HWS, Peace Corps: 8 to 20 in 3 – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

HWS, Peace Corps: 8 to 20 in 3

In 2006, Bob Murphy, director of the Salisbury Center for Career Services, set out to increase Hobart and William Smith graduates’ participation in the Peace Corps from the eight that were volunteering at the time, to 20 volunteers – and to do so in a three year span. Recently, Shannon Small, Peace Corps regional recruiter, wrote to Murphy to let him know “HWS has met its goal of eight to twenty in three!” According to Small, who has been to campus a number of times to for “Pizza with the Peace Corps” information sessions with Assistant Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) Katie Flowers, “From September 2006 through today there are 20 HWS grads either overseas with the Peace Corps or invited and leaving in the next few months.”

She notes there are currently 10 HWS students or graduates who are currently going through the application process, so by September 2009 (the officially three years mark) the school might exceed its 20 goal.

“I have no doubt the information meetings Shannon and Katie conducted over pizza helped a great deal over the past three years. I love it when a plan comes together and I especially like it when it means that our students are getting an opportunity of a life time,” says Murphy.

Among the recent graduates currently serving in the Peace Corps are Jessica Werder ’04 and her husband Matt Lyttle ’06. The two are health volunteers in Nicaragua. An article written by Werder is currently on the Peace Corps Web site, in a section detailing what volunteers do.

Werder earned her B.S. in biology summa cum laude from William Smith College. While a student, she spent a semester abroad in Queensland, England and was a member of the Laurel Society, participated in the student phonathon and was on the Dean’s List.

Lyttle graduated from Hobart College with a B.A. in religious studies. He minored in public service and was a Druid, a member of the Campus Activities Board and was on the Dean’s List.

The full text of the article written by Werder appears below.

“Hunger in Nicaragua”

Jessica Werder and Matthew Lyttle • April 16 2009

There is something about Nicaragua that just makes me hungry. The doctors assure me that it’s normal–something about constant gastrointestinal stress, a result of being transplanted from microbial immune New York directly into a country that houses an impressive variety of tiny organisms, each and every one eager to make my intestines their new home.

But today, despite that gnawing sensation in my stomach, I can’t eat. My food tastes funny, sour almost. I briefly wonder if it’s the heat. Given that my shirt is soaked through with sweat, I wouldn’t doubt if my Styrofoam-packed lunch has gone bad. It might even be that the beans were old to begin with. But I immediately dismiss both possibilities. I know if I just glance up, I can stare the sour taste in the eye. After pushing my food around a bit, I decide to bite the bullet and look. I meet the longing expressions of three children across the fence and I am certain, just by looking, that my own recent intimacy with hunger is pale in comparison to their mutual long-term relationship. I quickly decide that a few bites of beans can hold me over until dinner, and pass the tortilla, chicken, and rice along to the kids.

Nicaraguans are no strangers to hunger. The country is considered the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and with a large portion of the population barely eking a living from the land, it’s no wonder that the current world food crisis is hitting Nicas hard. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), Nicaragua is one of 17 countries worldwide at “high risk” of deteriorating food security as a result of high food prices. And prices are high.

Silvana Lorena Bertrand Betancourtan is a friend of mine who has lived her entire 52 years in a small Nicaraguan city of about 35,000 people. She says the canasta básica (“basic basket,” including maize, beans, rice, sugar, bread and coffee, and soap) costs more now than she has ever seen and claims that it’s difficult for her to get by on the few tomatoes that she sells weekly from her nephew’s farm. With no home and her children grown and gone, she needs to look to other people to help her survive. She relies on the community and is well acquainted with the need to beg for the occasional Córdoba (Nicaraguan currancy).

Down the corner from Silvana, Franklin Gutierrez Mejia and his wife, Maricele Aquilera, have sold fruit for years. Franklin explains that they buy the fruit from a producer in nearby Honduras, mark it up, and sell it for a small profit. With the profit, they can usually afford beans, rice, and tortilla, with meat once or twice a week. But lately, the prices of basics like maize and rice have been high. This year’s dry season will be difficult for Franklin’s family, when there is little produce to be found and sold.

Finding evidence of the global food crisis on the streets of my town is no surprise to me. Many Nicaraguans have been hard pressed to make ends meet for years and the recent blip in the global food market, while potentially devastating, is likely, for the moment, just to push people to work harder and eat a little less. As Silvana Lorena tells me, “La gente sobrevive” (people survive). My question is, at what cost?

I expect that a food crisis labeled “global” presents a more complicated set of problems than are evident at first glance. My expertise is not in food security; nor are my primary Peace Corps goals. As a health Volunteer, I focus primarily on three things: adolescent pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and reduction of maternal and child mortality. I do this because they are priorities that have been identified by the Nicaragua Ministry of Health and because it’s what I know how to do. But I have to wonder if there are larger connections between my service goals and the looming hunger crisis in Nicaragua.

