During Pre-Service Training (PST), we endured ten weeks of training with Peace Corps Panama staff. There were times when all the new information was overwhelming, but more times where I was fascinated. Aside from weekly office days and trips to communities, we had a pretty regular schedule. Every morning starting at 8 we had language classes, improving our Spanish and local dialects one day at a time. Each afternoon was a Technical session, which could range from learning the laws of aqueducts to gender and cultural discussions. During this time, we were thoroughly prepared by the training team to enter our sites and become “successful” volunteers…however that may be interpreted.
During the first three months a volunteer is in site, he or she lives with a host family. It is a time to get to know your community and all those who live there. It is not recommended to start projects, but to build relationships and integrate into the culture. Nevertheless, we were instructed to “gather data and information” which would be presented to our Program Manager in our fourth month. By gathering data, I do not mean statistics and technical interviews (which are later conducted for a 6-month CADP). Rather, it is suggested to hold reunions with community members to better understand their schedules and priorities. To do this, I was trained to utilize a cultural mapping tool called PACA. The acronym escapes me now, but I’ll explain what it means.
There are several components of PACA: making a daily schedule, seasonal calendar, community map, and priority list. The information can be attained by various means: household interviews, communal meetings, observation, and participation. I held meetings for most of mine. Men, women and children worked together creating a community map that showcased all the houses (with/without latrines and solar panels, connected or not to the aqueduct), churches, the school, meeting house, cemetery, nearby rivers and farms, and key parts of the aqueduct- distribution tank and spring source. This tool primarily serves to help volunteers become familiar with the community they now live in, and see which places are most and least frequented. For a daily schedule I had participants split up. The women made one, the men and the children others. They then presented them to one another, confirming or contradicting prior ideas of what goes on during the day for the other. This tool chiefly aided me in seeing how everyone spends their days, and more importantly when they have free time to collaborate in projects and meetings. A seasonal calendar served the same purpose but on a larger scale. Together, we filled in holidays, harvests, religious weeks, school and vacations, dry and wet seasons, and times of greater incomes or sicknesses. This visually showed when would be the best times to start a communal project, work with the kids, or take a step back and just do smaller activities. Finally, a priority list serves to set in motion a Plan of Action in regards to “projects”. Latrines, rainwater tanks, and improving the aqueduct were highest in the list.
Once my Program Manager visited the community in December, I presented the PACA tools with community members and we created a Plan. Of course project ideas have shifted from a year ago, but most of what I learned with PACA has remained the same. This tool is a very effective way to better understand the community in which you live, the needs that are present, and the optimal times for addressing such needs.