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Bringing 'Peace' of Panama home

This article by Justin Richardson was originally published in the Courier-Tribune, N.C., on June 27, 2004.

ASHEBORO - "Just because people don't have a lot of money, doesn't mean they're not happy."

So said Braden Walsh of Asheboro, who recently returned from a four-year term with the Peace Corps in Panama.

The Peace Corps is a federal agency devoted to peace and friendship. Started in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, it has served over 136 countries in the world with more than 170,000 volunteers.

"The Peace Corps has three goals," Walsh said. "The first is to learn from other cultures. The second is to teach other cultures about America. The third is to do the work required in volunteering countries."

"I just remember in high school, thinking I wanted to join Peace Corps," Walsh said. "I always liked traveling, meeting new people and cultures."

Walsh worked as a Spanish translator during her college summers and enjoyed it. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1999, with a BA in International Studies and a BA in Spanish, Walsh interviewed at corporations around the area, but couldn't find her niche.

"It just wasn't me," she said. "But Peace Corps was right up my alley."

Walsh spent approximately three of her four years in a little town called Espino (with a population of 65), in Amarello, which is in the Los Santos province, six hours west of Panama City.

The Peace Corps is active through a series of programs. There are educational outreaches, AIDS/HIV awareness campaigns, and business, community, information, technology, agricultural and environmental development programs. For the first three years Walsh was in Panama, she worked with the horticultural aspect of the agricultural development program.

"Every day was different," she said, "that's the fun thing about being a volunteer." Walsh worked every day on farmable land, employing permaculture techniques - using renewable natural resources and enriching local ecosystems - and teaching them to the natives.

"Using permaculture is a more sustainable way of living," she said.

"Most people think of Panama as a jungle, but in Los Santos, they had cut down lots of trees so cattle could graze. There was very intensive cattle ranching, and a lot of deforestation."

According to Walsh, this is the primary reason for droughts and dry spells. Aqueducts and bodies of water dried up, Walsh believes, because "trees hold the moisture into the ground."

After three months of training, Walsh helped put in more drought-resistant pasture grasses and planted trees. "I worked on an organic level. We tried not to use fertilizers for farming, and instead used earthworm manure, compost and soil conversion techniques."

By day, Walsh cared for and milked cows, cut down brush, and performed general farm labor. By night she sat in her hammock and read.

"I read more books than I ever have in my life."

She spent some spare time going to dances that were "not like a middle school dance," where an accordion player typically provided the music.

Walsh also taught an adult literacy course. "There were several women in Los Santos who didn't have much of an educational background. Some could only read at the second-grade level, some less."

"It was cool to see them going out of their way to read, once they knew how." Walsh was also pleased that women would read and write without her help.

After three years on the farm, Walsh became a technical coordinator for the fourth and final year of her time in Panama, traveling all over the country. She spoke to communities and volunteers on organic farming and its benefits and attended community meetings to discuss the Peace Corps, trying to unearth interest in involvement.

"Panama is just under the size of South Carolina, and is a very diverse country." Walsh encountered Latinos (the whitest of all groups in Panama), Afrolatinos (generally coastal fishermsh encountered Latinos (the whitest of all groups in Panama), Afrolatinos (generally coastal fishermen and women, who speak an English-Spanish-African hybrid language called Gauri Gauri), and the various indigenous groups that were in Panama long before the Spaniards landed.

Walsh said that one thing common to each was "lots of folkloric events to celebrate the cultures."

Yet, according to Walsh, there was even racism and prejudice among some of the groups. Walsh said, "But once you put them together in seminars and meetings, they get along just fine."

That much of it, at least, seems universal.

"Yet one of the hardest things to change is someone's mentality - even if what you're teaching will benefit them. But it was a kind of revelation for me when I realized that, sometimes, I don't need to change them."

When asked how the experience affected her, Walsh replied, laughing, "I like hot weather even more now, and I just can't stand air-conditioning."

To stress the friendliness of the people, Walsh explained that she could have visited any community at random, asked for a place to stay, and would have gotten it with a hot meal, no questions asked.

Eventually, Walsh plans on going into landscaping and utilizing her horticultural techniques. She also wants to urge others to "tread lighter on the Earth. I've seen it to be of growing importance."

Meanwhile, Walsh is re-adjusting to the hustle of everyday life in Asheboro. "I loved the slow pace down there. Time is a completely different concept to them."

"I'd like to live a little more simply now. I try not to put an emphasis on material things. I also want to work outside as much as I can … whether farming or gardening. I'm happier if I can be closer to Earth, instead of being closed up in the AC."

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