Race and Racism in South Africa and Mozambique

My introduction to South African race relations was an unexpected one. On the crowded plane from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, I switched seats so the older gentleman in my row could sit in the aisle and stretch his recently replaced hip. His sweet-faced, grandmotherly wife thanked me profusely in a clipped South African accent, and as we fell into the standard pre-flight chit-chat I learned about their kids in England that they visit every year, the recent surgery the husband had, and how these long flights were horrible.

But when I asked her for recommendations in Johannesburg her face turned dark. “You don’t want to stay there”, she said firmly. She explained to me that it’s a dirty, crowded city and where I really should go is to Cape Town where she and her husband had a house. “Besides,” she dropped her voice and nodded to the black man in the row in front of us. “It’s all those types in Johannesburg. Lazy, ignorant people”. I was floored. The words came out of this sweet old woman without hesitation, in the same matter-of-fact tone that she had used talking about how awful overnight flights are. Most of what I knew about apartheid came from my high school world history class and the movie Invictus – and both seemed to indicate it had ended. As the plane sped away from Germany towards Africa, I wondered which version of Africa I was heading toward.

*          *          *

My hostel in Kensington, a stately suburb situated on top of a small rise overlooking downtown, was equally close to Ghandi’s Johannesburg house and the cave hideout of the infamous Foster Gang. As I strolled through the neighborhood to combat jetlag, house after house presented stern iron gates, barred windows, and either bored private security guards or angry dogs lunging aggressively on their chains. Barely anyone was on the streets.

When I asked the hostel security guard how I could take public transportation downtown in order to catch the bus to the apartheid museum, he looked at me in surprise. Patiently he explained that the minibuses (confusingly called “taxis”) were dangerous. Not to mention the downtown area itself, “especially for tourists like you” – meaning white people. He advised me to take a private cab like everyone else. I nodded in serious understanding, then blithely ignored him and headed to the bus stop.

As twelve pairs of eyes watched me climb on the minibus, I became acutely conscious of being the only white person on board. Inscrutable stares accompanied me as I made my way to the empty seat in the back. However the young man next to me kindly provided advice as to where I should get off and find the tourist bus stop, then cheerfully warned me that the area was dangerous, especially at night.

Downtown Johannesburg looked like any other city center, albeit a little run-down. Scores of tie and slack-adorned professionals navigated to and from coffee shops, food courts, retail stores, and large office buildings. Interspersed with the shiny gleam of active commerce were broken windows, abandoned cars, and bodies sleeping in alleys. I made my way past malls bursting with clothing, watches, bags and other paraphernalia; and eventually found the bus stop.

A group of tough-looking kids approached me, but their scowls instantly melted away when they found out I was from the United States. They excitedly asked me about rap and basketball, and helpfully told me to not worry, the bus would be on time. As I waited they buzzed around me, washing and guarding the parked cars that lined the streets, cavorting and behaving like the cocky teenagers they were. When the bus pulled up, they pointed to make sure I got it and waved goodbye.

At the immaculate, beautifully designed apartheid museum I spent five hours wandering amongst the exhibits, which painfully and clearly spelled out the systematic control and racism that black South Africans had struggled against and finally overcome, after great cost. Unlike my high school class or Invictus, the museum acknowledged that despite the victory there was a still a long way to go to achieve equality. It was so educational and engaging that when the closing announcement rang out I realized I had missed the last bus back to downtown.

Standing forlornly at the bus stop outside the museum, I cheered up when I saw a tourist bus miraculously turn the corner and pull up. The driver informed me he was simply taking the bus back to the parking lot, hesitated in the face of my obvious need, then reluctantly told me to hop aboard.

He let me off near the bus terminal, and pointed to where I should go to find my taxi stop. The day’s fading light hastened my step as even I didn’t have to be told that this was not the right place to be at night. But I was easily directed to the long line waiting for the minibuses, and had no problem returning to the hostel where the worker laughed with incredulity when I told him I had no problem. “You’re lucky, man” he shook his head at me.

*          *          *

Surprisingly it was in Mozambique where I first saw the vestiges of South Africa’s apartheid laid out in front of me. After a week in the capital Maputo, I headed to the southern beach town Ponta do Ouro joining a group of American doctoral residents working month-long shifts in Maputo’s local public hospital as part of a medical exchange program.

