03 February, 2009

Starch and Sustainability: A Reflection on the Global Food Crisis in Rural Paraguay

Peace Corps and National Geographic Glimpse were having a short story contest on the global food crisis. The idea is for Peace Corps Volunteers to write a first person narative that reflects the consequences of the global food crisis their communities. Here's what I got:

Starch and Sustainability: A Reflection on the Global Food Crisis in Rural Paraguay

The door closes itself in the wind. Whooosh, screeeeach, click-click. I slowly turn around. "Alright Erin," I say to myself. "You can do this." The sea of curious stares made every swallow feel like a belly -flop in my stomach. "Buen dia clase," I hear Spanish unconfidently exit my mouth. Oh who am I kidding, my Guarani has been better than my Spanish since day one. We did, after all, receive our training in the indigenous Paraguayan language. "MbaƩichepa!" I call out with a little more gusto than before. Snickers ripple through the desks and a few proud "Iporas" leave the more self-assured students. Some have walked several kilometers to be here, and they sit eager in their bare classroom missing plaster and window panes.

This is the beginning of my service in Pindoty, Paraguay. I have come to help my community in a variety of areas, but agriculture is my project sector. Today I am introducing a school garden activity, helping the students learn the importance of gardens and how to maintain them. Gardens are often underestimated in Paraguay, Most families in my community do not have personal gardens. It is not that Paraguayans lack the knowledge, indeed planting is a proficiency of nearly every family in the country. It is simply that there has never been the need such as there is now to produce their own vegetables. Vegetables have always been accessible in the market. But times are changing and many diets, including those of the students sitting in this classroom, are falling back on one food group and one group only: mandioca.

It begins salty and crunchy. Fried to perfection, melt in your mouth mandioca.. Then it goes mushy, pureed like mashed potatoes. And finally it comes just by itself, peeled and boiled, sitting there in all its steamy glory. Before entering the Peace Corps, I had never thought I would be served a delectable three course meal of… mandioca. Known as yuca or cassava in many other countries where it is also a staple crop, mandioca is filling and easy to grow. It withstands poor soil and harsh weather conditions. The tuberous mandioca root lays dormant in the ground for months, waiting to be unsoiled, skinned, cooked and consumed as the main source of carbohydrates in a Paraguayan's diet. It is a white, starchy food bursting with carbohydrates but void of many other crucial nutrients. The problem with this lies in the fact that mandioca is replacing that spot necessary in the diet reserved for more nutritionally diversified food. The "bread" of Paraguay is becoming a supplement for disadvantaged Paraguayans.

Although this narration stems from my personal experience as a Crop Extensionist Volunteer in Paraguay, it is hardly unique. I live in Pindoty (pin-do-tu). It is a tranquilo farming community closely located to Coronel Oviedo, a city of approximately 80,000 people. Compared to other rural communities, our location should be advantageous for accessing a variety of markets, but it is not. It is not because the prices of food, even in a locally grown mercado, are far too high for a subsistence farming family to nutritionally improve their diet. So what happens? Families are forced to subside on mandioca chyryry, mandioca tortillas and mandioca mash.

My nearest neighbor and dear friend Rosa is a single mom, subsistence farmer and struggling nutritionist. Gabriela, her two year old baby girl sits in the dirt and feeds herself earth. She does this because of her severe iron deficiency leaves her dangerously anemic and dirt is her sole source of this vital mineral. That was the situation as I encountered it entering my community. We've now introduced dark, leafy greens into the diets of both mother and daughter, a big step up from dirt, but it's not enough. I'm sorry to say that this story is not isolated to one family it extends to many in my immediate community.

