Volunteering in San Pedro, Paraguay
with Amigos de las Americas
By Amy Afonso
The author building a fogón while volunteering
As my Paraguayan host mother passed
me a guampa of hot mate early one morning,
three weeks into my 5-week project, I thought, “The materials
will never arrive.” My two partners and I were assigned
to a rural Guaraní community in San Pedro, Paraguay, where
indoor ground fires were the traditional cooking method.
Because homes have no ventilation system, soot stalactites
hang from the tin roofs and smoke permeates every part of
the home, causing respiratory diseases and other serious
health problems. Our project was to construct fuel-efficient
wood-burning stoves, called fogones, for ten local
We were trained to build the stoves
using 450 bricks, an oven box, a metal stovetop, wire, and mezcla made
of the red Paraguayan dirt and water. AMIGOS provided most
of these materials, and the families agreed to prepare the
location, and provide the mezcla and basic tools.
During the first days, my partners and
I prepared the community for the arrival of the materials
that we expected to arrive that weekend. We gave charlas on
the health benefits of fogones, and we created
a schedule chart showing which day we would build a fogón for
each family over the next five weeks. However, that weekend
the materials did not arrive. Nor did they arrive the following
week, nor the week after that. I briefly lost faith in what
I was doing. I was far from home, having accepted many donations
to support this fogón project, and was worried
that I would never be able to present tangible results.
Remembering AMIGOS' Three Pillars
Then I remembered my training about
the AMIGOS program’s three pillars: youth leadership, multicultural
understanding, and community development. As I accepted
the fact the community development project might never materialize,
I turned to the remaining two pillars for inspiration. I
began pouring my energy into leading various projects with
the local youth group, and becoming part of our community’s
culture. I participated in everything from planting onions
with my host dad on his chakra to cooking Paraguayan
food with the women and girls of my town. My partners and
I held many meetings with the town’s youth and we organized
twice-weekly soccer games where we sold refreshments. Funds
raised were designated for future development projects and
to help pay for transportation when community members needed
to go to the city for medical care.
Making Friendship Bracelets
A project that I had started in the
beginning of my stay, making friendship bracelets with teens
and children, turned into a mini-enterprise through which
the youth group was able to raise significant funds. More
than that, community members of all ages became took an
interest and became involved in making and selling the bracelets.
It was the most beautiful thing to see even my host dad
and the school principal wearing bracelets. It was a simple
symbol of how the community members, and us American volunteers,
had all become woven together.
Materials Arrive for the Fogón
During our final week in Paraguay, the fogón materials
finally arrived, and our initial preparation and planning
fell into place. We completed five stoves in five days,
working dawn to dusk, a feat that was possible only because
of the help we received from community members. We also
planted 50 tiny trees. The time we spent interacting with
community members in the previous weeks had strengthened
their interest in the success of the fogón project.
We knew the last five stoves would be built and the remaining
trees would be planted after we left, making this a truly
sustainable and community-based project.
The amount of interest and respect that
my partners and I showed for the people and the culture
of our community allowed us to have the fullest possible
AMIGOS experience. I believe we had a lasting impact on
our community, though nothing could possibly equal the positive
impact our community had on us. I learned the value of planning
and preparation, but most importantly, the value of patience
and the power of human bonds.
Amy Afonso volunteered with Amigos
de las Americas in Paraguay from July-August 2008.