It’s a damp, cold Friday night in the Andes Mountains sometime in 1997 and I'm waiting for the community meeting to begin. Drifting off, I think about how my friends are spending their Friday nights back in the States. From their letters my friends sound productive, happy and moving forward with life. I read about graduate school experiences, jobs, a new coffee house chain called Starbucks...
I know I shouldn't compare but it's hard not to especially when I am not in a good space. I think I may have made a mistake. What if I didn't choose this path to join the Peace Corps? I, too, could be learning, progressing, growing, and meeting new people. Instead, I'm spending my Friday night sitting on a cold stoop outside the casa comunal alone while combating daily GI issues, homesickness and my own insecurities.
I'm experiencing FOMO - The Fear of Missing Out. I was attending the community meeting to convince the adults to let me form a youth group. Yup, you would think this would be a simple 'ask and you shall receive' but not here, not in this community. Children do not participate, exchange ideas, play, prosper, and grow together in this village. Typically, children in my community help their parents in the fields or take care of their younger siblings as they live in families with four to ten children all one year apart.
As I continue to wait for the community members to arrive, I wonder how to explain about my wild Friday night to my friends Stateside. I sigh, Hang in there, give it more time, there is a reason you are here and even though it is far from clear, it will be worth it. Either the people you work with will benefit, you will benefit, both will benefit or possibly neither. My FOMO just got stronger…
I am alone on the stoop until eleven youngsters show up with Paulina leading the pack and organizing the crew. They prep me like I was going to defend my thesis; arguing with one another in Kichwa on what and how I should deliver my speech. With the pressure on and my nerves kicking in, I insist that we co-present and do this together. Paulina quickly changes her free flowing attitude. She looks me in the eye and with a stern voice says, “We can’t co-present with you. We are not to make suggestions to our parents nor speak back to them. We don’t play, we don’t have after school activities, and we don’t speak with outsiders. Even worse we don’t have friends who are Americans. This is all very radical for our families. That’s why you need to do this on your Friday night. You MUST convince them.”
The children are enthusiastic about the possibility for change, the potential that a ‘yes’ could be on the horizon, that their FOMO would be gone if they could have what other kids have: education, recreation and socialization. Regardless, they know this is a long shot. That door has always been closed and parents do not believe that girls should have any free time.
Even though this community requested a Peace Corps Volunteer it seems like the town hoped an American would arrive, donate thousands of dollars, provide computer equipment, build a school and health clinic (Oprah style) and then depart. They are direct with me; they want money and they think I have thousands of dollars at my disposal. In my mind the difference between “development work” and “charity” is clear. Charity creates co-dependence and a lack of ownership over the community's issues. It is a temporary bandaid on the problems versus seeking out long-term, sustainable solutions.
Our mission is to break the vicious cycle by using education and hard work to help create opportunities in the future, especially for girls. These little girls, so often left out of the equation, understand this philosophy and my approach and never ask me for money or gifts. They just want to gather and learn.
As I continue to sit and wait for people to arrive, the fog rolls in and so do two Kichwa elders in wool knee length ponchos, crisp white cotton pants and white traditional shoes. I breathe in the fresh Andean air, look up and see a large pack of people walking up the hill and approaching the entrance to our humble adobe abode where we will meet. Although I should be ‘present’ and ready I am still in FOMO mode, worried that my request isn't culturally kosher. Who am I to start making suggestions? One hour and fifteen minutes later the community meeting is ready to start. I get up and walk in along with everyone else.
There are uneven wooden benches set up in a damp room large enough to squeeze in our entire community of 150 people. The men take a seat on the benches in the front rows and the women sit in the back. There is one light bulb hanging in the middle of the room casting light on the cobwebs in every corner. I sit in the back of the room with the women and girls. Patiently we await our keynote speaker, the community president. He hasn't arrived but no one complains about his tardiness, we just wait and wait some more.