Something to know about this global food crisis is this: to some, this crisis is nothing new. It has always been difficult, nearly impossible, for many people living in the bottom income bracket of developing nations to nutritionally fill mouths and stomachs. So the crisis that some families are experiencing for the first time is actually a continuing crisis, one that is only being exacerbated in other families. Exacerbation is the situation for Gererado. Gerardo is a hard working member of my community; he plants to feed his mother, brother, sister and two nephews. But the amount of yield he needs from his crops to sufficiently keep them healthy is great, and his soil is not. We've worked together to incorporate green manures and crop rotation into the plan for his farm. Through resources of Peace Corps Paraguay, Gerardo witnessed a model farm which began as collaboration between volunteers and Paraguayans and is now properly and fully managed by host country nationals. He has continued to share this knowledge in Pindoty, but the risks of subsistence farming in midst of a food crisis are hard to bear.

Crop extension has taught me some unforgettable life lessons. One of many is that the global food crisis upon us is scary to some and deadly to others. For Rosa and Gerardo, the continually increasing price of food puts the health and happiness of their families on a very thin thread. We as volunteers can make a huge impact at this crucial time, introducing alternative crops and soil conservation methods to stretch the family's resources as far as possible.

Let us return to that classroom I introduced in the beginning of this story. We planted our garden seeds and watered them every day. One day on my way home, I coincidentally followed three jubilant kids walking home from school. They were chattering amongst themselves, each with a small plastic bag of lettuce, carrots, beets and peppers in their hands.I overheard one proudly say how he was going to start his very own veggie patch at home. He might even ask his sister for help! ¡Ipora mita´i! (Well done, little one).

13 December, 2008

Wow, it's been a long time! Happy Holidays!

Why Hello Everyone!Greetings from Paraguay! And a particularly merry greeting for the holiday season! I thought it was about time to take a breather and tell you all about what has been happening down here with me in Paraguay! Land of the tranquilo!We, too, are getting all geared up for the upcoming yule season, only it's a little different here... Mainly that temperatures are once again starting to hit above 100 Fahrenheit! Wow, now that's haku! (Guarani for HOT!) So, we sit around under mango trees eating watermelon and passion fruit, and as always, enjoying our ice cold terere! Don't worry, you probably have no idea what that drink is but I promise I'll bring it back to the states with me and you can try it out!

Well, I can't believe it! My sister G (the group that is a year ahead of me) swore out today which means that I have exactly one year left here in Paraguay, and from what I hear, it is going to fly. Language is sooo much easier now, I tend to use much more Guarani in site than Spanish and I'm having a ton of fun with it!

We haven't been all that busy with work the last month or two because we have passed several large holidays here in Paraguay. Probably the most significant for me recently was the Dia de la Virgen de Caacupe. A HUGE tradition in Paraguayan culture for this date is to pilgrimage to the ciudad Caacupe. There you can visit the basilica of the Virgen of Caacupe (she's the saint of miracles!), bathe in the sacred fountain, buy lots of souvenirs and eat lots of chipa (kind of like a corn bagel, Mom and David loved them!). So... I did it! I left with some senoras from my community at 1o'clock in the morning, we walked the night through the campo and arrived at the first town, San Jose, at 7am. We then continued, through the sweltering heat I might add, to cross half of Paraguay by foot. I actually arrived with one of my friends from site in less than 18 hours. We had walked over 45 miles. Let me tell you, it was quite the experience! It was probably the most physically challenging experience I have ever had, but I am so glad I had the opportunity to do it! And man o man, those Paraguayans are guapo!! (that means really, really hard working!).

In addition to that, and the reason I am in the capital Asuncion right now is because I have started singing again! Thursday night the CoCoMu group of volunteers (it is a group of volunteers from all over the country dedicated to promoting the arts here in Py) put together a fundraising concert with American and Paraguayan artists alike. And let me tell you, we have got some talent here! Volunteers played the violin, sang their own music- usually written in the campo ;)- and I performed with my friend Chris Sphar. He played the guitar and I sang three songs, "The Long Way Home" by Norah Jones, "Waiting on an Angel" by Ben Harper and "Oh Holy Night" by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (in 1847, haha). It was great fun and I think they'll be doing concerts like that around the country so who knows, maybe I'll get another go at it!

