Uneven Terrain: A Peace Corps Farmer in Paraguay Follows the Contours

By Brodie, Nathaniel | The Humanist, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Uneven Terrain: A Peace Corps Farmer in Paraguay Follows the Contours


Brodie, Nathaniel, The Humanist


Another issue of indubitable importance arises: the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people's ability to think, to want, to know ... They talk about the people, but they don't trust them: and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

--Paulo Freire: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.

--Che Guevara

I DON'T LOVE PARAGUAY. On top of this I don't have faith in humankind, which is to say, as a whole, I don't trust it. Perhaps this isn't exactly an ethical dilemma like assisted suicide or prostitution, but it is a very important thing to question and investigate, considering my role as a Peace Corps volunteer. For I feel that my lack of love and my lack of faith in many ways negate the other aspects I bring to the job: my technical knowledge, my acceptance of the need for such knowledge, and my desire to impart it. These things are all hollow gestures without love. Likewise, is it unethical--or merely patronizing--for me to try to instill hope in others when I myself lack it?

I don't love Paraguay for seemingly petty reasons. It's flat. Its once glorious and unique forests have been destroyed, replaced by endlessly sterile soy fields. I find both its food and its music to be bland. These are petty things, yes, but suffice to say, Paraguay simply hasn't struck that deep chord within me. Of course, I didn't join the Peace Corps for the food and music, and as for the rainforests, I could have continued my self-engrossed tourist wanderings in Thailand or Belize if all I wanted was relatively pristine ecosystems.

I joined the Peace Corps for numerous reasons, not the least of which was guilt about the "oppressor inside"--my belief that, as a U.S. citizen, I have both directly and indirectly benefited from the repression and oppression of others, especially Latin Americans. And so I joined to repay, in whatever insignificant, symbolic way, what I perceive as my accumulated debt. But joining the Peace Corps for such a reason isn't an act of love. Rather, it's an act of hate (for the system) and self-loathing (for my involuntary role in it). I don't believe that trying to correct the imbalance or alleviate my role in the system will propel me into love any more than it will make me hate the system even more.

At the same time I realize two things: One, that not "loving" Paraguay because I don't like its food and aesthetics is shallow, thus I need to search deeper for love. And two, that in this deeper definition of love, social justice--the catchphrase that in a large part led me to Paraguay--emerges as an integral component. A passionate belief in justice--the urge to right perceived wrongs--is perhaps a large part of the love that guides Guevara's "true revolutionary."

For those who doubt that a Peace Corps volunteer could in any way be Guevara's true revolutionary, consider this: any paradigm shift in thought or action is a revolution.

A telling example lies in my work promoting soil conservation to local farmers. Because it's easier to plow with oxen in straight lines that to vertically ascend the hills, farmers have traditionally planted their crops perpendicular to the contour lines of the slope.

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