Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MIP student adds extra year to Peace Corps service

Brooke McDavid planting mangroves with children in Vanua Levu, Fiji
Things are going so well for Master’s International student Brooke McDavid that after two years in Vanua Levu, Fiji, she is extending her Peace Corps service for another year and four months.

“There is so much happening that I am not ready to disengage,” McDavid said. “There are so many opportunities and people are so excited to try things. We are willing to work together and find solutions together.

“I love the lifestyle but at some point I have to make it back to Alaska.”

McDavid left UAF two years ago for Peace Corps duty. Upon her return here she will finish her thesis and earn a master’s degree in natural resources management.

Speaking to students via phone in the “Natural Resources Management in Developing Countries” class April 10, McDavid shared some of her experiences. When she arrived in Fiji she was told to spend three months just getting to know the people and establishing relationships. This proved very wise advice, McDavid said. “It helped me understand the culture and get to know the people.”
Her village is home to 500 people. While in the “getting to know you” phase, the village headman “adopted” McDavid. “Here relationships are just as important or more important than work. You spend a lot of time socializing and getting to know people.”

After six months she and a counterpart began working on a community needs assessment survey to determine what issues the community wanted to address. “I’m not here to push an agenda,” McDavid said. “It was important for them to create the agenda.”

She trained 10 people to give the survey and then a village development committee was formed. “It was a wonderful experience creating a vision, goals, and action plan for projects,” she said. The plan included governance, education, health and safety, the environment and standards of living.

One of the first projects McDavid tackled was working with the women’s group to create vegetable gardens. She taught organic principles, composting and crop rotation. The first attempt went awry when the money the group raised from selling bok choy disappeared. So the next go round included lessons on financial management and the group raised $200 to purchase supplies.

The project faded for about eight months. “I wasn’t pushing, “McDavid said. “I wanted to do things the community wanted to do.” After a dispute over land, the women’s group solved the issue by finding a new plot. “I was so proud of them,” McDavid said. “It’s an ongoing learning process for everyone, myself included.”

Establishing a locally managed marine protected area has been another challenge. In Fiji over 200 communities have established locally managed marine protected areas and the people in McDavid’s village agreed to try it. After only a couple of months they are already noticing more diversity in the fish population.

Moving pig pens away from the river was a solution for cleaner waters. “We talked about buffer zones and ridge to reef management,” McDavid said.

Starting a mangrove nursery has been a way to address erosion. Mangrove had been depleted as a source for firewood and the villagers are working to restore the habitat.

McDavid is working with local government departments and non-governmental organizations to create plans for a new town and she is writing a guidebook for community development planning.

Feeling respected as a woman in Fiji has not been a problem, though McDavid must wear dresses or skirts and sit in the back of the room for meetings. “Even if I don’t believe in it I follow it anyway,” she said. She believes she is treated differently than the local women because of her professional background and education. “I have something to offer them,” she said.

She is the village’s first Peace Corps volunteer so feels she had a blank slate to work on. The people are poor but not starving. Education and health care are lacking and there is disparity between urban and rural areas.

“The Peace Corps has made me appreciate the simple things in life a lot more,” McDavid said. “I have learned to slow down the pace of life and there is a huge sense of community, something I’ve never had before. It’s like a big extended family where everyone knows your business but we collectively work together to achieve things.”

She is so impressed with the sense of community that she said wants to have that the rest of her life, “whether it’s in Fairbanks or Fiji.”

McDavid will return to UAF in August 2014.

The view from Vanua Levu, Fiji.

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