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Experiences and Insights of Individual Volunteers

Individual Volunteer at Salud y Paz, Guatemala
Andy Henson at pharmacy of Salud y Paz clinic in Guatemala

We invite you to read the following writings that have come from many different individual volunteers. We hope that these excerpts will help you get an insight into their experiences, and will be an inspiration for you.  - Walt and Betty Whitehurst (Consultants for Individual Volunteers, 1999-2004)

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Part 4: Extraordinary Experiences of Volunteers, continued

Arizona, U.S.A.

The College has chapel service every Tuesday and Thursday. We get to hear nervous students as they preach their first sermon as well as other students who are formalizing their education and are as polished and interesting as any good pastor preaching out in the community. We also are treated to some students who mix native American customs with traditional Christian practice. Every Sunday a Methodist American Indian Church meets on campus. Hymns are sung in Kiowa, Navaho, Cree and other tribal languages. A Navaho woman pastor leads the congregation. This service starts on what they call "Indian time." That means they start the service when enough members show up.


Our first few weeks in Ghana, conversation with [11-year-old daughter] Celia went much like this: "I don't get it, Mom. Why did you and Dad bring us here, anyway? Everything is so different. There is nothing, I mean nothing like home. Everything is strange - this house, the food, people treating us like we're zoo animals or something, calling us Brunee - "

"-So you'd know there's more to life than buying beanie babies at the mall," I said wisely. "I already know that so can we go home now?" Brief silence. "So why did you and Dad bring us here?"

"So that when you grow up you can go anywhere in the world, and not be afraid to leave home" I replied philosophically. "Well I can do that now, so can we go home? Mom? Why did you and Dad bring us here?"

"I have to say I don't know, Celia..."

Celia tried out the neighborhood Catholic school. Then [her 8-year-old brother] Drew tried it too. It was the best school in Sunyani, yet there were no books. With more than 50 children in each class, maintaining order was difficult. Crowds formed when Celia or Drew opened a math workbook or paperback novel.

Twice a week, Selah arrived to wash our clothes. She pulled two enormous pans from under a table in the kitchen and took the clothes out to the yard where she slapped shirts together, pitted underwear against towels, and bleached colors to mediocrity... Her brother Thomas, a tailor, would appear at unexpected moments at the school, in the middle of a city street or in front of the vegetable stands and ask if everything was all right. We called him our angel. Celia and Drew said he had the biggest smile they'd ever seen. He sewed for us Ghanian outfits and a special, surprise shirt and dress for Drew and Celia...

Our last morning in Sunyani, we caught the 5 a.m. bus to Accra, the capital city, where we would fly out to Johannesburg,... then home. As the bus pulled out, Celia saw something we hadn't had time to get to. "We just haven't been here long enough," she said. I think she's got it now. Maybe better than her mother.


On Saturday I went to a wedding with Sylvia, my daughter... The family is Pular and not Wolof so I had no idea what to expect... We arrived at the location of the reception two hours after the appointed time and found the party still going strong, in fact dinner was still being served. There was meat AND veggies in the bowl along with the rice.

Now you ask about the ceremony. Well so did I. Apparently the men go to the Mosque and do the paperwork and then return for the party. I say apparently since the groom never did show up while we were there. In former times the bride sat in a room receiving visitors for weeks before the big day. Today it is two days in the village and either two hours or not at all in Dakar. The absence of the groom seemed to pose no problem to the bride who was walking around talking to people.

By walking around, I mean walking around the neighborhood. There was a tent set up on the street in front of the apartment with a DJ and LOUD Senegalese music (always a complicated drum beat). The women danced and got somewhat wild with kicking and rotating of bellies that they bared during the dance. The guys sat on the sidelines and drank tea. I was given a good seat on the sidewalk while Sylvia mingled with the crowd. After a while the Toobab's presence became normal and I was ignored, except by the people who passed in the street.

Ever forget to buy a wedding gift? No problem in Senegal. I saw a family member buy a bowl and a cover for the bowl from a passing street vendor and present it to the bride. I thought it was pretty funny but everybody else thought it was normal. We left after two hours. The DJ had packed up his speakers and had left, but the party was in full swing and would go on all night. Or so I was told. At one point three women Greols (professional singer/story tellers) sang to the bride in Pular. They had GOOD voices. It was a quiet well mannered party since there was no alcohol and apparently no family arguments to settle.


