Many of Huaraz’s visitors come to trek the more famous, glacier-capped Cordillera Blanca. However, my favorite hike in Huaraz during my 9-day stay was up the less famed twin mountain, the Cordillera Negra. Starting in the Santa Cruz village, I began my hike straight uphill, which took me through golden fields of farmlands with Quechuan people who cultivate crops such as corn and potatoes as they have for centuries. Nearing the crest of my 3700-meter destination, Lake Willcachoca, I met Sophie.
Initially speaking to each other in Spanish for a solid five minutes, Sophie and I laughed when we figured out that we were both from the US. Early into our conversation, I found out that Sophie worked for the Peace Corps in Huaraz for three years. Serendipitously, she designed health-focused programs that are relevant to my current research project.
My summer fellowship aims to capture current changes in dietary patterns in urban landscapes in Peru. However, I am constantly thinking of potential solutions to create long-term systemic changes that promote healthier eating behaviors. Creating realistic solutions for the coming generations is not only challenging, but also problematic because many current initiatives do not reach the most at-risk populations, such as indigenous populations. This interview with Sophie shares her views on program development and program sustainability specifically designed for indigenous communities in Huaraz, Peru.
Please introduce yourself! What is your name, what years did you do your Peace Corps service in Huaraz, and for how many years did you live there?
My name is Sophie Dila, and I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tumpa, Peru from 2008-2010. I also served an additional year as a Volunteer Leader in Huaraz, Peru until 2011.
What project(s) did you work on during your service?
I was part of the Youth Development program, where I worked on different projects related to healthy lifestyle development, vocational skills and leadership development. I started a library, a healthy schools program, a social theater camp, a girl’s leadership camp, and I helped coordinate regular trash pickup in the town, which dramatically reduced trash burning. As the Volunteer Leader, I became a primary support point for the volunteers in the Ancash region. In Huaraz, I partnered with the regional government, including the Ministries of Health and Education, and I focused on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention activities with high-risk youth.
What were some daily tribulations and challenges with the program(s) you worked on?
At first, it was difficult to get participation and buy-in to programs. That became easier after some time of building relationships and trust with the community, which I did by drinking a lot of Inca Kola and eating a lot of guinea pig.
What is the average monthly salary of someone living in your village? How did most people contribute to the local economy?
My estimate is somewhere in the ballpark of $200 USD. Tumpa’s history is rooted in subsistence farming, and today many of the townspeople have plots or farms large enough to bring their products to market. There are a handful of small store owners in town, as well.
Within your community, did you witness a migration of people to more urban cities such as Trujillo? If so, could you explain what impact that had on the community?
Within Tumpa, I witnessed a strong migration of young people to Huaraz or Lima. Most youth who graduated from high school left the village to pursue university or work in the city. This migration created an obvious age gap within the community, where most of the population were young or over 35 years old.
As a foreigner, how did you assimilate into local life? Were you readily accepted or did it take some time for you to be accepted by the community?
I learned the local language, Quechua, and I learned how to joke in Quechua, which was real crowd pleaser. Living with my host family provided me with an immediate network of friends and people who were protective of me. In work, I showed up and participated as much as I could, even when I felt unsure, lonely or discouraged. My friendships with the kids, teachers and nurses helped bridge friendships with the adults and elders in the community. Peruvians who are from the Andes are known as shy and reserved people, but with time and the cultivation of trust, I became family and an integral part of the community. I’ve been back to visit twice since I completed my service, and I am always joyously welcomed back.
Within your community, what “western” influences did you recognize?
There is a strong Catholic Church influence in the Ancash region, which is certainly a western import in a community and culture rooted in Incan traditions. There is also heavy mining in the region, which is a disruptive force in the communities. There was also plenty of Coca Cola to go around.
If “success” is defined as program sustainability, which intervention(s) that you worked on still are active now that you are no longer leading the program(s)?
I helped build the capacity of hundreds of youth and adults in health education topics including nutrition, hygiene, sexual health, and the trash pickup program. The trash pickup system is still going strong. I still talk to my host sister, who has told me that I helped her become more confident and inspired her to attend university. If I positively impacted or changed her life, then I see that as success.
Have local leaders arisen to take on any project(s) in your place?
Yes, teachers took over the healthy schools project, but I don’t think they replaced the materials (trash cans, brooms, etc.).
What is the biggest challenge to program sustainability within these indigenous communities?
Funding and local buy-in are keys to success to program sustainability. Without sincere interest and the resources readily available to support programs, they will likely not last long.
Looking forward, what can we learn from your experience to create sustainable change?
Without sincere interest and reliable funding, international development programs will likely dwindle or fail, so raising awareness and finding the local movers and shakers who care deeply in the cause and will continue to promote it in your absence is crucial for sustainable change.
Are you optimistic for the future of the community? Are you concerned?
I am absolutely optimistic for the future of the community, but that doesn’t go without certain concerns. The town does not have enough money, nutrition and hygiene are severely lacking, and the teen pregnancy rate remains high. However, the people of Tumpa are community-focused people who live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. On a positive note, more kids are graduating from high school today than they were decades ago.
Can you share one funny or impressionable moment from your years of service?
One of my favorite memories is when I went to the men’s jail in Huaraz to teach HIV prevention to the inmates with my work partner and fellow PCVL, Michael. We were nervous, but it ended up being an awesome experience. The inmates were so grateful that we had come to spend time with them, talk to them about HIV prevention and sexual health, and answer their questions and concerns about sexual health. We played some funny icebreakers and games to help explain HIV transmission. Afterwards, all the inmates stood in line to graciously shake our hands and thank us for the workshop. My major takeaway from the experience is that as human beings, we often fear what we don’t know and worry about the unfamiliar. I thought working with inmates would be scary, but it was actually tons of fun.