… international volunteers tell their stories
By Sunita Samaroo
When most of us think of Christmas, we think of hours upon hours cozily spent with our closest ones. Images of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, holidaying; the faces and experiences that we’ve made the hallmark of our season easily slip into our minds.
For many, home becomes synonymous with Christmas and being away is a foreign concept.
You see, it is one thing to miss weddings, anniversaries, newborn nieces and nephews all year round, but you need not be Albert Einstein to figure out that being away from home at Christmas – a season designed for family – is no easy task.
However , this is what United States Peace Corps Volunteers have been doing since 1961. All around the world every year, these vibrant souls make the best of new experiences. You must have seen them around in your neighbourhood or heard about the great work they’re doing, but rest assured there is someone or something they’re missing this season.
Some of these Guyana-based volunteers took time to walk Kaieteur News through what they will be missing and the experiences they anticipate.
Jeannette Sanchez (Jenny):
Though she has nestled herself at Vreed-en-Hoop on the West Coast of Demerara, Jenny is working in the capital city. She is a Strategic Planning Officer working in the Peace Corps Capacity Development Program for local nongovernmental organisations.
Jenny was initially sent to Guyana for six months, but through fantastic experiences here, she has extended her stay for another year.
This is what she had to say:
“Blending into a new culture/society can definitely be a challenge at times…I was in Ukraine last year and that was my first holiday away from home, friends and family. Challenging yes, but exciting at the same time.
I was excited to learn their culture and holiday traditions, just like I am here this year.
The holidays have always been a special time for me and my family. A time of giving, sharing, caring, supporting, loving, and being grateful. We too have our own traditions.
We (my blood and “chosen” family) gather together throughout the season for celebrations, (large) dinners, decorating parties, tree decorating events, doing our ‘One present on Christmas Eve’ tradition, and, of course, the opening of gifts on Christmas day, including stockings.
In my family, everyone (of all ages) has a hand-made stocking from my mother that is stuffed (usually over stuffed) with treats, small gifts, candies, and maybe even a special personalized gift inside…all wrapped individually and put in the stocking by
Even our pets get stockings! It’s a special time for us to reconnect with one another, especially for those of us who no longer live close geographically.
During this holiday season here in Guyana, I have seen many similarities. Of course there are some differences in how we celebrate but the core meaning behind the season is still the same, which I admire and appreciate; just another reason I’m grateful to call Guyana my second home.
I know my views of Christmas will always be grounded in my childhood and where I was raised, but being able to share the holidays with new friends in a new country that has its own traditions to share is an educational and exciting experience.
I look forward to spending my first Guyana Christmas with my new Guyanese friends and their families and to tell them stories about how I celebrate back home.
I also plan to see all the beautiful decorations, the December shopping experience, and to attend some of the many holiday celebrations in the capital and across the river. This is definitely going to be a great holiday and an amazing new year. Here’s to 2015!”
Salamatu Barrie (Sallay):
Kaieteur News first met with Sallay on International Volunteers Day at a Volunteer Fair held in the city. Needless to say, she proved to be one of the most inviting characters around.
Sallay is a Community Health Promoter and is affiliated with Vivienne Parris Health Centre mostly working on improving maternal and infant health positive outcomes.
She was warm and approachable. Sallay was born in Sierra Leone ,but lived in Atlanta, Georgia. Now stationed in the mining town and helping NGOs, her story of Christmas is bitter-sweet.
This is what Sallay said:
“Christmas is a BIG BIG deal in my family. I come from a huge African family of over 10 aunts and uncles, 20 plus first cousins, and an unknown amounts of family-cousins (I’m not sure how we are related but everyone says we are).
Every Christmas, we come together at my aunt’s house and somehow my grandmother manages to feed what feels like hundreds of people.
For me, Christmas means connecting with family, fighting over the last piece of grandma’s roast chicken and jollof rice (a popular dish in many parts of West Africa), gossiping with cousins, and my personal favorite tradition: dodging my aunt’s question about when I will get married (she asks this question to every single female relative between the ages 16 and 36).
This year, however, there will be one less person grandma will feed because I’m volunteering in Peace Corps Guyana for the next 27 months.