People in Matamoros are not prepared for cold, damp weather. The orphanage nor the homes I have visited in Derechos Humanos and the colonias around it do not have heat... Through the efforts of many volunteers and Church World Service, all at Casa Bethel had blankets this past winter and about another 2,000 were moved into the colonias in small quantities so as to stay under the "radar" of customs on the other side. One set of blankets donated by volunteers we allowed a special arrangement. The community wanted to help an elderly lady receive relatively expensive treatment for a blood disorder and collected enough to help her by asking for donations from those helped by the donated blankets - maybe a few pesos at most. This colonia very much values dignity and community - maybe $75 was raised to help this lady and no one was denied a blanket. In another case we were experimenting at the fishing villages an hour outside of Matamoros with dry latrines to combat contamination in these small places. It was cold the day we were there with Fidencio and Julio, two carpenters leading the construction of the dry latrine. Many kids were without shoes and no one had coats. Fidencio and Julio returned to their communities two hours away, told their communities, collected items and returned to distribute them - as soon as they could...

Three families from Derechos Humanos invited me to go fishing with them at a beach about an hour outside of Matamoros. Yesterday we went, not just to the beach but to the mouth of the Rio Grande at the beach. The river now stops about 100 yards from the gulf. There were more than a few of us on the Matamoros side, enjoying the experience. On the Texas side was a lone Border Patrol vehicle guarding this 100-yard strip of land. The river is supposed to flow into the gulf. The fishing was done with a net that was cast by one person. And the fishing was not for sport, as I had assumed, but for food on Monday. The fish were small, almost like bait. The crabs were a bit more acceptable. Best of all was the fresh air to replace the powdery dust which invades your lungs in the colonias and of course the absolute joy of seeing the children at play in such a different environment.


This is a short note about the medical/relief mission last week to the state of San Luis Potosí about 10 hours from Matamoros to a community of indigenous people called Huastecos. The invitation to go there came from Alejandro, the president of the comité of the colonia Derechos Humanos in the 20 de Noviembre section of Matamoros. The doctor was Dra. Nancy Rodríguez of Proyecto Vida Digna in the colonia... Donated items came from Digna and individuals in Matamoros. Alejandro and his wife, Laura, organized the donations and presented them to about 200 people who seemed to materialize out of nowhere late on a Saturday afternoon in the Los Huastecos community. Alejandro spoke to the people about us and about God and when he spoke of God these were words that came from deep inside of him... Although there was not enough food and clothing and soap for all, these people responded as though they had complete confidence that there would be enough for all. And some of these people were men who had just hopped off the back of a truck after miles and miles of dusty travel and hours and hours cutting sugar cane with machetes. After this semi-formal meeting, a few women and then more and then the men gathered around Dra. Nancy and began to speak of the medical problems of the larger community of at least 375 families... It still amazes me to see how these persons immediately identified Dra. Nancy as someone to whom they could speak with such confidence, partly because she is a doctor but more that they could sense she has a heart full of compassion... The depth and gracefulness of the people I met was unmistakable...people who said that they were poor but with a hug offered what they had in the way of food and a place to sleep to me when I return to Huastecos. They told me they would care for me.


September 8 - Last weekend, I had an interesting experience at the church. One of the poles holding the thatched roof up broke and, although it didn't fall, half the roof slid down to the ground. To fix it, they brought a new pole from the monte and peeled the bark off with a machete... After they peeled the pole, they hoisted it up to its place in the roof with about ten men. After they finally got it into place, it was a question of pushing the fallen roof back into place. The entire process lasted about two hours.

November 12 - On November 2, the Day of Todos Santos, DoZa Agida invited me to spend the day with her family. Since I didn't have class that day, I left early and arrived in time for breakfast. After breakfast, I helped the women prepare the lunch. I washed potatoes in the river, and learned to peel yucca. Meanwhile, many of the men from the nucleo had begun to drink chicha (the alcoholic kind). Since I was busy cooking with the women, I was spared having to deal with that problem. It was fun and I got to know the women of the community a little more. Now I'm able to tell who is married to whom, how many kids they have and their names. After lunch, we went to the cemetery. The families cover the graves of their loved ones with sweet bread, candy, and in some cases coca leaves and cigarettes.The people of the community make their rounds to pray at each grave and then a family member gives them a plate full of the sweets. At the end of the day, the graves are once again empty. It reminded me a little bit of Halloween and kids going door to door for their sweets. The women had their traditional dress of skirts, blouses and bowler hats, but instead of multiple colors it was all black. DoZa Agida took good care of me telling me what to do and where to go when I was unsure of what to do. Overall, it was an interesting day. I finally got to experience this holiday that before I had only read about.

