Libi Ku Lobi

Today, I received an email from Toni, a close Saramaccan friend.

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Attached to his email were 5 photos of Frank standing in front of the rice milling business we created in Ligorio, the village where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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What do I see in this picture?

I see a beautifully designed poster, shirt and hat, all creations of my talented Aunt Kathy and her crew at Harvey & Daughters. Yes, the same crazy and adventurous aunt responsible for creating the spectacular “It’s Always Sunny in Suriname” blog header.

I see change, Frank’s finishing touches to the mill’s shelter and the surrounding landscape, and I see that nothing has changed; Frank still wears his favorite blue work pants and camouflage rubber boots and attempts to hide his goofy smile from every picture, self-conscious of revealing the toothless gaps in his grin.

After receiving this email, I immediately called Frank and told him how great I thought everything looked. Frank chuckled and, once I asked, began describing business affairs, highlighting a visit by several government officials. They inspected the rice mill, he said, and were so impressed that they offered to cover some of the capital costs to expand the business, such as a solar panel to charge the engine’s battery and a 1,000 L water tank to hold water used as coolant. After I reminded Frank that if his business continues to succeed, it will have enough money to buy those items on its own, he responded by saying that the revenue has already proven capable of sustaining the business, funding several trips to Paramaribo to repair damaged parts and buy more fuel.  I was so happy to hear his voice and that things were running smoothly. 

Saramaccan Lesson:

libi ku lobi = “live with love”

alisi mbii = “rice mill”

 

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How Peace Corps Changed My Life

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Now that I am back in the United States, reconnecting with my friends and family and adjusting to the realities of American life, many people ask me with fascination and respect, “So what exactly did you do down there?” It’s a good question. Many Americans do not have a real understanding of the mission undertaken by the 8,073 current Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 76 countries around the world.

To answer them, I reflect back on my service, an incredible, personal, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, and maddening ride through life in the Surinamese rainforest. The most accurate response (which I rarely provide) is that I gained far more than I ever sacrificed.

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While discovering a special corner of the world different from our own and establishing close relationships with people who approach life from a different point of view, I came to understand the differences and similarities between life in the Surinamese rainforest and the United States. Learning about the customs and values to which Saramaccans adhere, especially those that greatly diverge from their counterparts in America, provoked me to examine my own actions and values, and even my mission in life.

Who do I want to be? What do I need to confess? How have I deceived myself and others? Where have my actions diverged from my values? How do I want to be perceived? What changes will I commit to making in my actions, attitude and perceptions? To which meaningful cause do I want to commit my professional career? These are the essential questions that I contemplated.

First and foremost, I made a confession to myself and my family, coming clean on who I am, why I did the things I did — things I am proud of, and things I am not — and where I intend to go next. Only after that did I realize that I had never really thought about what I wanted my purpose in life to be. And if I did, I had never written it down.

So I started there, as if creating a personal constitution. While still in Ligorio, I wrote: “My mission in life is to live with integrity and character and to enthuse positive change in myself and in the lives of those in my communities around the world.” Writing this down helped me to set my moral compass, defining my values and goals as a person — the son, brother, and friend that I am, as well as the husband, father, and leader that I want to be some day.

Looking back, my Peace Corps experience has permeated every nook and cranny of my life. It has changed the lens through which I view the world and my role in it. It changed what I care about, and how I think about language and culture and money. It changed how I approach my relationship with myself and with others, how I approach every individual I meet, and how I empathize with people — outsiders, in particular.

It changed how I will, one day, raise my children and what values I will try to teach them. It taught me what I am capable of, alone and in a group, and refreshed my aspiration to reach my fullest potential. It gave me a new group of close friends both throughout the United States and in the Surinamese rainforest, the inspiration to become a teacher, and an undying love of mangos.

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Why, and how, did my Peace Corps experience inspire such monumental change in me?