Ponta do Ouro lies within spitting distance of the South African-Mozambiquen border, and is a popular destination for tourists and the wealthy from both countries. Upon arrival we were dumped in a disappointingly drab and dusty hub of market stalls and cobbled-together open shacks serving as bars and restaurants. But over a small rise the crowd and noise of the open-air bar and food-stands called barracas faded away; and gleaming restaurants, hotels and dive shops spread out in front of us, interspersed with lush greenery that crept to a crescent white sandy beach. By the time we settled into our beautiful rental house and wandered out to look for food, all the tourist restaurants had shut down for the evening. Stiff from the four hour ride, we stumbled back to the barracas where a swaying drunken man brought out food different than what we had ordered, but it was warm and greasy and enough for the six of us.

After three days of diving and carousing with the American doctors, they left to return to their hospital rounds. I decided to stay another few days, shifting to a cheap hostel and back to my meager travel budget. By then I had noticed that practically all businesses were owned by white South Africans, and staffed by black Mozambiquens. The separation was everywhere, and more blatant and obvious than anything I had seen in my few short days in South Africa. It was glaringly evident in the restaurants, where black staff served white tourists; and in the advertisements around town for diving, dolphin watching, and “drunken atv-ing”, in which all participants I saw were white.


At a local dive shop, as I tried on gear and chatted with a group of young South Africans enjoying their gap year before university, the white South African dive shop owner wasted no time in confiding to us that the locals were “lazy, stupid and helpless”. He soon after interrupted all conversation in the room to explode at the black Mozambiquen helping us with our scuba gear, yelling at him “to get rid of [the malfunctioning tank] and shove it up your arse”. It was an ugly scene, and a quite unnecessary public shaming and display of anger in front of the mostly white South Africans and us foreigners – to say the least ridiculous, as the assistant could not have known that the tank was faulty.

After diving I wandered around the town’s mostly deserted beach and empty houses. In the evening, long after shade and darkness stole over the white sands I saw them walking out of the tourist area – maids, security guards, waiters and the like passing out of town like ghosts and fading into the houses and shacks in the outerlying hills and areas further from the beach and ocean views which seemed exclusive to the white-owned houses and restaurants. It was at the barracas where the local Mozambiquens owned little stores and stalls, ate, and socialized that I caught glimpses of life. While tourists quietly ate and sipped cocktails on terraced roofs overlooking the ocean, a couple hundred yards away yet separated by a hill and a hundred years the locals blared music, drank and caroused out of the sight and minds of the tourists.


The quiet, predominantly white part of Ponta do Ouro.

The morning I left Ponta do Ouro was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. I arrived at the barracas at 8 am to try and catch a ride to Ketembe. As I waited the square came to life: locals stopped in the bakery to buy fresh morning bread, women and men greeted each other and chatted smiling and laughing, in no hurry to get to their jobs serving tourists and without the weary heaviness I saw upon them at night as they returned to their houses. In the soft morning light kids accompanied their parents, or each other on the way to school. Women balancing bulky loads on their heads began to set up their identical wares in their stalls. A man still drunk from the previous night pleaded with those he knew to buy him some bread, and shortly after a bag of several small loaves was placed in his hands. It was a natural, effusive happiness that didn’t exist a hundred yards away in the tourist part of town, and it was so much more beautiful than the ugliness there that I had a thought to take pictures of the square slowly filling with life and laughter. But to introduce a camera would have introduced separation, and so I just waited for the van and observed the real Ponta do Ouro.

After an hour, a friendly Mozambiquen also going to the border herded me into a chapa, which within 20 minutes got stuck in the sand. After getting towed out by a passing truck, we left the chapa to hop on the truck as my new friend knew the driver. It turned out to be a good, albeit bumpy and dusty decision, as we later passed the same driver stuck again.

Erasing the rare, quick victory of making it to the border was a dispiritingly long wait for the chapa to Ketembe to fill up. As people slowly trickled in, we counted the remaining number of seats to be filled – seven when I arrived, and the same number three hours later. Eventually after five hours of waiting, the VW bus-sized van was full with 16 passengers, luggage filling all other space and overflowing off the roof, and two drivers. At every bump on the dirt trail charitably called a road the seat in front of me dug painfully into my knees. It wasn’t until a few hours into the trip that I even realized I was the only white person on board. I alternated between staring out the window at the African countryside passing by and the huge golf ball-sized protubescence on the shoulder of the passenger ahead of me, a few inches away from my face. There was ample time to reflect upon the last few days: to consider the kindness of the Johannesburg bus driver, the car-washing teenagers, the young man in the minibus who gave me directions and looked worried for me. The Mozambiquen student who helped get me to the border to catch the chapa that I currently sat in. They contrasted sharply with the white South African dive shop owner and grandmother on the plane, so open in their ugly racism and haughty privilege. And the group of young South Africans I met diving, whose constant ribbing of their one black member skirted the line of privileged condescension, lay somewhere in between.