As for what is going on in Pindoty, I could not be happier! My families there are amazing as usual and I am continually learning and growing because of them. They are so open and are always sharing more of their culture, memories, and of course tembiu paraguayo (paraguayan food) with me! In turn I try to give them a key hole perspective of what life is like in the E.E.U.U. Everything from the work we do and how we spend our leisure time (sitting down to read a book is quite the phenomenon here) to the diversity that we have and the music we listen to. SPEAKING of which, the radio show is also going awesome! We now have a slot all to ourselves, and though it is not much time- only 20 min borrowed from other programs- it is a big hit! We call it "Rojapo Radio," which means, "We do radio!" Not all that clever, but it rhymes!

Other small developments... Contrary to my original desires when entering site, I have bought myself a pig. Her name is Shakira. Of course, I confuse Paraguayans because I see her as my little piggie friend, and to them she's bacon. And I understand that one day it will come to that, for my despedida actually, but until then I'll enjoy her silly company! I'll try to send some pics soon!

On the horizon I also have a summer camp coming up where me and my friend Travis will run a three day camp about environmental education. I think it will be a lot of fun! Then after that I will be doing a traveling workshop with my other crop extension girls. We will go to each of our sites and give hands on demonstrations about soil conservation, farm planning, crop management and the like! We are going to try and make it as professional as possible in the campo so that the farmers really feel empowered by it. It helps too that we now all are pretty established in our communities and have developed the sense of trust that must be gained before any real work can start. When school starts up again in February I will be teaching a class to seniors at the high school about agriculture systems. I'm really excited about this because we many of them do not end up going into further education and this is an opportunity to plant the seed early for sustainable methods, no pun intended:) We may even get a chance to visit the model farm run by Paraguayans that I have talked about before! This next year should prove to be a busy and exciting one!

Well, that's about it from me, now that I have "talked" your ear off. I would like to thank you all again for your continual support and little updates from home! I also know that things are rather difficult there right now, with the economy and all, so please also know that you are all in our thoughts and prayers here as well! I miss you all greatly! Only 1 more year to go!! Happy holidays!


P.S. Since it is the season to be giving, I thought I'd let you all know of a gender and development program we have got going down here. They need to raise about $7,000 U.S. dollars so any help you can give is appreciated. The website is https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.donatenow&keyword=SPF&SF or on the Peace Corps website then Donors and Paraguay. This is an excellent gift idea for Christmas as well, wink wink nudge nudge ;) THANK YOU for your support!

10 January, 2008

Mbaeichapa Family & Friends!

I´m finally getting a chance to answer some of your questions and sum up some of my experiences here! So the big news today... a chicken fell in the well! Welcome to my world!
I´m staying with my third family here in Pindoty and things are "tranquilo" as usual. It´s a little hard because I can´t understand a word the grandmother is speaking to me, I just nod and reply "si, si," which is kind of a problem because she is my main company. But in reality I think it´s ok because she just needs some one to listen. Other than that my biggest concern is not to get pegged in the head by a falling mango! Times are rough!

Overall I think the transition is going pretty smoothly- although I find myself missing home and you all quite a lot. I have my photo albums to share with the people here and give me some sense of closeness, but that´s not quite enough. I have made some great friends here though, especially including other P.C. volunteers. My nearest P.C. neighbor is Cassie Doolittle, who I´m sure you will hear me talk about a lot since she´s my closest connection to the outside world! She´s a great friend and always there when I need a good laugh. The rest of the volunteers are amazing as well! I foresee having some really great travel experiences with many of them and creating some definitely unforgettable memories!

As for Py friends, that comes a little slower just because I can´t really express myself, nor understand yet who they really are and what they think. But it´s coming along. My Py contact Rosa is exceptionally awesome and I think we´ve gotten a lot closer in the few weeks I´ve been here (wow, time flies!) and I´m learning a lot about raising babies! She has a 6mo. old, Gaby, who is lovely and already has a strong personality all herself! The family I am with now (who are so accommodating with my terrible pronunciation and Py clumsiness) also have a little 3mo. old boy, Alexander, who I jokingly suggest is going to be Gaby´s boyfriend some day, who knows!

