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How Many Matrices Does it Take?

October 10, 2010

To get to the science behind site placement?

I’d like to talk a little bit more about site placement because it seriously occupied all of my thoughts and energy up until the minute that my name was called. This photo (w Carmen) was taken right before! haha. The training directors did two fifteen-minute interviews with each of us, and then employed a cornucopia of different matrices (using our professional background, assessment of our development during training, and who knows what else) to arrive at site placements. Here are some questions that ran through my mind…. How do they decide which skills match with which sites? Have I made it sufficiently clear that small kids scare me and that it would NOT be awesome to work at a primary school? Which sites are the most heavily focused on business development (aka the reason I’m passionate about this)? Which site would be conducive to being busy a lot?

Our program, Community Economic Development, essentially covers three main components:

1. Management training for existing businesses (leadership development, strategic and operational planning, improved administration)

2. Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses (writing business plans and training basic business skills)

3. Youth Development (leadership, teaching financial literacy, teaching management and computer training)

In Panama, there is a growing emphasis on youth development because of growing gang violence and a gap in computer training. In fact, many schools have computer classrooms, but lack teachers with adequate knowledge to teach in them. As a result, about half of our group was given assignments with the primary goal of teaching computer training, or working with at-risk youth (after school activities, youth cooperatives, etc.). The other half, destined for less developed sites in the boonies, have assignments with the primary goal of working with the businesses in the area. Of course, there are exceptions, but the overall distribution ended up this way.

As our training went on, all of these distinctions gradually became clearer to me. Principally, more cush sites (aka with toilets, showers, and electricity) were those that tend to work more in schools while the more badass, hardcore sites focused on business. Really, this is quite logical. Panama is relatively developed compared to most countries in Central and South America where Peace Corps works, and most business support is needed in the precarious, rural, and inaccessible areas that have seen fewer benefits from 10 years of economic growth. As a result, it has the fine distinction of being the post with most rural placements in Latin America. This is the first year where this divide has been made apparent. By my count, 11 (of of 26) are going to indigenous sites, while 2 others are in half indigenous/half latino. Most of the remaining are focused on youth and IT development.

It saves to mention that after we got our sites we were quick to measure ourselves against one another. Who was going the furthest? Who had the toughest site? Aka – who’s the most badass mo-fo of the group? All of us in the hardcore sites quickly pointed fingers at those who have toilets and electricity and accused them of being yeye (prounounced yay-yay and is a Panamanian term for Preppy/rich person – cuico for all you chilenismo lovers out there). Of course their sites aren’t all rainbows and flowers because some will be the inner-city or decently rural, but it was still fun.

My friend Carmen is the only CED volunteer placed in the Darien rain forest. The border with Colombia is actually undefined because the jungle is so dense and uninhabited and the US maintains a “security line” where it does not allow US citizens to cross (for fear of entering FARC or narco-traffic territory). This year, Peace Corps coaxed the government to move the line back, and then they placed Carmen ON IT (well, just 1-2 miles in front of it). You say danger, I say badass. As I write this, I’m realizing how crass it sounds to compare rural poverty levels as a competition, but it’s the Peace Corps and these are the type of people who do such a thing.

Despite my initial aversion to rural life, I found myself crossing my fingers for a site in the Comarca. I mean, look at all those beautiful faces scrunched together in the southern portion of the map (in the right photo, I´m the third from the right in the Comarca region). I reasoned that a trade off for a real rough life is that I will be close to other volunteers and have many opportunities for collaborating. Additionally, the trainees with the most technical business experience were placed there. An former Google Ad exec is in the site that we went to for Tech Week (See post below), my dear friend who worked on Wall Street for three years and went to Penn, and a CPA who worked as a small business consultant were all placed here. I’m actually quite touched that I qualified! This is, however, the correlation that is a little bit lost on me. It seems that business skills in the Comarca are the lowest in Panama and that a lot of time will be spent simply explaining what the concept of planning is, or how to add/subtract. I suppose this is a moment where I just relent and trust the process.

This week we did some Ngobe language training. Here are the take-aways:

Balen = delicious. Pronounced just like you want it to be – Ballllliiinnnn.

Chuy = Foreigner

Suliare = Latino. And Cockroach. Extrapolate as you see fit.

Katajutotibda = Delighted to be here. Words like this make me feel like I’m not going to get anywhere!

Whew. Site visit is next week and I’m excited! The photo below is of my friend Lindsey in front of the house that we stayed at during tech week. Should give you an idea of the living conditions…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angie Yetterboe permalink
    October 14, 2010 2:44 am

    I love reading your blog. I was a PCV back in ’78 in South Korea. I always dreamed of Central or South America, though. I look forward to reading all your posts–it feels like I’m back in country. I wish you great luck at your site, keep up the great work.

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