During these waiting moments people sit calmly in silence not conversing with one another. They can just 'be.' The silence is killing me and I want to chitchat with everyone. I just sit there and think, I am 23, I am missing out, I am WAITING ALL THE TIME. How does this translate to the real world? Am I gaining any skills through all of this? Am I really able to contribute here? And I am about to embarrass myself trying to pitch some crazy idea?
Finally, the community president arrives. He works at the municipality as a waste management man, has eleven kids (two that want ‘in’ on the youth group) and supposedly gets things done for this community. I wait for him to begin with a “I am so sorry to keep you all waiting” but there is no apology. He begins the meeting speaking very quickly in Kichwa and I try to capture what is going on but it flies way over my head. I am doomed. How will I respond in an intelligent way?
I look to my left and Josefina has a sad expression on her face. I look to my right and Blanca appears bored and checked-out. I can’t get a sense of the mood or what is happening. I decide to shut down my mind and ask my brain for “quiet time” and not to worry, that whatever is being discussed will be and I don't need to know all the details right now.
Next thing I know an hour has gone by and three more men walk into the meeting. In my culture, if you are late for a meeting you quietly sneak in the back and make sure no one notices that you were absent and now late. Not here, where you make sure everyone sees that you are now present regardless of being late. Late isn't a form of disrespect, it shows that you are quite important and too busy with other engagements to be there on time. Instead of making yourself invisible when late, the custom is to walk in, interrupt and greet every single person by shaking hands prior to sitting down. This means the meeting comes to a halt while the proper greetings take precedent.
It's 11pm and I am dozing off. We have been sitting for three hours and I am not sure what has been discussed. I feel someone tug on my jacket letting me know it's my turn to present. I am asking the parents' permission to let the ten girls and one boy form an after-school youth group with me.
As my Stateside friends are at happy hours, skiing Vail or with their loved ones, I am here in my community learning to sit still and soon I will attempt to debate a group of indigenous people whose first encounter with an American is me.
Sink or swim, get up there, pitch it, own it and make it happen. I get myself psyched up to give my speech on why the community should allow me to organize an after school youth group targeting girls in order to improve their self esteem, leadership skills and future opportunities.
I stand up as though this is my day in court. I walk to the front, self-conscious and head down after a long drawn out 3+ hours (all in Kichwa). I inhale, lift my head and get ready to start. The first row of men are dead asleep!
"Imanallatacapangui Maschicuna,” I say in Kichwa. All of a sudden, the sleepers in the front row grunt, toss, move, and awaken. I have their attention. I spoke their language not mine. I announce how grateful and happy I am to be living and working in their community and thank all the adults who have helped me to integrate and I thank them for allowing me to be able to participate in their community development process.
The president immediately interrupts me and says how happy he too is that I am in their community and for working with the women. Another man interrupts and says he too is happy and wants his wife to get involved with me and the work I am doing. Another man shares that he wants me to start working with the men on animal husbandry projects. Another elder then yells out that he'd like me to get the community a bunch of computers...then I hear a health clinic, medicine, a recreational center, build a soccer field.
I haven't moved past the "Good evening and thank you for letting me be here" opening line Paulina briefed me on. I need to segue into why we are here...FOR the girls. Paulina is giving me a look from the back row, like "Get in there, bring it up!" I close my eyes, look down and take the plunge, "The young girls have great potential too," I say. "Would it be possible to extend my work to them in addition to working with the women to create a youth group after school?"
One of the men asks, “Why? What would you do with them?” I explain that I could ask the girls what they would like to do. Immediately I hear a few laughs in the audience. I do not engage nor respond defensively. One of the men responds that the girls do not need to be educated and need to help their families with caring for the siblings, daily chores, cooking, cleaning, and in some cases working in the fields harvesting potatoes, quinoa, corn, or other vegetables and produce. Some of the girls also help their mothers with their artisan business and weave everyday after school and help them make woven bracelets and belts that sell in the market on Saturdays.