Now for the food! For the most part I couldn´t be happier. It´s a lot of veggies, sandia (watermelon), mangoes, and of course... mandioca! The only thing is there is also a lot of oil and frying, which I hope maybe I can employ some different baking methods, etc. to help improve nutrition a bit. I also hope to introduce new recipes (which if anyone has good recipes you think would work well here- ie. cooking over a fire- please send them my way!). There is also a lot of meat, when people can afford it, and it´s a bit difficult to explain that I´d prefer the vegetables. Although the other day I did try blood sausage, and I still prefer the veg, but at least I tried it right!?

Other than that there are a lot of opportunities for projects here and the people here seem very receptive to new ideas. The volunteer before me did an excellent job of explaining the purpose and goals of P.C. and I think this is great groundwork for things to come. Starting with my house I´d like to build a bamboo fence so I can start my demonstration plots with abonos verdes (green manures). I´d also like to build a sanitary latrine (necessary!) and help Rosa- neighbor, contact and friend- with her fogone (brick oven) and pozo (well). And that´s just the house! Beyond that I plan to continue Hannah´s cooking class, possibly start a youth group for the local girls, d.j. a radio program on agricultural systems with Cassie, and of course, work the fields. They´re harvesting cotton in February so I think that will be my first real chance to get out there and do some hoeing (not that kind! don´t worry Mom and Dad!).

So, in a nutshell, that´s my life here in Py. There is so much more I´d love to share but I fear I lack both time and memory to share everything. I thank you sincerely for your interest in what I have to say and continued support. By reading this you are helping me complete part of my job- sharing the Py culture with all of you! Thank you again!

26 December, 2007

Food for Thought

"Some people seem to think that compassion is just a passive emotional response instead of rational stimulus to action. To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare."-Dalai Lama

17 December, 2007


Well, it's done, I am now OFFICIALLY a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay! After 3 months of intensive training in everything from crop rotation and organic fertilizers to building latrines (and nearly 10 years of anticipation), I've finally taken the oath to commit to two years of service. It all went down Friday morning at the U.S. Embassy, where me and 40 of newest friends repeated the oath administered by the U.S. Ambassador himself. This was of course followed by some of the best cake I have ever had in my entire life! So now is when the REAL work begins! I head out to my site tomorrow and am both excited and scared to death. For the first three months I am required by Peace Corps to live with different families in order to better integrate into my community. Thus said, communication may be a little touch and go. But in general, I will be able to keep in touch pretty well since I am about 7km outside of a good-sized ciudad for Py.

I also have a little bit of a change in my address if you'd like to send some goodness this way, the following is my new box!
Erin Hogeboom
Cuerpo de Paz #80
162 Chaco Boreal /c Mcal. Lopez
Asuncion 1580
Paraguay, South America

Thank you again for all of your support and encouragement! I know that there is no way I would be able to be here doing what I am doing with out the emotional support and stability each of you provide me with! Thank you so much for all you do! It means the world to me!

Most Sincerely,
Erin Michelle Hogeboom

18 November, 2007

An exciting time...

