Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pre-service training

Pre-service Training (PST) essentially had three parts consisting of a week and a half of Core Issues training, eight weeks of Community Based Training (CBT), and a week and a half of Bridge to Service Training leading to the swearing in ceremony.

The Core Issues Training applied to all the trainees from the Education, Health and Business and Organization (Biz/Org) sectors. This part of the training took place in the Peace Corps (PC) office in Belmopan. It started with a cultural field trip to Dangriga. Dangriga is the center of Grifuna culture. A museum, operated by the National Garifuna Council, displays historic artifacts, pictures and documents of the Garifuna people.

Symbolizing the suffering
of Garifuna people

Unity Dance
Traditional Dance
Pen Cayetano
Garifunas are the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves and native Caribs. They adopted the Carib language but maintained their African musical and religious heritage. The trip was complemented by a special presentation of Punta dance in traditional costumes and a visit to renowned Garifuna artist Pen Cayetano’s studio. After a delicious traditional Garifuna lunch we also witnessed making of Garifuna drums by the  Rodriguez family. These drums are carved out of pieces of mahogany, cedar and mayflower trees with chain saws, quite a spectacular sight. The trip ended with a very educational demonstration of the traditional casaba baking process from the point of getting the cassava roots to baking of the cassava bread. Other highlights during this phase of the training were visits by the Ambassador of the United States of America and Senator Hulse, an outspoken Belizean. US Ambassador Vinai Thummalapally, a native of India from Hyderabad and a Presidential appointee, who spoke about his commitment to promote the Peace Corps in Belize. Senator Hulsey gave us a very engaging and frank discussion on the history and politics of Belize.

With Ambassador Thummalapally
With Senator Hulse

Community Based Training (CBT) lasted eight weeks during which time stayed with a host family and attended Technical and Language classes. Six Business/Organizational trainees and myself were sent to Salvapan, a Spanish speaking suburb of Belmopan, for training. Typically our day consisted of language classes in the morning in our Salvapan Training Center and technical sessions in the afternoon jointly with the Maya Mopan group at the neighboring Maya Mopan Training Center. The Mopan group had four Business/Organizational trainees who were being trained in the Q’eqchi (Ketchi) language. On the weekends we also worked with Village Council leaders to teach them some basic things such as how to write a professional letter, how to take proper minutes at a village council meeting, and how to facilitate a community mapping session etc. Most interesting parts of this phase of the training were the guest lecturers and the occasional field trips. We went to Belize City to work with the Belize Youth Business Trust, an NGO that teaches young entrepreneurs how to start business of their own. There are two Peace Corps volunteers working with the group to develop an Entrepreneurial Trainer’s Guide and to train the local staff. In a country with such high unemployment especially among the youth, it was very hopeful to see young people wanting to learn how to set up their own businesses. Once they successfully complete the course they are also loaned some start-up capital and provided mentoring along the way. We were fortunate to take a trip to the  Community Baboon Sanctuary, a 20 square mile area along the Belize River extending through several Creole villages, where a Peace Corps volunteer is helping with organizational capacity building and developing strategies for promoting the sanctuary as a visitor destination, a very educational and an wonderful way to spend a morning. There are no Baboons in Belize, but Belizeans refer to the black howler monkeys that live only in Belize, northern Guatemala and southern Mexico as Baboons. They are considered endangered and are protected by the Government of Belize. They have a distinctive deep howl that reverberates through the villages. Due to the effort of this truly community based grass roots conservation organization the black howler monkey population has made an amazing comeback in Belize.

Walk along one of the villages
Black Howler monkey AKA Baboon

Another interesting trip was a visit to the Flowers Bank Community Group that makes organic Cohune Oil for cooking, and several by-products such as soap and massage oil. Cohune, a palm tree protected in Belize and requires a permit to cut down. Every part of the tree is used for something: leaves are used for building roofs, another part of the tree is used for making fly swatters, the core of the tree, called Cohune cabbage for cooking a delicious meal and the nuts used for making oil. The nuts have a distinctive nutty taste with bit of a coconut flavor. The traditional laborious methods of husking and crushing the nuts have been replaced by locally made simple machines that have made life so much easier and the product more accessible to a wider market. A couple of the Peace Corps trainees worked with this group to help with pricing and marketing their products.

Traditional Cohune husker
Modern husker

Sifting after hasking

                                                     A neighbor stopped by to see what was going on

A visit to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association and a trip to a Cacao farm were an eye opening experiences for me. Another Peace Corps volunteer has been helping the Association to improve their data base, set up websites and develop outreach materials. Most people I know would love a bar of good chocolate but I am not sure how many of us know “where chocolates come from?” Well it all starts with the Cacao fruit. These fruits have multiple seeds inside and each seed has a covering of slightly sweet and tangy white flesh. Once the seeds are taken out of the fruits, they are allowed to ferment and then dry for several weeks. Farmers bring their seeds to the Growers Association who in turn sells them to the chocolate makers. The seeds will then be dried in a commercial drier, ground to a fine powder and mixed with milk and other ingredients. This mixing can take as long as three days of constant whipping at a certain temperature in a special mixer to create that creamy consistency. The delicious creamy paste is then poured into molds and put in a special freezer. It is then wrapped and sealed in foil which keeps it air tight and slipped into the manufacturer’s wrappers.

Cacao fruits
Dried cacao seeds 
Inside the fruit
Cacao testing

                                          A small chocolate factory

The CBT ended with a bang with a visit to Xunantanich, a Mayan ruin (see images on and then moving back to Belmopan for the big day when we were given our site assignments. I must say that in spite of all the anxieties about the final site assignments and endless worries about who is going to get placed where and with whom, most everyone was pleased with their assignments. I was happy to have been assigned to the Town of Benque Viejo to work the Mayor and the Town Council on revitalizing the town’s historic core and developing a master plan to promote tourism.

And finally the Pre- Service Training ended with the Bridge to Service, which consisted of a number of logistic and policy types of sessions and most importantly with completing the Reflection Wall, a drawing of a huge tree. As each of us reflected on ten of the Peace Corps core expectations, we wrote our reflections on paper leaves and added them to the leaves.

Reflection Tree
Then came the day where we were sworn in as Volunteers…….coming up next.           

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