January 25 - I went to the INRA office this morning (land issues) to look for the Chimanes' documents, since I've looked everywhere else. Trinidad as the capital of the Beni should have them, but guess what? Nothing! Anyways, their favorite pastime is to send me from office to office, but I think at last they sent me to the right one. I ended up at the Catholic church's office for indigenous affairs talking to an extremely articulate lawyer/pastor... They deal with land in smaller pieces (not reserves) which is exactly what we have. He showed me seven titles that they just got, absolutely amazing for this part of Bolivia. He also told me that they have been wanting to work in my area, but have no contact. Now, Feb. 10th he is flying out to do a land workshop with all the Tsimanes. My job is together them all, which mean a lot of walking in these next few days!... I tell you, the church down in Bolivia is amazing. So often they are the ones fighting behind the lines. It gives me so much hope.

February 14 - Saturday night the lawyer arrived along with his assistant... By 9:00 the next morning, we started the meeting to discuss land issues. Six Chimane communities came: Bajo Colorado, 10 de Junio, Aguas Negras, Chocolotal, Santa Rosita, and Tacuaral. The largest community is Tacuaral with 63 families. The meeting took forever, since everything was translated into Tsimane. At one point, I counted over 100 people! Four of the communities already have the documents that legally establish them as an indigenous community. Two others have no papers, which means as far as the government is concerned, they don't exist.

I was extremely impressed with the lawyer. He explained the process clearly and encouraged questions. The communities had to formally decide if they wanted the support of the office, and all six communities agreed... They drafted a formal letter asking for support, and it was all signed and complete by 10:30 that night.

Now, I've had some warnings about my role in this issue from various people (I even had someone tell me careful not to be mixed up in any terrorist activities.) However, Dr. Filemon is very clear that this doesn't have to be a confrontational process. His meetings are always open to everyone, because there is nothing secret; he is simply sharing information with the people that never seem to get legal help.

At the end of the day, the Tsimanes presented both Dr. Filemon and Inocencio (his assistant) with a beautiful set of bow and arrows. Each set had different sizes, for hunting all types of animals. Everyone felt encouraged and hopeful that this is the beginning of finally getting a title for their land. I'm now convinced that land is the first step for these communities to improve their living conditions, and to maintain their culture that is quickly disappearing.

March 15 - Last Tuesday, I changed my schedule around so I had the entire day free and went to Tacuaral with Erasmo and Rosendo.The community of Tacuaral is a community that is suffering. There are 63 families but no school. Bit by bit, they are losing their land to an aggressive settler who also illegally harvests valuable wood (mara). Pilón Lajas (the NGO) has tried to build a school for the past two years with no success because some of the colonizers opposed the construction... Although the colonizer who is taking advantage of their situation has no legal right to land, he is abusing the Chimanes` non-aggressive personality. They don't yell or fight and usually when faced with a confrontation, they will walk away. However, this is not to say that they don't value their land and want to protect what they have left...

My involvement with the process is mostly one of communication between the communities and Filemon with the Catholic Church in Trinidad. It is the communities who are organizing and starting the long process of legalizing on paper their title to the land where they and their families have lived for hundreds of years... I feel honored to be allowed to participate and witness this small movement in an isolated part of Bolivia. Since I represent the Methodist Church here, I have also thought a lot about the church's role in situations of injustice. For me, it is no accident that the legal support is coming from the Catholic Church. As Christians, we have an obligation to stand with the oppressed, be it farm workers in Oregon or Chimanes in Bolivia. I have had the privilege of observing and working with people here who live a life committed to their faith.

April 16 - Since we still had to get the Chimanes' land documents signed, Erasmo and I decided to use Friday to enter a community called Aguas Negras... Since this community doesn't have any documents we had to write their "Founding Act." . .No one can read or write so Erasmo and I dictated the document and read it back to them. Signing is done with thumbprints. I don't have a stamp pad so I brought a big black permanent marker to color their thumbs... The entire time we worked, a very curious monkey was watching me from above. I asked about his mother and they told me they already ate her. There was also a baby wild pig playing around my feet. Before we left, they served us rice, yucca and a fried egg...