Life in Ligorio is simpler, more elemental. While financially, Saramaccans live below the poverty line, to me, their lives are rich. They are tied to the outdoors. They live and take care of the basics, and they don’t do much else. They do it all with a skillful understanding of themselves, their community, culture, and environment, surrounded daily by their family members. And their lifestyle is contagious.

Since coming home, it’s been a struggle to incorporate those priorities and that simplicity in my life here. I crave that life, but our culture makes it difficult. We have developed beyond that, perhaps to our detriment.

Furthermore, I’d learned that people are people, no matter where in the world. We can do our best to study all the generalities and tendencies of a group, but in the end, every person carries their own perspective and personality to every issue. There are people who make you laugh, and some who drive you insane. There are hard workers and freeloaders. There are people who follow the rules and those who break them. Some children are academically driven, some athletically, some artistically, and others socially. Some people are happy; others, unhappy.

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When we look at people we don’t know, and speak of “foreigners” or “tribes” or “clans,” we perceive them as different. But regardless of divergences in culture and values, we all have the same basic human needs, desires, concerns, and emotions — and those similarities outweigh our differences.

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On the day I was scheduled to depart from Ligorio, I was hit by the most difficult challenge of my entire Peace Corps experience, humbling all of the obstacles I had faced in the past: saying goodbye for the last time to the Saramaccans who had treated me as if I was one of their own. Not a bone in my body wanted to leave.

As the plane climbed over the green canopy of pristine rainforest and I waved to the crowd that had gathered at the jungle airstrip to see me off, I realized that my Peace Corps experience had redefined for me what it means to be a man. In Ligorio, I had learned what type of man I wanted to be, and had started down that path.

When I try to measure what kind of Peace Corps volunteer I was — what kind of success I had in Ligorio — it all comes down to two things: the relationships I built with the people, and my commitment to their community. In other words, what kind of man I was.

To me, the essence of what it means to be a man emanates from the heart. It was about my capacity to love and to be loved. The questions I now ask myself are all about relationships. “What kind of village member was I? What kind of neighbor? What kind of role model? What kind of teacher? What kind of friend? Who did I love, and who did I allow to love me?”

At the end of my service, I wanted to leave a legacy, to know that I made a difference. And all of that depended on the effort that I was willing to commit to Ligorio and its people, my belief in my responsibility to give back, and the challenge to identify my unique cause in life. I surfaced from this deep introspection with a greater understanding of myself and committed to work hard to align my actions with my values.

I can’t say that I gave it 110 percent every day. Some days, I napped in my hammock and read a book for the entire day. I made mistakes. I aggravated people, and people aggravated me. But that was the amazing rollercoaster of my life in Ligorio and of life in general. In the end, I can look myself in the mirror and congratulate myself on a life well lived in Ligorio, but that’s between me and me.

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– John

 

The Last Waltz: Ligorio

My last week in Ligorio was a rollercoaster of emotion, much like every other week for the past two years, only this time it was drastically more intense. A little over a week before my departure date, I held a thank you party for the people of Ligorio and Langu to express my appreciation for the way in which they welcomed me into the community and lived with me. 

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Bram, a Belgian volunteer teacher, and I dressed up in our Saramaccan attire for the thank you party!

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Frank and I sitting in front of all the food and drinks I shared with the village. Inside the buckets are noodles, rice, chicken and an assortment of cakes.

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Tina presenting me with a table cloth to bring back to America!

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Thomas and I

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Joanne, Esselien, Rachel and Julia were nice enough to pass out the food and drinks to all the people who attended.

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Senimai and Fesi – two of my neighbors who took me in as their surrogate son, frequently cooking for me and always willing to tell me how “naughty” I was.

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My good friend, Toni, and I after playing soccer at the Emancipation Day party called Keti Koti (meaning “the chains are broken”).

Later that evening (it was Monday, July 1, 2013) the village leaders received word that a man who was visiting the Ligorio area had died. One day the village was celebrating, the next they were arguing over the proper way to bury the man. These arguments took up the better part of the next three days, as the people from Ligorio weren’t certain of the way in which the deceased’s family wanted him buried.