As the chapa rolled on through the dry African countryside, the passengers were quiet at first, minus an occasional phonecall that everyone listened to one-sided. But after several hours many began to chat with each other, commiserating about the ugly, tough journey. Five hours in, the chatter turned into loud, pointed discussion on why the trip was taking so long. “I think something is wrong with the motor”, the woman next to me said, directly her voice toward the driver whose back remained square to us despite the accusations. “That’s why he can’t go as fast”.

At all three police checkpoints, the whole group collectively quieted in hopes that they would not ask for documents, nor ask to inspect bags in order to angle for a bribe. It would extend an already long journey, and it appeared that one middle-aged woman was traveling without her documents – a crime in Mozambique, and what could be a big problem for her not to mention an indeterminate delay and hassle for everyone else if she were caught.

But we luckily made it safely through all checkpoints, and as the African sun set, looking luminous and beautiful, dry plains sped by my window. It was fully dark when we arrived at Ketembe, and I hopped onto the ferry resigned to another long wait. But relatively soon after we pushed off to Maputo, and I walked into my friend’s apartment twelve hours after I left Ponta do Ouro that morning. My friend told me that in their private hired car, the standard mode of tourist transport to Ponta do Ouro, he and the other doctors had made the entire return trip in three hours.

I told him about the real Ponta do Ouro, getting stuck in the sand, dodging police checkpoints, the friends I had made, and what I learned about race in Africa – all in all, a fair trade for an extra nine hours.

Journey to Sibuyan


Dawn while waiting for the boat at the San Augustin pier.

Most of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers had an hour or two journey to get to their assigned sites from Manila. There are numerous cheap flights to the various regional capitals in the Philippines, and even to the outer islands the flights are generally about an hour and cost less than $100.

But that was not the case for myself or Derik, my site-mate. We were both assigned to work in Sibuyan Island, a smaller island in the Romblon province largely covered by the protected area of Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park.I began to get an idea of how remote and isolated Sibuyan is during my first two weeks in Manila since every Filipino that I met, when I told them where I would be working, invariably shook their head and said they had never heard of the island. I went to three bookstores, and none of them even had as much as a map of Sibuyan.

There is no airport near Sibuyan, so the day after the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines swore us in officially as Peace Corps Volunteers Derik and I began the long journey to our new home. Accompanying us was Rebecca – a forester working at Guiting-Guiting.

I’d like to say the trip to Sibuyan was a magical journey reclining on the upper deck of a modern ship smoothly cutting through glassy Philippine waters. But in reality it was not an easy nor a fun ride: first off was a 3 hour bus ride from Manila south to Batangas, where I then had to wait about another three hours for the first of two ferries I would have to take. Once all the heavy cargo had been loaded and we finally were able to climb aboard theboat, there were rows and rows of bunk beds in a large room enclosed room. When we found our assigned bed the open room seemed spacious, but within an hour almost all the beds were occupied and luggage spilled into the floors and walkways everywhere making it hard to even move around.

After losing to a Filipino kid in Scrabble (who was on the phone the whole time he was kicking my butt), I tried to get some sleep and had just about dropped off when the boat made the 3 a.m. landing at Odiongan which was our stop. Many of the Filipinos exploded into action once we docked, grabbing their bags and racing out the boat to try and catch the jeepneys and few transportation options.

Fortunately for us, a contact had arranged for a police jeepney to come get us so we piled our luggage in and got a ride to the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) office, where they gave Derik and I a room with a bunkbed and we collapsed into sleep around 4 a.m.

A few hours later around 8 a.m. began about 3 hours of introductions – to the about 20 or so DENR staff in the office, and various others who were eager to meet the new ‘kanos working for the natural park in Sibuyan. In between meetings, we strolled to the market and looked over the fruits, vegetables and fish many of which were unfamiliar to me.


Meeting Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) staff at the regional office in Odiongan.

Lastly, we met the governor’s executive assistant/daughter for lunch; who kindly gave us a tour of Odiongan and some of the large projects the governor has accomplished (renovated and expanded hospital, a new conventions center with a beautiful view). Trina provided transportation for us to San Augustin, where we spent the night. It was about a two hour drive through some beautiful countryside of green rice fields interspersed with tropical forest – a trip which I probably would have appreciated more if I hadn’t been so exhausted.


Arriving at Romblon – which is the name of the city, the island, and the province.

