Jackie in Panama

Jackie Wald has served as a lecturer in Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in SMU’s Dedman College. She and her husband, Michael, have volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps in Panama for 27 months. Their assignment is to update the English Program at the Escuela Normal, which is Panama’s premier teacher training school.

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Change we can believe in

Jackie’s column appeared March 23, 2009, in The Dallas Morning News:

Change. That has been the operative buzzword of society lately.

The Peace Corps itself is all about change. Ideally, the changes that the Peace Corps implements would become routine practice after we are gone. That is what sustainable development means. But often, former volunteers return to their sites two or three years later to see how little their efforts have continued. What they might find is that the community, small business or school has gone back to the way things used to be done. They weren’t interested enough to carry on the changes for themselves.

Why would that be? Programs need to do something for the people. But they themselves must be involved in the process. They have to want to create change in their everyday lives. If we say, “Oh, that’s not the best way to do this; here’s what you should do; let me show you – the people will never carry on their own development. They need to be motivated to implement change by being involved in program planning. They have to own their decision-making process.

Easier said than done. All of us are resistant to change when we feel that a current system is working just fine, thank you very much. We, as Americans, accept a faster rate of change than those in the Third World. We eagerly ditch our 35mm cameras and bulky cellphones for sleek all-in-one digital models. We use debit cards. We have cable TV.

Here in Panama, it is still common to chat on a public telephone, pay with cash and watch network TV. (If your community has electricity.) Farming practices in more remote areas are the same as they were in prior generations.

Even change on a small scale is a challenge. The landlady from whom we rent a room still cooks at an outdoor fogon, or hearth. She prefers to make coffee as follows: Boil water in a small pot. Throw in some scoops of ground coffee. Cut the flame when it bubbles up to a head. Strain through a piece of fabric that is hand-sewn onto a curved section of wire coat hanger.

Tastes pretty good, actually.

But imagine my surprise when I found a Mr. Coffee in kitchen closet. It was covered in dust, and some insects had made the carafe into a final resting place. “Oh, I don’t like that thing,” she protested when I asked about it. “The coffee just doesn’t taste very good.”

I could go on and on about the education system in Panama, which is crying out for change. Learning is mostly rote memorization of vocabulary and terminology. In my school, 20 donated computers have sat idle all year, unprogrammed and disconnected. The director feels that school is progressing well enough without investing the time, effort and cost to get them up and running.

Is the Peace Corps offering change we can believe in? Can I really make a difference in the teaching of English in Panama? When I leave, will they forget all about my interactive songs, activities, dialogues, role plays and dynamics in favor of their old ways of memorization?

I have another 15 months to give it my best shot.

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