’t they just hunt down one of the 70 defenseless chickens digging for worms in the dirt between the orange trees and satisfy their hunger?

My host-dad Antolin answered my question easily. Laughing, he said, “Oh those dogs don’t kill any chickens. If I find out a dog killed a chicken, we get rid of that dog immediately. It’s done.” Get rid of, of course, means kill. It might sound harsh, but when you are poor and your ducks and chickens are one of your main sources of income, every time one of them dies it is the same as someone taking cash out of your pocket. If a dog develops a taste for live chicken or duck meat, natural selection does not look at him favorably in San Blas.

Back to the action. I am trying to process the fact that my neighbor wants me to kill my dog, who is literally my best friend. Yuyo goes on runs with me, sleeps in my house, and goes swimming in the river with me on hot days. He is the second dog I have raised here after the first one got hit by a truck. I try to explain. “I know this might be difficult for you to understand, but Yuyo is more than just a dog to me, he’s my friend. I’m not going to kill him.” As my lips complete this sentence, I realize how crazy it probably sounds in Spanish to Ovidio that I’m going to let a dog get away with murder.

At that precise moment my grey-haired neighbor Esteban rolls up, unaware of the tense moment Ovidio and I are having. Esteban is clearly in a good mood and enjoying his Sunday afternoon, as the flask in his right hand is almost empty. He asks if we want to join him in his Sunday Funday, then notices the somber, serious mood we are both in. Ovidio quickly fills him in on the situation. Perro americano. Mother-law. Dead ducks.

Esteban processes what Ovidio is saying, then says my favorite Guarani phrase of all time: Ijapueterei.

Literally translated, ijapu means ‘he/she/it is lying.’ The eterei on the end adds emphasis. Instead of a regular lie, it’s a big, fat lie. Add tavy on to that to make ijapuetereitavy if what someone just said was the most outrageous fabrication you’ve ever heard.

Ijapueterei,” Esteban says emphatically. “That’s a lie. The dog didn’t kill the duck. I saw that duck get run over by a guy on a motorcycle earlier today.”

Esteban picks up the dead duck by its feet to examine it. Sure enough, it has a big, obvious tire tread mark on its back. Ovidio turns to me with an extremely guilty look and gives me back half of the money. I feel like I have just lived through a Perry Mason episode where it seems obvious that the killer is the defendant until the very last surprise witness. Thank god for wandering late Sunday afternoon drunks. I hand Ovidio back some of the money and decide this is a situation for gesture of truce that both of our cultures understand. “I think this calls for a beer.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nurturing a Culture of Learning: The Library Experiment

All PC volunteers understand that their service is filled with bipolar mood waves of ups and downs. A low can transform into a high within an hour and then reverse again, or a mood can last weeks at time. Me? I’ve had my share of lows and highs, which are noticeably amplified since there are so few distractions in my town. Yea, I can seek out some outlets—playing pick up soccer with high schoolers maybe. But sometimes I can’t help but miss things from back home: my mom’s chicken and dumplings, Wisconsin cheese, and the innocuous but typical conversation with another Chicagoan about how good the Bears’ second string quarterback is looking this year. But here and then you have those ‘Yes! I actually accomplished something’ moments, which are the highs, that make it all worth it.

Sitting here in my school on a sunny but brisk spring afternoon, I’m thinking about the time almost a year and a half ago when I had some sit down time in the ministry of education of Paraguay. A representative with whom the other volunteers and I were chatting said that the ministry would love to equip schools in more remote areas with books, but that often schools in areas where they have never had many books often either a) put the books into a corner and not let anyone touch them so as not to get them dirty or b) the books are soon lost, destroyed, brought to homes and never seen again. My friend asked the obvious catch 22: “How are communities and schools going to learn how to use books if no one ever gives them any?”
When I arrived to San Blas in May of 2010, I found myself confronted precisely by this chicken-egg dilemma. My school had an extremely limited quantity of kids’ books (about 20) collecting dust in the corner, but they were of poor quality. Without a solid selection of children’s books it was difficult to show even the teachers the benefits of integrating children’s literature into their classroom routines, let alone convince the parents of a poor community to use their limited resources to buy children’s books. The bitter irony is that communities like San Blas needs kids’ books the most.

Fortunately over the last year a few things happened that tipped the scales in our favor. First, I read a lot of books out loud in all of the grades. This became an especially effective activity when students started asking their teachers when is Professor Miguel going to be coming in again to read? Remember how hard it is to say “no” to cute 3rd graders who want to do something educational? At the same time, I received a few decent sized donations of books, one from a friend back in the states, one from an ex-pat, and another from an international book aid organization. These donations allowed the library to grow to its current size of about 140 books, or one shelf’s worth. Perhaps even more importantly, the books that we have now are awesome and pique the students’ interest. When I started reading classics like Where the Wild Things Are and The Hungry Caterpillar, all of the students, from kindergarten to 6th grade, started to ask me for more. I would read a book in 4th grade and 6th grade would hear through the walls and come up to me and ask me to read in their class. Sure, ndaipori problema. A little bit harder was to get the teachers to read the books to the kids in my place, but once I told them that if we weren’t using the books I would have to donate the books to a school that would use them, they went with it.

The culmination of all this was last week, when I had a meeting with the parents to discuss “the TRIAL PERIOD for a system of book loaning.” After taking into consideration the concerns of the teachers at San Blas that a school library loan system would only result in a loss of all the books, we decided to take a hard line: For the next month, we will loan books out to kids only from 3rd grade up. If a book goes missing that student has their book loaning privileges revoked. If enough books go missing, the ‘trial period’ will be over and the books will simply stay at the school. Every student, in order to borrow a book, must pass a small test on how to take care of books, delivered by myself. Students from kindergarten through 2nd grade can only borrow books if a parent or relative physically comes to the school to take out a book.

Yesterday was the big day. In 6th and 3rd grade we had very frank chats about how to take care of books and the consequences for not bringing the books back. After the students passed their test on how to be responsible for books, they were allowed to take home one book for a maximum of 7 days. Even I was somewhat surprised at the amount of enthusiasm that students showed in wanting to bring home the books to read.

A straw pole determined that almost all of the students from San Blas school do not have access to books at home. These are the kids most important to reach with school library programs like this. There are no major social problems in the area, like drugs and gangs which prevent some schools in cities from being effective. There are only the hurdles of bilingualism and the lack of a culture of learning not yet in place. So if it’s not there...put it in place. What else are schools for? The jury is out on the effectiveness and sustainability of the program, but the hope is that it will go a long way towards creating a higher student interest level in all kinds of books, increase reading levels of struggling readers, and generally create a culture of learning.

A big shot out to Prof. Dunn, Ann Marie Schafer, my aunt Marybeth, Darien Book Aid and my mom and sister for book/class supply donations. Know that your gifts are being put to good use!