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Navigating cultural differences and building connections in Jamaica

pcv Ptah Asabi flashes peace signs in Jamaica

The Peace Corps proudly celebrates Black History Month as an opportunity to honor the invaluable contributions of Black Americans to our nation and the world. Black history is an integral part of the fabric of our society, embodying resilience, courage, and perseverance in the face of adversity. Through the lens of Black history, the Peace Corps recognizes the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in creating a more just and equitable world.

We celebrate the achievements and legacies of Black leaders, activists, and changemakers who have inspired and empowered countless individuals, both domestically and internationally.

Black Volunteers like Ptah Asabi, an Education Volunteer serving in Jamaica, help foster understanding, unity, and solidarity across cultures and communities, driving us toward a brighter and more inclusive future for all.

In his own words, Ptah shares how he’s built relationships, immersed himself in Jamaican culture, and integrated with his community to maximize his impact as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Can you share your motivation for joining the Peace Corps?

For a long time, I have aspired to work abroad while being immersed in whichever culture I was working in. I pursued my undergraduate degree in global studies with hopes of studying abroad for most of my undergraduate journey. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to adapt to online learning platforms like many of my peers. Nearing the end of my undergraduate journey and trying to figure out what my next move would be, the Peace Corps was suggested to me by a mentor who had many friends that were returned Peace Corps Volunteers. With a little encouragement, I decided to send in my application and agreed to serve wherever the Peace Corps thought I would be the best fit.

Please briefly explain your Volunteer role. What projects are you supporting?

I serve as an Education Volunteer and support a primary literacy project in Jamaica. My work includes working with children in grades one through three to advance their reading and writing skills. Most of my work is focused on building knowledge around letter sounds and the alphabet.

Another project that I have supported was the Highgate Youth Expo in St. Mary, and I also support a youth reading project targeted at children at the primary level. The goal of that project is to increase literacy ability and awareness around climate change.

PCV Ptah Asabi in Jamaica
Ptah Asabi, an Education Volunteer serving in Jamaica, plans to utilize his Peace Corps experience to pursue a graduate degree program after service.

In what ways has your experience as a Black Volunteer been unique, and how have you navigated cultural differences and perceptions during your service? If so, what are some examples?

I feel my experience as a Black Volunteer in Jamaica so far has been unique in working with the children in my community. Many of the children that I serve lack male role models, and that has given me the opportunity to step in and fill in somewhat of a big brother role in the community. It has also helped speed up my integration process.

I consider Jamaica to be a place full of extraverted individuals, however, I am an introvert. I’m sure this was initially off-putting for many of the adults that I first met. However, through engaging with the children in my community in a multitude of different ways (chess lessons, physical education, etc.) It has given me the chance to shine in my own way.

Can you speak about any challenges you’ve faced related to your racial or ethnic identity during your service, and how did you overcome them?

When I first entered my community, people wondered which part of the island I was from. The lack of a lighter or a whiter complexion led many individuals to assume that I was from the island. Maybe their neighbor's brother, or uncle. Maybe from another parish because my accent didn’t come across quite as a “St. Elizabeth native” to their trained ears. Even the children wouldn’t believe that I was from America for a while. It took a bit of convincing on my part because my accent itself was not enough proof for some of them.

Over time, this seems to have solved itself with the adults. I’m sure word got around quickly that the community's Volunteer this time around was Black. After sharing some of my hobbies and interests, pictures from back home, and culture with the children, I seem to have done enough to prove that I’m actually from the United States.

What strategies have you found effective in building meaningful connections and trust with the local community, considering cultural nuances and, if applicable, any language barriers?

Youth engagement has been the best way I have found to create meaningful connections. After six months of being at site, I would say that the children are my most meaningful connection and that I have been able to foster a positive image with adults in the community due to my involvement with the children. Through the youth engagement, I have found that parents and elders in the community were more willing to talk to me or at least give me a friendly smile and wave. Language barriers exist in some cases, but in most cases, I can speak enough Jamaican Patois, or the person I’m speaking with can speak enough English for us to have a conversation and share some laughs.

How do you envision leveraging your peace corps experience and insights as a black volunteer upon returning to your home community?

I plan on leveraging my Peace Corps experience to help me pursue a graduate program upon returning back to the United States. I intend to complete an MBA program with its focus being on climate change or renewable energy. As someone who plans to continue to work abroad, it is my hope to land a job with a company or organization whose focus is to help mitigate the effects of climate change and bring renewable energy to areas of the world where it is the most needed.

What advice would you offer to other black individuals considering joining the peace corps?

Joining the Peace Corps is not for everyone, but it is a great opportunity for those who are seeking personal and professional growth, as well as independence and the ability to adapt. I would recommend doing as much research as you can. Before joining, I listened to countless podcasts and YouTube videos, I spent hours on Google and Reddit doing as much research as I could to get as well-rounded of an idea that I could before making the commitment to serve with the Peace Corps.