This is a guest post by Andrew, a CHACA 2016 Counselor.
“Hay que unirse no para estar juntos, sino para hacer algo juntos”
“You must join together not just to be together, but to do something together.”
Nicaraguans are big on quotes. In formal ceremonies, transitions between events are often made by reading a line from a Rubén Darío poem, or citing Sandino. The above phrase was written on the lovely diplomas gifted to us by Irela, our MINED friend, for our help with the English singing competition in Estelí. What a perfect way to encapsulate the essence of Peace Corps.
Camp CHACA was a great example of the power there is in joining up with local leaders to accomplish something together. From the first meeting, I knew the camp was going to be special. A week before camp the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) counselors and our Nicaraguan counterparts met up to go over camp logistics, get to know each other, and share about our excitement and expectations for the camp. We hadn’t even made it to camp yet, and I knew that having Nicaraguan counterparts was going to be one of the most important elements for the overall success and impact of the camp.
The variety and depth of experiences the Nicaraguan counselors brought to the group was impressive, and their motivation and enthusiasm for participating in the camp inspiring. One counselor works in the high schools doing trainings about gender, sexual health, sexual orientation. Another is a lay minister and high school teacher. A third has been facilitating workshops in rural communities regarding machismo and violence against women for decades. As PCVs, we brought to the table a vast amount of camp experience, which was a great complement to our counterparts. In fact, none of the eight counterparts had participated in a camp before CHACA. I left the meeting with a sense that we had established a sense of community, one where all the staff felt valued and ready to work together.
During the week of camp, our counterparts were rock stars. They caught the camp spirit from day one. They were following our lead during ice breakers, singing crazy songs, playing silly games, and helping co-create a fun, safe environment for our campers. Where their contributions were most valuable, however, was during the classes. Each day, campers went to three different classes on topics ranging from power in relationships to self-esteem to condom use, the majority of the subjects being taboo.
The first class I sat in on was titled “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from the students, and I didn’t envy my fellow PCV who was in charge of that session! How could we, as Americans, present on such a delicate subject tactfully, without coming across as morally self-righteous or insensitive to the Nicaraguan context? Thankfully, we didn’t have to do this alone; each session was co-planned and co-presented with a Nicaraguan counterpart. In addition, there was also always two or three Nicaraguan counselors in the audience, facilitating conversations in small groups and contributing clarifying questions and comments. At the end of the day, in our cabins, I asked my students what the favorite part of their first day was. Almost unanimously they responded that the “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality” session was their highlight. The cultural insight and perspective the Nicaraguan counterparts gave took each class to a level of depth and relevance that resonated with the campers.
This was no different for my session. I chose to present on the topic of fatherhood, specifically because of my counterpart, Juan Carlos. Juan Carlos is the computer lab teacher at the rural school where I teach English; he is also a single dad. In a country were Father’s Day is practically a day of mourning, this is quite counter-cultural. Even the casual Facebook friend could see that his daughter, Adriana Zoe means the world to him, but from various conversations with him I knew that being a dad was the central part of his identity, something he thought about constantly. I knew he’d do a great job sharing this essence of fatherhood with our CHACA youth.
He was serious about giving a quality session. We spent over 10 hours planning and preparing for this 90-minute class! Up to the day before he was suggesting changes to the plan. For the first hour we planned different participatory activities that simulated how their responsibilities would change if they became fathers, and that asked them to examine their stereotypes of what a mother vs. a father does. Then Juan Carlos brought the house down. He gave his testimony of his life leading up to being a father, growing up with an absent dad, how his partner left him and baby Adriana, and some of his struggles and triumphs of fatherhood. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. For the last fifteen minutes of class, the boys shared vulnerably about their experiences with their fathers, and how Juan Carlos motivated them to be better fathers for their future children than their father were able to be for them.
At the end of the session, a boy raised his hand and shared, “I want to thank you, counselor Juan, for sharing your experience. If we have struggles in our lives as fathers, I think all of us can think back to your message and use it as motivation to overcome our challenges.”
The camp theme really said it all: Somos Uno (We are One). However, it was the diversity that each of us brought to the camp, American and Nicaraguan, student and teacher, male and female, that imbued our unity with meaning.
– Andrew Nilsen
Peace Corps Nicaragua TEFL 64
CHACA 2016 Counselor
Read more about Andrew’s Peace Corps service on his personal blog: May We Suggest.