I got back from my Long Field Practice on Friday and am finally getting a chance to write about it! It was AWESOME! I stayed with an aguelo and aguela (grandma and grandpa) and just had the best time with them! They were so sweet and the Blanca (the grandma) even cried when we left- and I cried too! It was adorable and I definitely plan on going back to visit!! I got to help with the cows, milking, etc. One time they just stuck a mug under the cow, filled it up and handed it to me and my friend Lauren. We just looked at each other and were like, "Well, who wants to go first?" I also got a chance to visit a farmer and see his fields and the house that he grew up in that is more than 100 years old (as well as all these cool artifacts inside it, it was like stepping straight into Paraguays past!). This is such a beautiful country and I´m finding that more and more as I get the chance to travel around. It is Spring time here so it´s lovely! Sometimes it´s a little hot and other times we have CRAZY storms. Last week while we were gone they had hail so big in Provenir that it tore through roofs and ruined a bunch of crops; unfortunately, the people here don´t have insurance or the kind of financial ability to handle hits like that so we´ll see what happens! We could use your kind thoughts!
I could also use your thoughts for the coming week, it´s going to be wild! Tuesday we are giving our presentation for Dia de Practica and are summarizing the natural pesticide project we have been working on with a local farmer. Then on Wednesday we are taking a day trip to some locations of our choice (guitar shop- that´s where I want to go!) because in the afternoon we receive our PERMANENT SITES! I´m super excited and nervous at the same time! We´ll be traveling there solo next week to check them out too so I will DEFINITELY have a report after that! Then Thursday we are having Thanksgiving at our training spot. I´m really sad I´m not going to be home for that but we have some fun stuff planned (like a pick up game of American football! I´m so excited, I can finally not look like a crazy woman like I do trying to play soccer!) Anyways, there´s a lot coming up and it´s all really exciting but it´s going to go really fast too- before we know it we´ll be swearing in and I´ll be officially starting my service! I hope all is well on the home front and I want you to know that I miss you all very, very, very much! I will be thinking of you ALL on Thanksgiving and I want you to know how EXTREMELY grateful I am to have you in my life!

10 November, 2007

I love my life...

Yesterday morning I was awoken by what sounded like the sky being ripped open. The rain was coming down and I could hear a cool wind whipping around outside. Because I had left my window open, there was a cat just sitting there on the inside window sill! It looked at me and then did that slow blink kind of thing and then we just watched the weather together, it was nice. We´ve been having some crazy weather here where it will be really hot and then go into a downpour with intense lightening and thunder- it´s actually really neat!

I haven´t gotten a chance yet to report on the amazing experience that was my tech. excursion. Our entire croppie group, who I have to say is AWESOME, traveled out to visit Joel- a current volunteer. The whole trip was a great adventure! The drive out was amazing because we got to see totally different Paraguayan scenery than where we are located now. Joel´s site, La Comena, is in a very hilly, heavily forrested area that gave us some great sights! We got to practice making A frames and work alongside a local farmer making curves de nievel for abonos verdes on his hillsides. I´m learning so much here it´s unbelievable.
I´m having other great opportunities. For example, on this excursion we got the chance to visit the infamous Salto Crystal which is basically the largest waterfall I have ever seen. It was beautiful! I´ll get up pictures as soon as possible, but this thing was anywhere from 75-100 ft. high! We climbed down this drop with boulders and vines that was literally verticle. Once we reached the bottom we had to wade, upstream a river to the source where we all went swimming, it was great! I couldn´t help but think to myself, "I am in a waterfall in the middle of South America, how cool is this!" The great thing was we could all appreciate it together too, as a group. Including the getting lost in the middle of a sugar cane plantation, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. We´re so gile! (that´s for you croppies!)

Next week is our Long Field Practice where we will be gone for a week helping a current volunteer with some project they are doing in their site. We´ll be helping a volunteer named Caleb with gardens, but it´s really a chance for us to practice our Guarani and just getting out there. I´m looking forward to it but am also a little nervous, just because the week after that we get our site assigments (yikes!). But Thanksgiving is coming up too so that´s also something to look forward to. We´ll be having an activity at our training center and I think we´re even going to be playing some American football! But alas, no turkeys, chickens will have to suffice!

I miss you all greatly and I hope everything is going amazing! Sending my love from Paraguay! Heartstrings!!!!!!!!

(Might I say, as I write this there is a marching band parading down the street with little old men playing trumpets -that´s for you M.J.- and kids in traditional dress, I love my life!)