Nakita Naik is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bolívar, Colombia.
The Peace Corps has three overarching objectives:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served
- Helping promote a better understanding of other people on the part of all Americans
Prior to my arrival in Colombia, Objective 1 resonated most heavily with me. Recently graduated with a degree in Marketing, equipped with the innocent naivety of a post-grad wanting to “impact the world”, I was going to Colombia to consult local businesses, streamline their operations, teach financial literacy classes to women and children, and work with entrepreneurs bettering their business practices. More importantly, I was going to use my educational background to contribute to the greater good.
I learned to regurgitate my official job description at a moment’s notice when people asked me what I would be doing in Colombia as a “Business Advisor.”
In reality, I hadn’t the slightest clue.
I found myself only forming expectations of the tangible outcomes in terms of development. To me, these tangible outcomes signaled success. I was an educated, well-trained woman going to work in a country that had asked for my services. While I acknowledged Objectives 1 and 2 -the intercultural exchange and forming of relationships- I viewed them as byproducts of successfully completing Objective 1. By diligently working on the tasks in my job description, everything else would follow.
Upon my arrival in Colombia my relentless determination to find air conditioning clouded over any lingering thoughts I had surrounding the Objectives. While I had come to impact the world, I had not envisioned myself looking so sweaty while in my fantasies acting as a social change agent. I still had no idea what I was doing, and soon found that I did not know how to say “streamlining operations” in Spanish.
My first day in my training town, a week after landing in Barranquilla, I met my first friend, although I did not know it at the time. Hairier than most of my previous friends, Tony looked at me with his Pitbull eyes and began barking ferociously. My new host mom assured me he was just saying “Hello.” I wanted to say “Adios.” I spent the rest of the week refusing to use the bathroom at night, frightened that the pitbull was lurking outside of my door ready to lunge.
However, in the coming weeks we formed an unlikely alliance as I began to feed him my extra food under the table. Colombian mothers express their love through food; my host mother was very loving, to say the least. I was friendly with her but I felt it hard to connect deeply. we were so different. Two women from such different backgrounds that had lived such different lives. Nevertheless, each day she loaded my plate with a rice mountain which I would transfer to my new friend.
It was the perfect relationship until Tony began to get really sick. He began throwing up and not being able to hold any food down. I began to panic. I asked myself under which objective harming animals fell?
The guilt racked heavily on my conscious. I nervously called my best friend from home and told her everything. After I hung up the phone I stepped outside of my room to find my host mom right outside. I knew that she had heard everything. I stared at her dumbfounded and asked if she had heard me on the phone, the sweat forming at my brow.
She said yes, she had heard it all. She then proceeded to laugh, reminding me that she didn’t speak a word of English and that my rice was on the table. I was safe.
That night we had our first real conversation. We talked about Tony, her kids, my life at home, how I really didn’t eat that much rice, and what I liked about Colombia.
The following weeks my host mother was a mess, crying at any bad news from the veterinarian, crying at any good news from the veterinarian. I did my best to ease her pain, showering her in hugs and comforting phrases I had googled in Spanish. Her emotions humanized her and it became easier to see the similarities and navigate the differences, gradually breaking through the barriers of age and culture. Thankfully for me, Tony had actually just caught a serious virus, not rice poisoning.
It’s comical now that thinking I had nearly killed my first friend led to me making another.
Through this experience, and countless others it became apparent that my initial logic was severely flawed. While Objective 1 is important, it is impossible to reach without Objectives 2 and 3. I have quickly come to realize that friendship and understanding are the absolute most significant, sustainable things we can create as volunteers. It is at the root of virtually everything in the Peace Corps: success of our projects and technical work, peaceful diplomacy, and our happiness and well-being.
Friendship is a host mother in Northern Atlántico who welcomed a Gringa with loving arms and made a terrified post-grad who had no idea what she was doing feel like she had a home in a new country. Friendship is a group of women feeding a volunteer as she gives her first lesson in financial literacy. Friendship is experienced entrepreneurs patiently listening to the business advice of a young volunteer trying to use her educational background for the greater good. Friendship is what impacts the world.
Friendship is people reading this blog and telling me how true and cheesy it is.
For my commitment to service project I had members in my community draw pictures of “a friend.” I was touched when a little boy told me that he drew me. Please see above to see me through the eyes of a 9 year old.