Peace Corps honeymoon in Jamaica: Lots to give, lots to learn
by ANDREA VOGT
WHEN WILL AND ANDREA FARNER SCHUMAKER ’08 were accepted into the Peace Corps, the newlyweds didn’t expect life in rural Jamaica to be a Caribbean honeymoon.
They imagined the difficulty of digging ditches to bring water to rural communities and toiling in fields teaching green agricultural techniques. “Looking back we had no idea,” laughs Andrea, 22.
She and Will, 23, met in high school through the National FFA Organization, she from Melba, he from Meridian. Both attended the University of Idaho and married during their junior year.
After graduating in 2008 with bachelor’s degrees in agricultural education, the couple set off for two years of Peace Corps service in Jamaica—a plan whose lofty ideals were soon replaced by harsh realities of a paradoxical country—extreme poverty in some villages, awash in tourist money in others, "on the cusp of being great and falling apart at the same time," explains Will. Both are agricultural extension agents for Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), modeled after the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service.
They help local growers improve crops such as peppers. Andrea also develops 4-H projects and helps women with skills like composting. One year into their two-year program, basic challenges of water, equipment, and training have proven easier to overcome than cultural and sociological barriers like age, race, and class.
Andrea and Will Schumaker ’08
Global focus: Jamaica
“To my amazement they [Jamaican primary school children]
are not only taking care of the garden,
but they also planted about 10 rows of black-eyed peas!”
If you’re too young, too white …
“We are so young it has been hard for people to take us seriously,” says Andrea. “They believe you have to be older to have wisdom and knowledge, and somehow we get lumped in together with kids age 1 to 20.”
Beyond that is skepticism because they are white—the only whites in their community, other than an LDS missionary who lives a few villages away. Back in homogeneous Idaho, opportunities to test their own prejudices were rare. “It definitely gives you more compassion when you realize what it is like to be a minority,” says Will. “I always thought I was color blind, but being in Jamaica has made me much more aware of differences in race.”
Curious stares from children and even occasional taunts are not so much malicious as a result of the country’s deep and painful history of race relations, namely white exploitation of blacks.
Still, for every “Hey, Whitey” they’ve gotten on the street there’s been another Jamaican whose generosity speaks even more loudly. While their first home lacked some comforts (Andrea hand-washed their laundry for weeks), their current home has modern appliances, thanks to a Jamaican woman who found the place and often shares her dinner with the couple. One taxi driver insisted on fording a swollen river to get the two to a destination.
And the November 2008 election of Barack Obama has given them a sure topic. “Every time we get into a taxi people want to talk about Obama. Quite a few places have changed their name, for example, Obama’s Fish Shack,” notes Andrea. Their own hopes and goals are now tempered with a big dose of patience and a new perspective on what defines “progress.”
Stepping into the digital divide
The digital divide has helped the couple find their niche. Their computer skills (“average by U.S. standards”) give them almost expert status in Jamaica.
While they Skype, blog, and e-mail friends and family from their Jamaican home, at work they find themselves teaching colleagues basics such as how to attach a digital photo in an e-mail.
When the country’s agricultural ministry heard it may get 400 desktop computers, Will was immediately tapped to help with basic computer training. His project—teaching extension officers how to track and tabulate crop production using an Excel spreadsheet program—is being met with success. Until now, all crop production tallies were input by hand. Computerization is expected to vastly improve accuracy and efficiency.
A garden for primary school kids
Andrea, meanwhile, has begun an environmental club at a primary school where she initiated a school garden. She helped students till the ground with pitchforks “until blisters sprouted” and planted cucumber, corn, cabbage, lettuce, and other local favorites.
“Last week I went back to see how the kids were doing,” she writes on their blog (http://andreaandwill.blogspot.com).
“To my amazement they are not only taking care of the garden, but they also planted about 10 rows of black-eyed peas!” Now she’s stirring interest with several unemployed women who have goats and may form a cooperative to make goat’s milk soap—a skill Andrea honed on her family’s Melba farm.
Perhaps the biggest sign that the couple is being accepted is that local farmers have started asking for the Schumakers to provide training—mostly about computerized record keeping and biological pest control. “It has taken us a long time to gain that trust, but we’ve learned there is a balance. We are also interested in learning how they do things. We give them a lot of respect.”