Before we departed for ACE, there were several meetings, presentations, and webinars to get us acquainted with Peru and with our fellow ACE participants. Soon we would be traveling to a different country with people we had only met in these pre-departure meetings. The ACE program staff threw a ton of useful information our way (i.e. how water conservation is a largely relevant issue in certain communities, the cultural do’s and don’t’s, and precautions to take when traveling to high altitude). We listened intently and I think I can speak for everyone when I say we were very excited to apply our new understanding of this foreign community in real life.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was terribly mistaken that a few meetings could provide me an understanding of an entire community. Despite the webinars I attended, books I read, or how detailed my notes were, I could not truly begin to understand Peru until I was immersed in the country itself.
“Tomorrow we are going to help construct a greenhouse at the school in Pongobamba with some parent volunteers whose children attend the school,” our project manager told us the night before our first day of working in the community. I’m no architect, but Duke always has some sort of construction going on. I have always enjoyed learning how to use a hammer and nails when I volunteered at the local Habitat for Humanity, so I thought I could figure out how to help build a little greenhouse… right?
“I learned that simply spending time with people in a place can have a greater impact than the most detailed presentations. At the same time, I also now realize that even spending 3 weeks in a place, and learning from the people who live there, only plants the initial seed of understanding.”
The next morning our big van pulls up to the Pongobamba school and the ACE team files out with a few shovels and a whole lot of anticipation. When I heard ‘parent volunteers,’ I imagined a handful of parents who happened to have time off work that day. To my amazement, there were approximately 40 parent volunteers waiting to get down to business when we arrived. They took a few minutes to congregate and communicate with each other (in lightning-speed-Spanish by the way) about the plan for the day.
That day, we were setting out to create a terrace on a hill that was covered in shrubs, trees, bushes, and weeds. At this point, I was psyching myself up for a full day’s worth (or longer) of chopping hedges and shaping a hill to resemble stairs. The understanding I thought I had about construction went out the window. Once the parent volunteers dispersed, they instructed all 10 of the ACE volunteers to get to work on various tasks. I was told to help carry small trees to a clearing outside the perimeter of the school grounds. So, I began walking back and forth carrying trees. No more than 45 minutes later, I noticed that the parent volunteers had cleared the entire hill already. I had never witnessed such efficient and incredible work. I hadn’t even finished giving myself a pep-talk!
“People were willing to selflessly drop everything and contribute to a project that might not have a direct impact on their lives. I hope that I am able to bring back a slight understanding of this collaborative culture back to Duke with me.”
Even with 100 meetings, presentations, or webinars, this is not something I would have expected. I learned that simply spending time with people in a place can have a greater impact than the most detailed presentations. At the same time, I also now realize that even spending 3 weeks in a place, and learning from the people who live there, only plants the initial seed of understanding. I realize how much more there is to learn about Peru.
The culture of collaboration in the communities we visited in Peru was beyond anything I had experienced before. People were willing to selflessly drop everything and contribute to a project that might not have a direct impact on their lives. I hope that I am able to bring back a slight understanding of this collaborative culture back to Duke with me.