Volunteer Shares Insights and Questions After One Year in Site

By Isabon Thamm
April 15, 2016

After almost a year into her service, Isabon Thamm shares some insights regarding her work as a TEFL Volunteer in one of the indigenous communities of Costa Rica. 

Nearing my one year mark as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), one of my greatest quests has been to balance my technical mission of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) with the other two goals of cultural interchange I am bound by as a PCV. While dispelling rumors that no one in the United States eats rice, I have also spent countless hours sitting and listening to my hosts' lives' play-by-play, trying to make sense of the world around me.

That world includes an indoctrination into the Brunka people, one of the indigenous groups of Costa Rica, whose culture is slowly slipping away yet still annually celebrated in a town called Boruca.

Boruca: an indigenous reserve at the center of Costa Rica's south Pacific. Boruca: a town whose inhabitants have lived in the region for thousands of years, moving to higher ground when the Spanish arrived. Boruca: a town that annually recognizes the story of the Brunka people, but is hurtling towards a future in stark contrast to its past.

Here is some of what I have learned: The Brunka language is endangered and quickly on its way to extinction. Traditional huts were replaced by concrete, tin-roofed houses starting in the 1980s. For a long time, women's textile works and agriculture were the main sources of income; now mask-making and education top the list. More and more, people are moving to the town center to find work and take advantage of economic and infrastructural resources that are quickly being depleted. Boruca's annual end-of-the-year festival drives the local economy, bringing in tourists from across the globe. Drug use and trade are becoming a more standard topic of conversation.

All these observations and trends make me wonder, "Where do I fit in?" In my site, I have challenged teachers and students to stretch their minds in new and innovative ways. I have successfully held an intensive English camp during 'summer' vacation when most flee to the beach-the original homeland of their ancestors. I have attempted to become a role model to the girls around me-one CAN be happy, successful, independent, and childless at the age of 23. Yet, as much as I learn, I feel I know less and less.

Okay, so this is how the Brunka naturally dye their textiles, but how is yarn produced from the local cotton bushes? These are the traditional crops that have been planted for thousands of years, but what are more sustainable methods that would keep yields without relying on slash-and-burn? This is how cacao is traditionally produced, but how can it and other niche products (organic vanilla) be profitable? Certain, tangible aspects of Brunka culture have been capitalized, but how can more abstract aspects (language, family relations) be retained? And with all this, how can I use my skills and strengths to help answer these questions?

Yes, I have participated in some successful projects. Yes, I continue to work at the local schools, trying my best to influence improvements to the current systems in place. And, the more I interact with the people, place, and culture that surround me, the more I wonder which of these questions I will be able to answer, and which new questions will form in the year to come.

Isabon Thamm

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