At 6 am the next day we hopped on our second ferry, and had a short ride to Romblon City (on the island of Romblon, which is also the name of the province just to make it extra confusing) where we hopped off the ferry and went to the police station to introduce ourselves to the regional police director; who kindly offered us coffee, asked a few questions about what we were doing here, then told two officers to drive us back to the ferry where we scarfed down a quick breakfast then got back on the boat with only about a two hour journey to Sibuyan remaining.


The port at Romblon – the last stop on the loooong journey to Sibuyan Island.

As we waited to begin the last stretch of our 48 hour journey, several Filipinos threw coins off the boat into the water where several boys waited to dive down and catch the coins before they disappeared below. Visible schools of fish appeared below in the aquamarine water, and tropical forest encircled the Romblon City port where the boat waited and Sibuyanos greeted each other and upon hearing I would be working in Sibuyan came up and introduced themselves to me.

Finally the ferry departed Romblon City, and chugged around the island heading toward Sibuyan. Romblon is known as the marble capital of the Philippines, and as we passed the island Rebecca pointed out to me scars on the hillside left from quarrying the rock. The ferry chugged across the deepwater ocean channel (a few hundred meters in depth) we made our way to the place known as “the Galapagos of Asia”. The Philippines as a country is one of the most biodiverse in the world, if not the most – I’ve seen it called “the hotspot of biodiversity hotspots” in scientific literature. Part of the reason for this is because at various times in the geologic history of the islands as sea levels rose and fell the islands became connected and then isolated, which allowed alternate waves of speciation during the times of isolation and influxes of new species and genes during times of land bridge connections.

However Sibuyan Island, as far as researchers can tell, was never connected to other land masses due to the deepwater channel that we were currently crossing over in the ferry. And because it remained isolated, it has a large number of endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the Philippines or the world. The small island about twice the size of Santa Cruz Island that I was heading toward boasts over a hundred species of trees and perhaps the densest forest in the Philippines. It has over a hundred species of birds, with the majority of them endemic and residential year round. It has several larger “charismatic megafauna” including a local primate the long-tailed macaque, a native wild boar, a species of civet cat (civet coffee anyone?) not to mention the wide array of marine biodiversity.

And that’s just the natural wealth of Sibuyan. Even before I arrived I had heard intriguing stories of the indigenous tribes on Sibuyan that I’d be working with, a World War II plane that was shot down and crashed somewhere on the mountain, of the tragic ferry accident offshore that killed hundreds of people, of the odd German enclave on the island.

But the most exciting part to me by far is the fact that there are undoubtedly species yet to be identified on the island. And discovering and documenting the species of Sibuyan Island is what I will be spending my next nine months working on.

Typhoon Ruby


It’s understandable that in a country of over 7 thousand islands Filipinos in the capital city haven’t heard of many of the smaller ones. But Sibuyan Island seems like a different level of remoteness. Trying to find some information about the island I was assigned to before I was deployed, I went to a bookstore in the most well-known mall of Manila (which is a city built around malls and shopping): the mall of Asia. This mall is supposedly the 10th largest in the world, has an ice-skating rink, it has 6 movie theatres, and a ferris wheel. It also has the rare sight of a shiny (albeit small) bookstore, where I searched in vain for any information relating to Sibuyan Island. I asked the staff to look up Sibuyan by name in their database, and had to spell out the name for them, only to find that they had no materials listed. Even finding just a simple map was impossible, as the Romblon province is not a very high tourist destination therefore the bookstore had no provincial maps in stock.

During the two weeks of training I spent in Manila before going to my assigned site of Sibuyan, almost all the Filipinos I met asked me what I was doing in the Philippines. When I replied that I would be working for 9 months as a biologist on Sibuyan Island, every single Filipino I talked to then asked puzzledly “where is Sibuyan Island?”.

So given the lack of forewarning of previous typhoons, and the remote nature of Sibuyan Island; it was an absolute shock to see the small Sibuyan Island’s name listed on the national news agency as directly in Ruby’s path 24 hours before the super typhoon was expected to landfall on my island.

About 48 hours before Typhoon Ruby (local name: Hagupit) reached the Philippine Area of Jurisdiction, it was already all over the news. Despite the 17 typhoons that had already hit the besieged country this year (which has a pending volcanic eruption to boot), Ruby gained attention because it was predicted to be a “super typhoon”, and make initial landfall over the same area that the last super typhoon hit – Typhoon Yolanda which left over 6 thousand dead and a large wake of destruction in its path.

Having spent 4 months living in the Philippines, at first Ruby took on the same abstract meaning as the previous 17 typhoons that hit the Philippines during my time here. That is to say, I barely noticed it. Living in a protected area office at the edge of the forest, on a small isolated island that is just one of the 7 thousand plus that comprise the Philippines means that quite a few national and of course global events pass by without notice. It took an email from the United States to inform me that a ferry sunk not far from where I was in the central Philippines. Or that a massive earthquake rocked Indonesia, with tsunami implications for Filipinos in the outer islands.

Previous typhoons I only heard about from locals as the storms were dumping rain over me. One day a few months ago I commented on the nasty weather as I headed back from some fieldwork on the other side of Sibuyan Island, and I was informed by my coworker that the rain stinging our faces was actually Typhoon Mario. Of course being that the park office where I lived had no newspaper, no internet, and a few television channels available only in Tagalog, a language I do not understand or speak; I didn’t know of Mario until he was (lightly) hitting me.

Ruby was different, in that even a few days before landfall it was the talk of the small town near the protected area where I go several times a week to purchase food and supplies. Although the Philippine Islands receive on average about 20 – 30 typhoons per year, a super typhoon does not come along every day. And so like news in any small town, Typhoon Ruby was on the lips of the women in the marketplace, the men trudging to work, and generally brought up in normal everyday conversation, discussed by those just trying to chat and pass the time, which is pretty much everybody in Sibuyan. A few days before landfall the Peace Corps activated their emergency response plan, which called for all 160 Peace Corps Volunteers to consolidate in designated “safe areas” … except for myself and the other volunteer on Sibuyan, we were told to stay put instead of meeting up with the rest of the volunteers in the provincial capital.

The projected path of the typhoon varied according to which model you consulted. The European model said one thing, the national Filipino agency PAGASA said another. But either way the typhoon was expected to pass through the province I live in – Romblon, which is one of the most remote and poorest provinces in the Philippines.

The instant I saw that Sibuyan was directly in Ruby’s path, the super-typhoon ceased to be an abstract object and became imminently real and threatening. I canceled a planned trip to the other side of the island to a town fiesta that I had been invited to. I went back to the town market for the third time in three days to get a few more days supply of food. I kept everything plugged in and charged for the inevitable power outage.

The protected area office was designated as the local evacuation center, and so over 24 hour before the expected landfall in Sibuyan a few families had already arrived. They were neighbors that I knew, who live crammed into very simple wooden shacks perched at the edge of their rice fields. I doubted their houses could even withstand a normal typhoon, let alone an extreme one centered on Sibuyan.


The park opened up the visitor’s building as the local evacuation center, and about 50 people in the surrounding area left their homes to wait out the typhoon here.

As more families evacuated to our shelter, reports showed Ruby slowing down and it’s expected landfall time in Sibuyan kept getting pushed back from initially Saturday morning, to Saturday night, to Sunday morning then Sunday night and finally early Monday morning.

This meant lots of waiting. The people passed the time cooking the coffee and large sack of rice that the local government dropped off for evacuees, chatting, and sleeping. I was a little more bored and less sanguine about the whole affair. I walked back and forth through the rain between the Visitor’s Center where the evacuees were and the house I was staying in with a few other park employees. Twice I biked through the rain and wind to the coast in order to see how high the waves and storm surge were. But mostly we just sat around, “like waiting to be punched” as one of my coworkers described it. Rebecca, a forester at the park office who had woken up at 3:30 am to cook food to bring to the evacuation center for herself and her children, commented that this was the first time she had ever been evacuated.


The view near the coast during the typhoon.


Dinner by candlelight with Mheann and Derik while waiting out the storm.

In the end, we were lucky as cooler monsoon winds from the northwest weakened and pushed Typhoon Ruby north of Sibuyan where it was downgraded to a tropical storm. We received about 36 hours of constant rain, and some wind gusts but the storm was weaker than some previous ones I had already experienced here. By 7:30 am almost all of the estimated 50 evacuees who spent the night at the protected area office had already left to return to their homes. By the afternoon the power was back on and the road to town was passable, and aside from a few fallen trees there was no evidence of any damage aside from a little flooding in the low-lying areas. When we went to town to get some fresh food, the people of Sibuyan Island were saying goodbye to family and friends who stayed over for the typhoon, cleaning their houses, laboring in their rice fields, sweeping fallen branches and leaves from the road, cooking hot meals, and continuing on with their lives.


The aftermath of the typhoon – flooded roads and houses, but luckily very little damage.


Two Weeks of Training in Manila

One of the few things I knew about the Philippines before I left the U.S. was that it is located in the “Ring of Fire” – however it wasn’t until I arrived that I began to understand the implications of the term, and what it means to millions of Filipinos living in a place of flux and chaos. According to most rankings, the Philippines is one of the world leaders in natural disasters. The over 7,000 islands are interspersed with volcanoes, many of them still active – currently the 100 year eruption clock is ticking for Mount Mayon, it is currently sitting at alert level 2 and the Peace Corps security chief forwarded an notice to all intrepid volunteers to remain at least 6 kilometers from the volcano. The Philippines is tectonically active as well, with more earthquakes than California.

