I spent this week staying at the Songhai hotel (a whole 15 minutes from my house) with about 13 other volunteers and our selected counterparts for what we all thought was going to be a training on how to add nutritional information/aspects to our current projects. While it is obvious that there are ways to include nutrition when talking about say... a vegetable garden. Sometimes it is really hard for us as volunteers to combat language and cultural barriers especially when something is as culturally loaded as the topic of food can be.
To all of our surprise.. this “Nutrition Training” that we had been invited to was actually focused on how to give formations and negotiate with women pertaining to to the health of new born babies. The idea behind this being (and for good reason) that the most important step in combating global issues with malnutrition is to teach mothers how to properly feed their babies for the first two years of their lives. During early development nutritional deficiencies can end up being life long irreversible problems if they are not dealt with properly. This is lots of really great information.. but we have four sectors here in Benin and the only volunteer sector that ever works one on one with babies is the Health Sector.
So you can imagine all of our surprise when we showed up at this nutrition training expecting to talk about our gardens and food pyramids only to find that we were going to spend our entire first day and most of the second learning the in and outs of breast feeding. - -
A major part of what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer is that you need to be flexible and make the most of any situation even if it doesn't meet up with your original expectations. Unfortunately, this week I felt that the group of us – myself included – took a little longer than normal to remember this. By the end of the first day I think that most (if not all) of us were agitated and felt as though we were wasting our time. By the end of the second day we were completely checked out. It wasn't until the third day of our three day training that we (as a whole) remembered what we were doing here.
This specific maternal nutrition mini-training was a trial run for Benin Peace Corps and is one of the newer Peace Corps world wide standardized training – still in its early stages. Since this was a “trial run” of a standardized training (I'm not going to get into whether standardizing PC training world wide is a great idea or not) we were lucky enough to have some observers at the training from Peace Corps Washington.
After a long talk with our Washington buddy in the evening after day 2 of the training where he was able to better explain to us the reasoning/goal behind the training.. and we aired some grievances.. we all showed up Wednesday morning feeling refreshed. Even if we weren't exactly ecstatic with the training we had a better understanding of the situation.. and we had gotten some of the negative feelings that were keeping us from being the best volunteers we can be off our chest.
I think that on day 3 of our training we really pulled together to show what Peace Corps is all about. We went to a village and did some practice runs of working with women to negotiate/discuss better feeding practices for their infants. Showing that even the volunteers who may never do exactly this activity at post got something really important out of this training – culturally sensitive negotiating techniques. AND later in the day – because they heard what we wanted – we were given a session on how to tie nutrition into the projects we are already doing.
Sometimes it is no fun being the "guinea pig" for a new training were no one really knows what to expect. However, as Peace Corps volunteers there are some expectations. Peace Corps expects volunteers to be flexible and to provide thought and feedback. The volunteers expect that Peace Corps will take their feedback into consideration and not take advantage of the position of the volunteer.
In my opinion.. even if the training itself didn't meet expectations (and was kind of bizarre) I think that the facilitators and the volunteers did a really great job of wrapping up the training and meeting each others expectations. We were all able to show that we were listening and that we are capable of making good out of an otherwise painful situation.