While Erasmo and I were in Aguas Negras, Lisardo (a Chimane from Río Colorado) hiked into 10 de Junio to sign their documents. Lisardo has a young family and although he almost never talks, he is always the first to volunteer when we need help. With 10 de Junio we finally finished all six communities, and the next day I traveled to San Borja to leave the signed documents at the Catholic Church. Although it is only the first step, it is in the right direction, and I'm hopeful that these communities will be able to move forward with education, health and also maintain their culture.

April 17 -I want to tell everyone about a field trip we recently planned with the Chimane School. I spent more money ($20-$25) in order to plan the trip since there is no money available here for luxuries like field trips.The excitement of the kids made it worth it, and I wish you could have seen them as they climbed into the truck that we used to go to Rurre.

I chose Rurre since that is our school district headquarters and since many of the kids had never been before (it's only 60 kilometers away). Transportation (as usual) was the hardest to plan A month before the trip I contracted a truck only to have it break down two days before we were supposed to leave. Panicked, I biked to our neighbor, René (they also call him "el loco") and thankfully he wasn't busy for Wednesday. Although he raised the price, I didn't have any other option.

We left Wednesday morning at 5:00. I had the kids divided into four pickup points along the road. My group was in front of the school and I was worried they would be late. However, when I arrived at 4:45 they were all waiting clean and dressed up! They must have been there since 3:00 in the morning since they had already visited the farthest Chimane hut to make sure that René was awake... By the time we picked up all the kids and left it was 6:30. We had 24 kids from Bajo Colorado and 18 from San Martín (our teacher's husband's school). The kids held the Bolivian and Beni flags all the way to Rurre shouting out greetings to all of the people we passed.

We arrived in Rurre and immediately went to the Mayor's office where they were waiting for us. My kids sang and then asked questions we had prepared the week before. Since Thursday was "Día del NiZo" (Children's Day), another school was in the plaza doing a treasure hunt. When the Mayor told the kids to join in I about died! There were over 100 kids swarming in the plaza and we would have probably lost ours in the chaos. Luckily, the kids were overwhelmed and didn't stray far from the adults. We herded them to one more government office and also to the school district office. (For all the teachers, the school district office in Rurre is a two-room adobe hut with open windows. It's falling apart.)... There are 4,000 kids in the district and four persons in the office. No computers and no telephone. Materials for 2001 have still not arrived three months into the year and they haven't paid our teacher for two months.

After the office visits, we took the kids to lunch at a pension (a restaurant that serves a set menu). They had agreed to serve a complete lunch for three bolivianos per child (less than $.50). All the kids got soup, a second course and lemonade. After lunch came the real treat that everyone was waiting for. We took all of them to San Buenaventura, the little town on the other side of Río Beni (the Beni River). We crossed in the ferry much to their delight... They played soccer in a beautiful little plaza surrounded by palm trees. Thankfully, we only had one bruised shin. I bought the little boy ice (a precious commodity here) to put on the bump and within ten minutes he ate it all!

After playing, we had another bathroom break. Basically, we told all the kids to run to the nearest tree behind a building! Some things are harder here, but others are definitely much simpler! . . We crossed the river again to board our luxurious pickup truck. We ran a little late, but we had the last child dropped off by 8:30. All of the parents were waiting by the side of the road to pick up their children. I was exhausted, mostly from worrying that I would lose a student, but it was all worth it. It was an extravagant day, but I always remember all of the places I got to see when I was younger. My students are so curious and so eager to learn. I wish they could have every opportunity possible.

May 11 - I often visit the Chimane... I recently tried some chicha (a drink) at a birthday party and it was actually pretty good. I asked them how they made it and they told me it was a mixture of corn and yucca. The next day, when I went to the water pump, Concepción was busy grinding up some corn (with a large stone) to make another pot. Curious, I went over and greeted her. She calmly leaned over and spit a mouthful of corn she was chewing into a pot before answering me! To speed the fermentation, she and Ascencio were chewing all of the corn first! So, now I know how they made the chicha I tried the day before!