Our Peace Corps training on national disaster safety started off by listing the over 10 types of natural and man-made disasters found in the Philippines, and there were several recent examples: Just days after I arrived to Manila an electrical fire – caused by too many people illegally tapping into the electricity grid – burned down 30 houses in Quezon City, about an hour from where I was lodged. A train derailed a few days after and injured several dozens of people. There is a local dialect word for a nine-day rain that they count as a separate type of natural disaster.

But last November an earthquake, then one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded hit the southeastern Philippine islands. The majority of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers that I arrived with specialize in disaster relief and are here to help communities recover, rebuild, and become more resilient to the inevitable future disasters.

We were told that the Philippines receive about 20 typhoons on average per year, and so far this year 10 typhoons have already landed within the Philippines national boundaries (many typhoons however pass over ocean and sparsely populated areas). The one that devastated the Philippines was Yolanda, meaning that according to the alphabetical naming system it was the 25th typhoon of the year.

Even before I set foot in the Philippines I had already met my first typhoon, as shortly after lifting off from Tokyo en route to Manila our captain announced that due to a typhoon hitting southeastern Japan our plane would have to deviate from its programmed route and head north to avoid the storm.

“I think this is maybe why our Filipino culture is so friendly and happy,” one of our Filipino trainers told us, laughing rather hard. “Because we receive so many disasters it’s best to just laugh and be happy”. The phrase encapsulating this fatalistic, que sera sera mentality in Tagalog is “bahala na”.


John Borja gives everyone some good advice on the screen during a training session on safety and security.

As I stepped off the plane in Manila and looked for the other Peace Corps Response Volunteers – a group of 8 others whom I didn’t know at all but whom I would be getting to know very well by the end of our training – I had a much different feeling than I did 9 years ago when I stepped off the plane in Peru to begin my first Peace Corps stint.

But unfortunately much of the training approach was the same. While the local training staff was excellent, our eight days of training passed by in a jet-lagged and powerpoint-induced haze. The increasingly insipid and banal Peace Corps training sessions spent more time covering security and medical (albeit in their government-induced fear of liability – perhaps for good reason – instead of informing us about language and cultural customs that would help us get our work done. For example we incredibly had only about 3 hours of language and culture training before being shipped out to our sites to begin working with our counterparts to achieve our assigned project objectives. And we learned more about the Peace Corps approach to monitoring and tracking volunteers than we did about our actual projects and sites.

But all you can do is make the best of it. Halfway through our training we piled into vans at 8:30 am to drive to a beach 2 hours south of Manila in order to spend five minutes showing the Peace Corps that we could indeed get back into a boat with a life jacket if need be. However our program manager prepared and cooked an incredible meal for us of tender barbequed pork, fish, pancit (a rice noodle dish common in the Philippines), and fresh mangoes; and we were able to enjoy a blissful hour away from Manila and presentations.


We drove 2 hours to get to the beach for a 5 minute water safety training … best day of training ever.

Over the eight days of training undoubtedly the best part was getting to know the eight other Peace Corps Response volunteers; who all were smart, well-traveled, savvy individuals who had experienced quite a bit in their lives before coming to the Philippines. The one thing that training does right – albeit unintentionally – is build a support network between the volunteers. Simply spending nearly 24 hours together is enough to create a team bonding dynamic, and our group of nine veteran volunteers commiserated through boring training sessions and over beers outside of the office. Our self-created after-hour informal sessions consisting of trading war stories and experiences, discussing international aid theory and approach, allaying each others’ fears and concerns, and learning and taking heart from each other may be worth more than all of the Peace Corps training sessions alone. Because when you struggle in your site, get disheartened, feel isolated and misunderstood, it is not the Peace Corps training manual that you turn to. It is your friends, family and support network.


Peace Corps Response Volunteers – “the gang of nine”, plus Milo and Sheila the program coordinators.

“What are you doing?”

The question “what exactly are you working on?” is usually a difficult one to answer for Peace Corps Volunteers. The reality is most volunteers show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to their communities intending to single-handedly lift everyone out of poverty. Peace Corps gives us a vague description of an assigned project we are supposed to work on, which when we arrive almost never seems to match the words that were written in an air-conditioned office in the capital city.

When looking for a placement for volunteers, Peace Corps staff has to try and determine whether or not the organization counterpart has the patience to work with a Peace Corps Volunteer who will arrive knowing very little about their culture, customs, and language. The PC staff has to assess if and how a Peace Corps Volunteer (about whom they know nothing) could contribute to the project, organization, and community. Very importantly, and perhaps hardest to do, they have to assess how the community supports the organization and project so they don’t make the mistake of assigning a volunteer to work for an inept or corrupt organization – of which there are plenty at the local level in developing countries. Lastly they have to find a supportive family with an extra room for the volunteer to live with, in a house that meets the Peace Corps security standards. Peace Corps staff will usually visit a community/project about 3 times (staying 1-2 days at most per trip) in order to determine if the situation could be a good fit for a Peace Corps Volunteer.

This is all just to say that mistakes are often made. Peace Corps Volunteers sometimes are assigned to work with counterparts who are corrupt, inept, or even perhaps who are great but leave soon after Peace Corps Volunteers arrive. Volunteers are sometimes assigned to work with organizations that have broken promises to communities, that have stolen funds allocated for development, that have bad reputations which aren’t visible during a 1-2 day visit but slowly emerge after weeks or months of living in the community. Usually the family that the volunteer is assigned to live with is of a community leader – however often the family has risen to prominence in the community not due to their good works but due to their political connections. For all these reasons and more, my experience has been that usually it is best to set aside all descriptions, plans, expectations and figure it out when you arrive.

Even if those issues are not present, there is still the pure difficulty of overcoming immense communication and cross-cultural barriers to work effectively with your counterpart organization, and the challenge of creating lasting sustainable change (the golden ideal for volunteers) in such a short period of time. Large international aid organizations often fail to achieve this, despite multi-million dollar project budgets; nice U.S. level salaries; large technical staff; and more time than two years. Peace Corps Volunteers receive a little bit of training, uneven support from headquarters, and a ~$250/month stipend which we have to use to purchase any project materials or equipment in addition to covering our basic living costs.


Drinking tuba (palm wine) and singing karaoke with Abraham = bridging cross-cultural barriers.

So in the face of these near impossible conditions it’s no wonder that for new volunteers, Peace Corps is often a slow, painful process in which the sweet vision of charging into foreign countries to do good works are readjusted to the harsh reality of whatever situations you face. For some volunteers, simply staying healthy is a success given the poor nutrition and food quality as well as some combination of amebic dysentery, fungal infections, malaria and dengue that is common for volunteers here in the Philippines. Related to staying healthy is staying happy – finding hobbies, activities, anything really to help pass the time. Many volunteers cook, learn a musical instrument, join local sports teams, and read/watch a ton of books and movies.

Building relationships in your community is the next stage of success, and one that some Peace Corps Volunteers never reach. It is an incredibly difficult adjustment to let go of all your preconceived notions of human interaction and learn that here in the Philippines it means something different when someone touches you, asks you a very personal question, laughs at your expense, or borrows an item without asking. It is very humbling to have to ask simple questions such as “how do you eat this?”, or “how does this toilet work?” – and entertaining as hell to locals. For the standard idealistic overachiever that is a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s often frustrating to feel so helpless in the face of the simple, daily challenges and interactions. It is very easy to withdraw or try to avoid them, until you learn to laugh at yourself and realize that all these strange ways in which you are treated are not because you are a foreigner but because this is how the locals treat each other.


The truly global and time-tested method of building relationships – alcohol. Ludwin, Tupeng, and Pipoy at a party in town.

The last stage of success in Peace Corps is successfully working in your community – and it is impossible to do without having built relationships. Many Peace Corps Volunteers are often frustrated when they arrive to their communities because they are so eager to get to work, to feel useful, to start combatting the very evident and visible problems they see that they expect to begin immediately. So they schedule meetings with local government staff, school teachers/principals, and local organizations and propose ideas and projects.

However that is an American mentality, and one that often disengages volunteers when their enthusiasm and desire to get to work done immediately is met with vague commitments, and failure to attend meetings or carry out plans. From the locals’ perspective, they have no idea who this foreigner is, what they want to do, nor why. They are especially confused as to why there is such a rush, as from their view there is always plenty of time. They are more interested in learning more about the volunteer then spending lots of time on a grand idea that a foreigner has had after living in the community for a few weeks or month.