On Tuesday, Mariette, a girl in my 5th grade English class, climbed up 30 feet into a tree to pick fruits, and when the weight of her body snapped the branch on which she was sitting, she fell to the ground, dislocating/separating both of her forearms from her elbows. I wanted to throw up looking at her cry out in pain. I knew how she felt for I have had my fair share of traumatic dislocations. Luckily, the girl’s little sister who was on the same branch was able to cling onto a branch below them and prevent herself from hitting the ground.

I watched as a group of 30+ people surrounded the girl and argued whether or not they should try to treat her with traditional medicines or take her to the local health clinic’s nurse. Although not a main player in this verbal battle, I stressed the importance of getting  her to the city so that x-rays could be taken of her injuries to know exactly what treatment was needed.

I watched as grandmothers started splashing Mariette with water and holding her forearms as she twisted and turned and squealed in pain. I watched as her father pulled up in a motorboat, tears streaming down from his eyes, crying out to God, asking Him when will he be rewarded for all the hard work that he is doing for his children because all he sees is suffering. I watched the horror and felt the isolation and understood the resilience of the Saramaccans.

24 hours after Mariette fell, she boarded an airplane and was flown to the city where her arms were put back in place. It wasn’t until Thursday morning that we buried the man in Ligorio’s graveyard. By Saturday, life in Ligorio had quieted back down to its normal, slow pace.

Saturday night, Ligorio held a thank you party for me and although the torrential rain deterred many party-goers, it didn’t keep the heart and soul of Ligorio from coming out to celebrate.

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Julia Alinkie taught me how to sing a traditional Saramaccan song and above I am performing the song while the women are bent over and clapping.

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Lota and I dancing “saketi”

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Julia Alinkie and I

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Presenting Thomas with the Ligorio sign. Here I was given the opportunity to address the audience and express my gratitude. I thanked them saying that when I arrived I didn’t know a single person in Ligorio and when I left, I felt like I was leaving my Saramaccan family behind me. And to me, their willingness to welcome a complete stranger into their hearts and the effort they made to get to know me meant alot!

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When the electricity cut out, I ran home and grabbed my guitar. By the time I got back, the electricity had been turned back on but that didn’t stop us from performing the best rendition of “Noiti moo, noiti moo, ma sa fekete” (meaning “never, never can I forget”).

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This was truly a magical moment for me. When I started playing, I was by myself, but one by one, these men came and surrounded me and we sang the song together. I think I even saw the women bent over in their chairs with their breasts to their knees, bobbing in a tired and sleep deprived rhythm and moving their mouths to the words of the song. For me, it was perfect.

And then, after surviving two years in the jungle and most recently 13 straight weeks in Ligorio, on Monday July 8, 2013, I was hit by my most difficult challenge as a Peace Corps Volunteer, humbling all of the obstacles I faced in the past. For the last time, I said goodbye to the Saramaccans who treated me as if I was one of their own and not a bone in my body wanted to climb into that airplane to leave.

An Active Silence

The blog has gone silent but that does not mean we are not making the most of every last moment I have in Ligorio. Here is what I have been up to recently:

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Philip taught me how to make a “wawai” – a gift men typically make for their wives to fan fire.

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Toni took me to work – sawing massive blocks of wood to make 2×4’s

DSCF2917Dona and I jamming to our favorite Saramerican tunes on his front porch.

DSC_9859Map of Suriname

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Bram, my new Belgian friend who teaches at a primary school two villages upriver, was the architect of this intricate design – credit (and thanks) to Brooke Crumpton for sewing me a beautiful Saramaccan “bandjakoto” (pictured two above)

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Dawson and I

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Marsei

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Mavis

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Ronaldo aka Konubee

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Migiel and Steven painting the Ligorio sign which I will present to the community as a token of my appreciation.

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Dona took me to his work where we worked on his dug-out canoe and cut planks from a tree. We then carried these boards to the river on our heads. After three trips, each about a half-mile in distance, my head hurt and my body was exhausted. I was definitely not used to this type of work! Luckily there were no more trips.