Talking with Mary Elsy Caldera López, some possible connections emerge. Having worked as a logistics administrator for nine years with the organization Accion Contra el Hambre (Action Against Hunger), Mary Elsy eagerly suggests some insights into the food security issue in Nicaragua. My Peace Corps site and the home to my friends Silvana and Franklin is the capital of the northern Nicaraguan department of Madriz. Madriz, it appears, has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent and, according to the Nicaraguan National Institute of Development Information, roughly 60 percent of those who do work do so in the form of seasonal employment. For Mary Elsy, this translates into two things: mothers and fathers leaving their families to work as housekeepers or coffee cutters and, when times are really bad, whole families traveling to cut coffee and pick bananas. For me, there is an additional set of translations to be made: out-of-school children, and married partners spending significant amounts of time apart. This sends up my red flags for adolescent pregnancy and HIV/AIDS transmission.

My friend Silvana attests to the fact that many children in town work at an early age to help bring in money. As she vends her tomatoes on the corner, she sees numerous children pass, selling tortilla or cajetas (a sweet, caramel-like candy) for a few Córdobas each. Mothers usually make the tortilla at home, and send the older children out into the community to sell. They then stay in the house and look after the youngest kids. As these families find it more difficult to eat, children spend more and more time helping the family survive. Sometimes, as Mary Elsy suggests, they even work in seasonal agricultural employment alongside their parents.

The more time children spend out of school working, the less likely they are to return. And, the lower their educational level, the higher their chance of adolescent pregnancy. Young mothers are more likely to have substantial health risks, both for themselves and their babies, including a higher risk of maternal and child death. And, they are likely to have more children in the long run, which translates into more mouths to feed. It appears that the global food crisis really is about hungry mouths, though the relationship between food prices and hunger seems to have more layers than I originally thought.

Bautistina Vanegas lives in a rural community that is about a 30-minute bus ride from my town. She travels every Saturday to town, where she sells produce purchased from a farmer in her community. She has eight children with her husband, who splits his time between cultivating maize and beans on rented land, and cutting coffee when the season is right. Bautistina confirms that times are difficult; 10 is a daunting number of mouths to feed and, for Bautistina, its becoming a challenge. Her problems have been further compounded by local political troubles. The mayor’s office has decided to crack down on zoning laws and the police are chasing away street vendors like Bautistina who don’t have permits. If she can’t continue to sell, her husband may have to look for more lucrative work elsewhere.

In many countries, a large migratory population is correlated with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. People travel, encounter new sexual partners, and then return home to their spouses and families, where the disease continues its course of transmission. I have to wonder, if more Nicaraguans are pressed to travel locally, nationally, and internationally as a means to make money and survive, will HIV/AIDS prevalence in Nicaragua jump? Will women like Bautistina, whose husbands must travel to provide for their family, find themselves with more problems than just putting food on the table? Again, I realize the complexity of the problem associated with high food costs.

The U.N. says that in 2007, 6 million additional people in Latin America and the Caribbean were undernourished as a result of high food prices. A number of contributing factors have been suggested for the surge in the price of staples such as rice, wheat, and other cereals, ranging from stock market influences to production shortfalls to petroleum demand. Undernourishment carries its own obvious health consequences. What we must realize, though, is that the less immediately apparent consequences are no less impactful or important. While a solution must be found, the number of influencing factors appears daunting and almost insurmountable.

So, today, having taught a youth group about pregnancy prevention in Aguas Calientes, I wait for a ride home and ponder the issue of hunger. As I sit here, ignoring my own growling stomach, and watching the kids across the fence share my chicken with greasy fingers and enormous smiles, I can’t help but wonder if one of them might be Bautistina’s child. I ask myself, “What more I can do to help break the cycle of poverty and hunger that many people here find themselves in? How do you make people more self-sufficent and less reliant on fickle global food markets, particularly in the era of the global village?” I can’t single-handedly change world food systems, or come up with a solution to the looming energy crisis, which further threatens to escalate prices. So what can a single Peace Corps Volunteer do?

One solution occurs to me. Perhaps organizations like the Peace Corps need to begin thinking more about multisectoral, interdisciplinary programs for development. As I work on the reduction of adolescent pregnancy, I realize that knowledge about contraception and risks for young mothers stand little chance of changing behavior in the face of unemployment, hunger, and poverty.
As I make this realization, I also make a resolution: I have one year of service left. In Madriz, I am surrounded by other Volunteers, primarily in the sectors of agriculture and business. I decide that recognizing the links between hunger, health, education ,and employment is crucial to helping the people around me. I think I’ll call my fellow Volunteers and chat about the work they are doing on community gardens and entrepenuership. One Peace Corps Volunteer can’t change the world. But maybe a network of them can.

(Jessica Werder and her husband, Matt Lyttle, are health Volunteers in Nicaragua.)