On our schedule board, everyday of the week, it says “work.” The manual and basically most of the information I received disclosed that I would be doing service and becoming a volunteer. During the Princeton orientation, I also learned about how it was important, as a volunteer, to stray away from the “us” and “them” mentality and instead, listen to what people need rather than asserting what you think they need onto their already set systems and traditions. Here, I’m learning to deconstruct service as a whole, as the word service seems to imply that I arrive as a person with something to give. In reality, I’m acknowledging more and more that I am the one with much to learn.
I work at Mano a Mano International, where they run a sustainable farm; mediate the delivery of medical supplies; and construct hospitals, greenhouses, and roads. I initially imagined I would be going out on the frontline of all these projects, meeting people, interacting with communities, and celebrating new infrastructure. Instead, I cut alfalfa and remove weeds on the farm. That’s simply what is needed. I have gone on trips and experienced some of the excitement that I had originally envisioned, but somehow my work experience became much more difficult to accept when another American volunteer joined picture.
Arriving just two days after me, Morgan came with a college degree in Spanish and English, and the sole purpose of her two-month stay in Bolivia was volunteering at Mano a Mano. She became much closer with my other compañeros much more quickly than I did, and the organization took her on more trips so that she could write posts for their website—her primary volunteer responsibility. Her niche in Mano a Mano seemed perfect, and her place was quickly established. While everybody was taking trips and working on something specific, I was on the farm, and felt far away from the action, watering the plants. Personally, I absolutely love watering the plants, but I still didn’t want the ‘menial’ work to define my time with the organization.
My supervisor seemed to sense some of my worries, so together we talked about potential projects I could work on that I could call my own. While I was excited to start something new and different, I was a bit uncomfortable with the comfort I felt in having something “I could call my own.” Why was I in such a rush to have my name on a project? Was I perpetuating the very same oppression I was supposed to stray away from by focusing on feeling good about myself instead of doing what was needed? I talked to Morgan and Matt, my instructor, about my frustration, and they both understood my fears of being useless and the flood of concerning questions that circled my head. They advised me that my concerns were valid especially considering the long duration of my volunteer placement. In addition, asking those questions were a great way to put myself in check now and when other similar situations arise. With that, I made an agreement with my supervisor, Camilia, to continue working on the farm for a certain amount of my time and to start working on a new project that other Mano a Mano employees haven’t had time to complete.
My new project doesn’t require me to go on all the trips. In fact, it’s way more related to the farm than the broader mission of Mano a Mano. However, I’m learning to understand that I’m not always going to be useful in the way I want to be. Because of the different strengths, weaknesses, ideas, and interests I possess, my involvement must be and is completely independent of anyone else’s. Though it may be hard not compare, I’m striving to accept that there isn’t one ideal type of usefulness. Many people have several different types of skill sets that have significance in many different places, but something as seemingly trivial as removing weeds can actually be helpful. So if you ever need any assistance cutting plants, give me a call. I’m kind of an expert now.