Since moving in April, I have gotten to know my neighbors, developed new bonds and created new memories in Guyana. I enthusiastically tried out Guyanese delicacies (cook-up is definitely an experience), danced Soca music very badly, and limed with friends.
Guyana has embraced me and I love my new home. As the Christmas season approaches, the constant reminder that I will not be with my family brings sadness. but at the same time there is excitement because I will celebrate new traditions.
My coworkers tempted me with stories of delicious foods (everyone has a great pepper pot recipe for me to try) , my adopted Guyanese granny helped me decorate my home with red flower ornaments, my students shared their traditions, many people invited me to their home for Christmas, and I will attend a wedding on Boxing Day.
Even more exciting are the connections between my African roots and Afro-Guyanese culture. Every time I eat salt fish and bake, I’m reminded of my family’s fry-fry and salt fish; Father Christmas coming to school to give the children gifts are cherished memories from my childhood; and wearing my best African clothes and speaking Krio (our version of Creolese) are just a few similarities that I have discovered since I moved to Guyana.
So yes, I miss my family and I will spend many hours on the phone or on Skype with them during the holiday season.
But Guyana has made this experience less sad and I’m grateful for the warm welcome. Christmas is still a big deal for me and I look forward to sharing Guyanese customs with my family when I go back.
Who knows, maybe pepper pot will be our new tradition in a few years.”
Kathrina Konfirst and Matt
Kathrina and her husband, Matt, are living at Bush Lot on the West Coast of Berbice. She is an Education Volunteer who provides support in Literacy Education at #8 Primary School while her husband is a Health Volunteer working on various environmental health projects.
Both Peace Corps volunteers with a mission, this is what Kathrina has to say:
“Blending into a new society and culture, especially during the holiday season, can be quite challenging. It is easy to focus on the times when, no matter what efforts you make, you feel like a complete outsider in your new community.
So, we are trying to shift our thinking, focusing on the instances when we do have a chance to interact and connect with the people of our new home.
For instance, we remember the ladies at the market who asked us about our holiday plans while in Guyana and explained to us the best ways to prepare local produce.
We also remember the co-workers who took the time out of their days to see how we are settling in, sharing vegetables from their yards and inviting us to come to their homes to share a home-cooked Guyanese meal.
For us, the most wonderful thing about Christmas is the opportunity to share memorable moments and delicious food with those who mean the most to us. The majority of those people are currently thousands of miles away.
So, we connect as best as we can through mail and Skype while still enjoying our time here in Guyana with our new friends and “family”.
For instance, this weekend (December 13 – 14) we were kindly invited to take part in a Christmas celebration for children from our community.
Matt will be playing Santa Claus for the first time in his life. If someone would have told us a year ago that someday Matt would play the role of Santa Claus in Guyana, we would not have believed them!
That is what is so exciting about spending two years away from home in the Peace Corps. Despite all the challenges, the cultural adjustments, the miscommunications and the homesickness, we get to have plenty of unique experiences and sometimes even adventures because we chose to be here.
So, for this Christmas we will not be wearing thick sweaters, eating mashed potatoes and chocolate chip cookies while listening to a Rock ‘n Roll Christmas compilation CD. We’ll be wearing shorts and eating catahar while listening to Christmas music with Caribbean beats. And we are looking forward to it!”
Holleigh ‘Holly’ Thomason:
Meanwhile, Holly has been deployed to Waramuri Mission in Region 1 (Barima Waini). The experience she derives are foreign even to a large percentage of Guyanese. Holly is having an Amerindian Christmas and this is what she has to say:
“To me, Christmas is a holiday that celebrates humanity—a holiday that exalts kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. Christmas is more of a spirit, not simply a tangible celebration. It is true that it is especially difficult to be away from family and friends during the holiday season as we all have certain traditions we are accustomed to upholding.
However, Guyana celebrates Christmas; It’s actually similar to an American Christmas. Its true there is no snow; but there are decorations, traditional Christmas meals, Christmas carols, and gift exchanges.
As early as November, Guyana started decorating for Christmas, especially in the towns and cities. It’s a comforting feeling to see these things because it reminds us of home at this tender time—our first Christmas in Guyana away from our families and friends.