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Ronaldo and I floated downriver for an entire day and fished out of our canoes. The empty-handed paddle back upriver to Ligorio was longer than the amount of time we spent fishing.

I caught my first piranha!!

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Orveo and I caught our first “kumalu” – a fish very similar to the piranha but without the razor sharp teeth.

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A majority of the six grade class after the boys won the soccer competition against the rest of the school during the Emancipation Day party called “Keti Koti.”

Peace OUTBut TODAY my thoughts go out to the members of my SUR-17 family pictured above. Yesterday, they rung a bell which hangs at the Peace Corps office in Paramaribo, representing the end of their Peace Corps service, and today they will be leaving Suriname. The rest of us will be on our way shortly!

To SUR-17, I have the upmost respect for all of you for persevering through your different individual challenges, struggling to work towards ambitious goals and sharing a sense of humanity with those you used to call strangers and now friends. CONGRATULATIONS!

GET YOUR WHITE RICE HERE!!!

In Atjoni, where the road ends and the river begins.

DSC_5774The people of Ligorio travelled to Atjoni to help transport the rice mill and its engine back to our village.

RiceMillatTapawataPulling the boat up Tapawata, the first of two rapids around which we have to portage our supplies.

gaandamportagePortaging the rice mill around Gaandam, rapid number 2. This rapid is much larger, requiring us to take the machines out of the boat and walk them around by land.

DSC_5933Our arrival in Ligorio quickly attracted a large crowd.

DSC_6041Frank and I after we installed and cemented the rice mill and its engine to the ground.

DSC_7235In the top…..

DSC_7209….and out the bottom. Frank inspecting the final product!

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And finally, one happy customer walking home with a mound of rice!

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Peace Corps Suriname Legacy Video

On July 13, 2013, Peace Corps Suriname will close it doors for the last time. My good friend and fellow PCV, Kyle Smithers (SUR 16 from Georgia), returned to Suriname for 7 months after he completed his two years as a volunteer to create a documentary film that showcases Peace Corps’ 18 years in Suriname.

We all hope that the legacy of Peace Corps Suriname will continue to inspire and empower long after the post officially closes!

Awesome work, Kyle! A huge success!

Guest Blogger: Doug Cutchins

John has asked me to write a guest blog post for him, and I am happy to do so – it’s the least I can do to thank John for the incredible hospitality that he showed us, and for making our dream come true of returning to Ligolio with our kids.

DSC_6210Pictured above from left: Doug, Anne, Beatrice, Emma, John and Christina in front of John’s house in Ligolio.

Some context: my wife Anne Geissinger and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio, the same village where John is serving, from 1995-97.  The two of us and John are basically the only three Peace Corps volunteers ever to serve in Ligolio (technically there were two others, a couple that replaced us at site in 1997, but since they quit and went home eight days after they arrived, we don’t really count them.).  Further, we were in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Suriname, and, poetically, John is in the last group of volunteers in Suriname.

We returned to the US 16 years ago and have lived our lives since then, frequently thinking about our friends and our incredible experience in Ligolio, and have often talked about whether or not we could make it back there for a visit.  We did return once, in 2000, for a short visit, before we had kids.  But then Emma was born in 2001, and Beatrice two years later, and while we kept thinking about going back to Ligolio, the kids were not old enough, or the trip was too daunting, or we were just too worried about the very real dangers that come up when you take American children into the middle of the Surinamese rainforest.  We really didn’t think it would ever be feasible.

Then two years ago, we happened to catch an episode of the Food Channel’s Bizarre Foods, filmed not only in Suriname and not only in a Saramaccan village, but with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, Amber Tris Ray.  We found Amber through Facebook, and she told us that there was a new Peace Corps volunteer going to Ligolio, which is how we connected with John.

John made this trip possible.  Even with two (if I do say so myself) really well-behaved kids, it would have been impossible to go to the village without having John to set up the basics of housing, water, kitchen facilities, in-country transportation, bathrooms, etc.  We just wouldn’t have risked showing up with kids and having something basic like “where will we get our water from?” not worked out in advance.