I already know how important all of these tasks are. Another woman speaks up and says that she’d send her young boy to work with me but not her daughter as her daughter should be at home and mom doesn't believe she is smart or will go far and her son may have more potential. Mom says this in front of her daughter who just keeps her head down. I do my best not to give responses to each comment trying to prove my point but to just listen and let everyone share their opinions and thoughts.
Another woman speaks up and says she didn't want her daughter to waste time after school because she believes she won't learn about responsibility and would grow up to be lazy if she has recreational time built into her schedule. I still don't respond. Then, another woman joins in to share her fears of a Peace Corps volunteer teaching nothing but games and wasting time and that isn't what they want. They want me to work with the adults and "maybe" with the younger boys. It amazes me how in such a machista culture where every man is raised by a woman and it is the women who were holding their daughters back without an education to do the chores of an adult and to look after their younger brothers and sisters. I know what I am up against. This is way too out there for them, I can’t push it.
I notice the girls in the back row are looking down at the floor as though this was one of the biggest decisions of their lives. I see them tense and gather together holding hands. My heart breaks for them and how innocent, kind and vulnerable they are. They don't ask for much and they work so hard. It upsets me that they are forced to grow up so quickly almost without a childhood. I ask the community if it would be okay to allow the girls to share their ideas and thoughts on what we could work on. The girls stare me down like I just committed the biggest crime. They come forward, stare at the ground and are speechless.
"Why don't you share what we discussed the other day," I prompt. No response. I realize they are terrified to speak publicly, have never been asked to do so before and I am pushing them way out of their comfort zones. One man yells out, “They are stupid girls, they have no ideas.” I feel terrible and thank the girls and tell them to kindly sit and I will proceed. I want to yell at that guy for embarrassing the girls. Or did I? Bringing them up front and center was my idea. Maybe I should have known better. I realize my FOMO pales in comparison to these girls. They have been missing out their whole lives.
I hear a male voice start to speak. It's a voice I know and recognize. It’s Humberto, Paulina's father. He poses different questions to the community about possibilities for the young girls to still work but also spend time working with Companera Dana (me). I am shocked that this is even being presented as an option and I continue to stay silent. Humberto goes on to talk about the possibility of me teaching basic business skills so that the daughters could learn how to work and make some money.
The mood shifts. The community is now considering that their daughters could help them generate an income. Hearing this from Humberto and not me is helpful. I hear another male voice, "Yes, I am in, I will send my daughter." Paulina makes eye contact with me from the back of the room. Another woman shares that she would send her daughter to work with me if she could make some money out of this. Another hour has passed and it’s almost midnight. I can't believe we have been here for four hours, slowly making progress but still not there.
Humberto shares that he thinks this is a great idea and would support my working with the girls. Anything I need he will be there to help me out. Then I got another endorsement from a woman "Me too," she says. Then another shout out, “I will also help and support this initiative.” I am in complete disbelief and let them go around the room, all of a sudden supporting our initiative for a youth group. I don't question it.
A woman shouts out, "You should call the group Mushuc Mullo" (pronounced Moo-Shoo Moo-Yo) the New Seed in Kichwa. The New Seed, by planting seeds now we may pave the way for this next generation of girls...
This is how my Friday night turned out. Just a few hours before I was wondering what my friends Stateside were doing. My fear of missing out turned into pure gratitude that this was how I got to spend my Friday night as a 23 year old. My FOMO transformed to YOLO; You Only Live Once. We made a small step towards letting girls learn, be, and likely lead. I wouldn't have to do this alone and even the men in my community joined forces to push the needle a bit towards change.
My friends could sip all the soy lattes they liked Stateside, I wasn’t missing out, I was living in the moment, stepping way out of my comfort zone, failing miserably yet learning, sitting in silence, waiting, 'be'ing. I know there will be many more Friday nights like this and see how FOMO isn't real for me, my true fear is if I were to miss out living in the moment...