Lauren Deimling Johns, 26, born in Toledo and a graduate of Fort Meigs Elementary and Perrysburg High School, joined the Peace Corp, after a back injury ended her professional ballet career. She was assigned to Peru, arriving in 2010. Her two-year stint in the High Andes of the South American country ends in August. Next, she plans to go to France and attend graduate school. She tells her Peace Corp story in three parts.
This the second of three columns she will write for ourtownperrysburg.com
While I may have been set up for a successful Peace Corps experience with one pocket full of theories and the other with optimism, there have been bountiful unexpected experiences.
Some that threw me to tears of joy, others that hurt so badly and deeply that I can’t even cry. Slowly, I become less interested about bragging rights to the tough life and all I wanted was a hot shower, or a kiss.
Numbness would kick in.
Being separated from my familiar coping methods forces me to find a new way to metabolize hardships. Imagine the feasibility of coping when one is so alone. Being surrounded by a village of the unfamiliar doesn’t seem to help, even though I have been accepted by them by the end of my two years.
The first half of my service, I was an alien, someone none of my neighbors understand. They are 700, most with a primary school education, and experiential knowledge in farming by hand. They have to be in the fields every day in order for their families to eat. Adult women average 6.5 years of education, men 8. Generally, they not only don’t know how to use a computer, but have never been on one. More than half have never been seen a dentist, optometrist, or obstetrician.
There is an average of four people living together in one, one-roomed hut.
And, the average age to give birth for the first time is at 24.8 years-of-age. Then, here I come 25-years-old, white, single, no children, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a mouth full of healthy teeth, I take pills when I get sick and I couldn’t keep an oregano plant alive no matter how hard I tried.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I live in a fish bowl. Every decision I make will be observed and judged. My service is in Madrigal, Peru, where I’m finishing up a two-year tour.
Madrigal’s mayor may have invited me to come live there, but that doesn’t mean the whole community wants me, and some have told me so. I need to act as a politician, as a representative of the United States 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
A list of the things that I have come to appreciate most during my service, about my life back home, will be the most illustrative of my observations and experience.
In no particular order:
- Household appliances: They have allowed women to leave the home and be independent beings. Machines have allowed society to leave behind physical labor in order to advance our minds.
- Unions: They have defined the 40-hour work-week, gave us weekends off, and secured these rights for the white-collar as well as the blue-collar worker.
- Well-planned boycotts and activism: I feel a pang of guilt every time I think about how I did not help the activists of the past fight so that I would not only receive respect and equal rights but the freedom to express myself and my feelings creatively.
- Clean underwear and warm socks.
- My society of perfectionism: I am so thankful that my teachers required 70% or greater to pass a class (and my parents expected 90% or greater of me), and that my entire community strives to make everyday as efficient as possible.
- Nutritious food that tastes good and doesn’t make my insides turn inside out. This includes clean drinking water accessible all day, every day.
- Justice: I have never believed in a definition of justice being the ability to punish, seek revenge. But now, I see a new definition as defined by an opposition to charity. One can do charitable work, and it is necessary, but that is not what I am interested in doing. I want to do justice work. I want to fight every day of my life here for equality, for justice. This kind of justice is that which changes the societal structure so charity becomes less necessary.
Living in Peru, my biggest surprises have been widespread alcoholism as the primary means of entertainment, noise pollution, and misused pesticides.
Being poor in the middle of nowhere doesn’t necessarily mean people live quiet, organic lives. It means seeing parents serve less food to save money to purchase a huge stereo system they can boast about. It means getting a hold of cheap and deadly pesticides to kill off weeds and vermin, without purchasing the proper equipment to administer them. It means being dependent on your neighbors (and children) to help you with daily labor, and when you have a chance, to be irresponsible and quickly drink yourself to unconsciousness.
So, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I focus all of my energy on staying healthy and insuring the success of my projects.
I start with the easy ones. For example, the culture here believes that cold brings sickness and death. So they often won’t wash their hands or bathe because without water heating units, the water is always cold.
Especially when they are sick, mothers encourage their children to not touch water until the child is well.
This is an easy one for the volunteer: create a hand washing station with sun-warmed water and make a presentation to parents and kids on bacteria and hygiene.
Small projects like that with quick, observable results gave me the initiative to start designing and planning bigger projects with a wider reach and profundity.
My primary projects have been the after-school program and library development. Here are some others: health access survey, family planning workshop, dental health campaign, eye health campaign, discrimination and violence workshop, teaching skills workshop, leadership camp for teenage girls, world map/mural project, lecture at the city’s National University on female leadership, women leaders conference, and parenting workshop.
But, it is the everyday conversations and relationships that make the most profound and immeasurable effects on me and the community -- such as reading a child his or her first book or learning to plant and harvest corn and potatoes, or teaching a woman to make mashed potatoes from ingredients she has access to but had never mixed together.
I have “ah-ha” moments, which makes the struggles of living here worthwhile. Then, I realize the hundreds of special moments I have experienced and forget how lonely I am.
I forget that men only see me as a “Barbie doll” and how often my insides feel as though they are eating themselves from another bacterial infection.
I forget that I have no personal life and realize that my life is my work, and I love my job.
I see that I have affected the community during my two years here, and I pray that my primary project is sustainable so that it can continue to help my community even after I am gone.