Even with everything in place, we were still really nervous going into this experience.  Our 2000 visit had been OK, but frankly was somewhat boring and underwhelming.  Without a role to play in the village, we floundered for the five days we were there.  We had no real purpose or point.  What if that happened again?  We warned Emma and Bea that we might have some long, boring times, and packed extra books.  We even discussed the possibility of how we might contact Gum Air to move our charter flight out of the village up a day or two if things got really bad.

Those fears were absolutely for naught.  Our time in Ligolio was spectacular, and the days completely flew by.  Having Peace Corps volunteers around (and here we have to give a HUGE shout-out to nearby PCV Christina Hansberry, who we also really loved getting to know), and being there with our children gave us focal points outside of our friends in the village.  We spent hours and hours talking with John and Christina about the incredible, special, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, maddening experience of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Langu (the section of the river that includes Ligolio and Christina’s village of Stonhuku), and when we weren’t doing that, we could show our kids this remarkable tiny corner of the globe, and delight as they befriended and played games with the children of our Saramaccan friends.  It was just a magical week.

In addition to thanking John and Christina for the role that they played in making it possible for us to return, and for hosting us and putting up with endless stories of 1990s Ligolio, I also have to express my deep admiration for them.  Anne and I went through this experience together, as a married couple.  I can’t begin to count the number of times back then that we said or journaled or wrote in a letter home, “I never could do this without my spouse here.”  Sure, our experience was “harder” in some superficial ways.  John and Christina have electricity (sometimes) and there is running water in the village (occasionally), and now there is more access to the city and (the big difference) everyone has a cell phone.  But, fundamentally, the experience they are going through is at its core the same thing that we went through.  And we have the experience to tell you this: it’s damn hard.  We did it together, and neither of us thinks that we could have done it alone, even if you gave us a cellphone and electricity and running water.  So: “Big ups to John and Christina.” (Yes, that’s an inside joke from our visit.)  You two are rock stars, and this will be one of the most challenging things you ever do (at least until you have children!).

But I also know that while this has been a challenging experience for John and Christina — they have given up a lot of creature comforts, and been away from family and friends, and been confused and damp and itchy more than they will be for the rest of their lives — they are going to gain much, much more by going through this than they ever gave up.  Being Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio changed Anne and my lives in thousands of ways, big and small.  It changed how we view the world and our role in it.  It changed how we vote, what we care about politically, how we think about language and culture and money and relationships.  It impacted how we raise our children, and what values we try to teach them.  It taught us what we are capable of, alone and together.  It gave us an undying love of mangos, a name for our eldest daughter, a direct path to my current job, the opportunity to write a book, perspective to get Anne out of a job she didn’t like, and a secret language that our kids don’t understand (literally and metaphorically).  Our Peace Corps Suriname experience permeates every nook and cranny of our lives, and we think about it every day.  John and Christina will, too.

This visit continued to change and challenge me.  Since we got home from this trip I have been talking a lot with anyone who will listen to me about how different and in many ways better our lives were in the village than they are here in America.  We spend a lot of time in the US thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter much at all.  Life in Ligolio is a lot simpler, a lot more elemental.  You’re tied to the outdoors and to the basic stuff of life every day.  People there live and take care of the basics, and don’t do much else, and they do it all with a sense of self and culture, surrounded daily by their family members, in a way that we have gotten pretty far away from here in the US.  It’s been a challenge, since coming home, for me to begin to think about how we can have those same priorities and simplicity in our lives here.  And you know what?  Our culture kind of makes that impossible.  We’ve “developed” beyond that, perhaps to our detriment.  These aren’t easy issues to grapple with, even 16 years after we left Ligolio.  Those who know and love John and Christina need to know that they may struggle with these same issues of reverse culture shock when they return to the US, too.

John and Christina are going to come home this summer changed forever, and we hope they know that they always have a home in Grinnell, Iowa that has its doors open to them.

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