The reality is things often get done out here not because it is someone’s job to do so, or because it should be done, but because of relationships. People usually shop at a specific sari-sari (little convenience store) because they know the owner – not because it has better prices or products (they all seem to be the same). If I walk up and ask a local government employee to set up a meeting, it might be done or it might be buried under a mound of bureaucracy. However if I bring someone who knows that employee with me, then it will be done quickly. Alternatively, if I begin my conversation by chatting them up and asking about their family, the weather, their holiday plans by the time I ask them for a favor they generally are willing to do it. Coincidentally happening to have bag of small snacks that you share with everyone tends to help as well. From my experience, the most successful and sustainable community development projects that I’ve been a part of or observed are due to using community relationships to build support to try a new idea or project, rather than simply relying on convincing loThe tricky part is relationships take time to build. And it’s hard to be patient and wait when you have the demanding urge to justify to yourself, to the people in your community, to your friends and family back home why you have given up everything and moved to a tiny community in a foreign country. Many volunteers never make it past the stage of building relationships to actually developing successful projects. So when someone asks a Peace Corps Volunteer “what are you working on?”, it is sometimes a very difficult and soul-searching process to admit that you aren’t working on much. That your usual day maybe consists of a few hours of actual “work” in the American sense. To admit that despite the grandiose dreams that you arrived with, sometimes a successful day is one in which you prepared a good meal with your host family, went on a nice run, or had a good conversation with a local friend.


Just another day at “work” in Sibuyan.

Peace Corps is an impossible job even under the best of circumstances, and often times you are placed in a situation that is very far from the best of circumstances. But with a little patience and perspective, you can begin to understand that work in the Peace Corps is not just the presentation that you give to your organization, or the training that you organize. But that part of your work is to stay healthy, to stay happy. And so when you chat with a group of kids, watch a movie with a friend in town, share a salad you made with your host family, or join a local soccer team you’re actually working to develop relationships. Which if you’re lucky just might turn into an actual community-based sustainable development project.

So with that long-winded caveat, now that I’ve been in Sibuyan for about 2.5 months I finally feel as if I have a decent understanding of what I’m doing here.

The first month was spent mostly getting to know the protected area staff, and trying to develop a good working relationship with my new co-workers. Since we all work, eat, and live near each other there were many opportunities to spend lots of time with them and develop mutual trust.


Passing some down time with the staff and a little karaoke.

In addition, I learned about how they manage and operate the protected area, which is in many ways very different than how parks are managed in the United States. For example, the 7 full-time staff here are responsible for all enforcement, education, and natural resource management activities. So the same staff may put on a training for the cooperative that wants to sustainably harvest vines from the multi-use zone of the park one day, coordinate with local police and army to confiscate illegally harvested lumber another day, then collect GPS data and create a GIS map the next.

Part of my learning process including identifying areas where I could help the staff – since about two to three weeks after my arrival, during a tuba (naturally fermented palm wine) drinking session one night, the park superintendent finally revealed to me that most of what was in the project description that I had been sent had actually already been done six months ago by another organization. He had been reluctant to tell me due to worries that the Peace Corps organization would be mad and/or reassign me.

So over the next few weeks we worked together to come up with a new plan. Sibuyan currently hosts the record for the densest forest recorded in the Philippines, and has at least a dozen species that are rare, endangered, and/or found only on Sibuyan Island and no where else in the world. However past research focused on finding new species, and information needed to conserve and protect these unique species (for example, what the population size is or where the species are located inside the park).

My primary project then is to collect information on fauna species found in the park – which includes over 130 bird species, in addition to numerous mammal species (at least a dozen bat species alone), reptiles, freshwater species, and insects.

The staff wants me to collect the information via observation, photos, audio recordings, and interviews with communities bordering the park. So the good news is my assigned project is a good excuse to take several hikes a week into the protected area and look for species to photograph:

However collecting just observational information on their priority, hard-to-assess wildlife is difficult since by their nature the species are shy and there is lots of dense forest for them to hide in! This includes an unidentified warty pig species, four endemic forest rodents, three endangered bats, and several bird species that are vulnerable or possibly found only on Sibuyan Island.

So working with the staff I wrote a grant to purchase wildlife monitoring equipment such as mist nets, mammal traps and tags, and remote cameras. The funding will bring in experts to train the staff in use of the equipment, and provide supplies for extended research trips into the park. And happily a few days ago I received official notice that the grant has been approved!

All the information collected will be used to assist park staff in their quarterly biodiversity monitoring, to promote ecotourism, as well as to educate park visitors and locals.

While project should keep me pretty busy for the next 7 months, there are always small project I try and help the very overworked and undermanned staff with. This includes aiding their quarterly biodiversity monitoring, helping revise the protected area general management plan, and whatever else I can help with.

Hopefully this gives everyone a more specific idea of what I’m doing over here. Of course, it could all change tomorrow as such is life working in international community-based development …

Slideshow: Cuba, Africa, the Pacific Crest Trail.