I’ve even noticed a sense of altruism in the air in Guyana. People are smiling, they are singing, they are excited to give each other gifts. It seems that worries and troubles have melted away. People are even more giving and jolly than usual. To me, that feels like home.
It’s important to remember the spirit of Christmas, which is what keeps me going at this time. I live in an Amerindian village in Region 1. I have found it very welcoming and pleasant. I’m looking forward to experiencing an Amerindian Christmas.
I expect to eat Pepper Pot (from multiple aunties), lots of sweets, and enjoy the spirit of the people around me. I anticipate singing, dancing, and smiling. And I know I shan’t be disappointed.”
Michelle Weekly another volunteer, plans on truly travelling around this season. This is what Michelle had to say:
“At home in the States, I had two weeks holiday from teaching school, and these days were spent XC skiing, if there was snow, or hiking in the mountains if there was not. Evenings were spent visiting with friends, playing games or watching movies.
Christmas day is a day of feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts with my family of friends.
So here in Guyana, I hope to be feasting and drinking with my new Guyanese friends. I believe Christmas is a time for sharing whatever you have, big or small. Since I have 3 weeks off from school, I plan to do some traveling, first to Arrowpoint Nature Resort and later for the New Years to Suriname.
I have an invitation to go fishing on the Essequibo and I hope to visit the museums in Georgetown. A walk along the seawall every afternoon is a good way to reflect on what I have here in Guyana, rather than what I am missing from home.
I always enjoyed curling up with a good book on cold blustery days in Alaska.
Here in Guyana I stretch out in my hammock with the fan blowing directly on me. I don’t have much in the way of decorations, so I gathered up all my tin cans and pounded star designs with a nail along the sides and placed a candle in each. These I will line up along my porch railing for an inexpensive way to shine the Christmas light.
My neighbors have promised to show me what the Christmas celebration is like in Guyana. So today I will be relying on them to show me the way. Oh, and I did get my toes decorated for the holidays.”
Patty, retired and working hard in Berbice, is a grandmother of three and one not foreign to being away at Christmas. This is what she has to share:
“Because I am a Peace Corps volunteer, I have been asked about how I will adjust to the absence of my family on Christmas. Before I address that issue, I will tell you that I am a retired female that is fulfilling a life-long dream.
I wanted to be Peace Corps volunteer in the 60’s! Life happened and my dream soon left my field of vision until I became single in 2011. When I recalled the unfulfilled dream, I discussed the practicality of my serving two years in a foreign country with my two adult children.
They both concurred that, although they would miss my presence throughout key occasions, they could understand the mission’s importance to me. Between my two children, I am a grandmother of three.
Although my children were born and raised in the western part of the United States, they are both 3000 miles away from where they grew up. They have been living their own lives in their own cities for many years.
My siblings live in different cities. So, for me, the notion of not seeing my family is not new. Even though it is common to be separated, it is never easy. I believe this is due to our childhood recollections of family times together.
Many of the Peace Corps volunteers may be experiencing this for the first time.
Now, just because I do have some experience doesn’t mean I am completely at ease with all of the cultural differences.
I can see many similarities to the way both US and Guyanese families celebrate Christmas. I am looking forward to being in my village on Christmas Day. I wonder if I will see children bring out new toys to the street.
Will there be remote controlled cars or new bikes? What will the children tell me about Santa Claus? I look forward to sharing their stories with my 7-year-old grandson, in particular. He is curious about how his life runs parallel to children of this country.
Will I have a meal that is unique to every other day or will it be not much different?
I work hard at not feeling isolated any time while I am in my little village outside New Amsterdam.
I am lucky enough to have volunteers 30 minutes away by bicycle. If I need a cultural connection, I will check in with them.
Most of the time, I get out of the door and just go find someone to talk to. I was sent here to integrate and there is no better way than to just get out of the house, but stay in the village. I don’t always fully understand but I feel I am respected for trying.
Whenever I think that it is just too hard, too different, too uncomfortable I remember my daughter telling me that she cannot wait to tell her children how their grandmother spent two years of service in another country.
I want both of my children to have a lot of stories, so I patiently wait for them to develop!
Over the years, I have learned that every day is a new day and if you don’t like the way the current day is panning out, just wait. A new chapter begins tomorrow. All too soon the two years will be gone.”
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