As a veteran participant of the NGO Amigos de las Americas in Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic, I was used to walking into host communities and being offered piles of food, a place to sleep, a drink. I was used to finding three, sometimes four, host families per community. You could say that I was very much accustomed to a certain level of acceptance – immediate, welcoming, hospitable, generous acceptance. This meant that I was also not very accustomed to having to think too hard about why I was being accepted, or even if I should be accepted in the places where I was asking for food, housing, protection for two or three volunteers for a period of two months. People were nice, I was nice, they said yes, I said thank you, what was there really to think about?
This all worked very well until I went to Peru, where everything was suddenly flipped on its head. And here is where I want to talk about one of the struggles I faced conducting research in indigenous Peru.
Where we were working in Peru, we noticed over and over that Cusqueños do not build trust in institutions or organizations, but rather with individual people. Many of our communities required at least two to three weeks of communicating directly with volunteers before they trusted them enough to want to feed or house them. Many of our Project Supervisors reported feeling highly uncomfortable asking families who were clearly wary of volunteers to house strangers in their homes and dramatically adjust their own sleeping arrangements and daily schedules to accommodate volunteers they had never even met yet. In some cases, host families reported feeling obligated by community leaders who wanted to benefit from AMIGOS programs to host volunteers, and felt resentful and ill-disposed to form caring relationships with volunteers.
In terms of my research, this made my job harder than I thought it was going to be.
Usually, in my experience in Panama and the Dominican Republic, entering a community and saying that I was working with AMIGOS gave me automatic respect and clout. I imagine that if I had wanted to do thesis in either of these countries, it would have been relatively simple to build trusting relationships with community members fairly quickly and I would have felt very comfortable asking any and all questions for my research. In Peru, though, where volunteers had to earn the community’s trust somehow, usually by asking a lot of questions and working for hours each day harvesting potatoes, this approach would not have worked for me. It would not have been reasonable for me in Peru to enter a community, throw around my AMIGOS title and expect anyone to think that meant I was trustworthy enough to talk to on tape. Because of this, I am thinking very carefully about how I will approach interviews with indigenous community members when I return to Peru.
Posted by Samantha Balaban – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU