Fairfield Now - Fall 2007
The Power of One:
A Peace Corps Volunteer in the South Pacific
By Nina M. Riccio
"Epiphanies are like leaves in the wind; they can blow into your life at any given time," writes Peace Corps volunteer Soraya Bilbao '94 from her island home in the South Pacific. "And it was while watching a man working with the wood and iron shingles that were to become my little house that one fluttered into my life. It dawned on me that every time he brought the hammer down on the nail, he was not only helping build my house, but was investing in the future of his village by investing in me."
Peace Corps Volunteer Soraya Bilbao '94 (top row, left) enjoys a visit with a family she befriended, who run the store in which they are gathered.
It was a powerful epiphany for Bilbao, who joined the Peace Corps in 2004 and was assigned to Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. And it's a lesson for anyone who ever wonders what one person can do to affect a difference in this world. "At times when I become insecure of my abilities to effectively help the village, I only have to think back to that moment. Every nail and every beam in my house have come to represent the hopes and dreams of every community member in my village. And it is their faith in me that at times helps fuel my own faith in myself," she says.
Motivation to commit to the Peace Corps for Bilbao was a mix of an adventurous spirit, the realization of a lifelong dream, and a deep-down belief in the spirit of the Corps and what it aims to accomplish. "It resonates with my own personal beliefs regarding humanity, cultural appreciation, and understanding," she says. "I thought about joining after I graduated, but a little thing - well, make that a big thing! - called student loans dictated otherwise. So I joined the workforce." It took 10 years before she actually filled out the application, but once the former marketing major boarded a plane with 17 other Peace Corps trainees headed for the Kingdom of Tonga (often referred to as "The Friendly Islands," a name given to them by Captain Cook for the warm welcome he received), she hasn't looked back.
It wasn't until the end of her extensive language, culture, and teacher training that Bilbao found she would be sent to the island of 'Atatã as an English teacher in the primary school there. "Knowing that I was the Peace Corps volunteer assigned to their village simply terrified me." Bilbao admits, recalling the day she landed on the island that would be her home for the next couple of years. Bilbao's duties included teaching "composite" classes, made up of students from two different class levels, and conducting twice-weekly, early morning (that's 6 a.m.) preparatory sessions for students who were taking the high school entrance exam. In addition, she was to spend half her time as a community youth educator. "In Tonga, 'youth' refers to anyone who is not married, so the average age in my community group was about 25!" she says, noting that her projects with the youth group included initiating a recycling program, conducting various village clean ups, and holding an HIV/AIDS and STD awareness workshop.
The island of 'Atatã is 100 acres with a single village, Vaolongolongo, on the northern end. The main village dirt path is lined with bright green, blue, pink, and yellow houses, each with rose and hibiscus bushes, and banana and coconut trees in front. Beautiful as it is, Bilbao notes that supporting a family requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. The main income for the villagers comes from fishing and the selling of Tongan handicrafts, with most families earning approximately $500 pa'anga (just shy of $300 U.S. dollars) per month.
"Monday through Friday, men and male youth from the village head out at sunset to fish, using hand-held fishing spears and nets," she says. "I can only imagine the temperatures as they dive into the dark sea." Once the men come back to the island in the early morning, the women and children emerge to help prepare the catch for transport to the mainland, returning to the island only after all the fish has been sold. Women and children also do their fair share of fishing, venturing out during low tide to collect clams, sea urchins, octopus, and muli'one (sea-slugs), which are either sold or eaten at home.
Religion is at the heart of everyday life in Tonga; just about everyone attends services at the Free Wesleyan Church or the Methodist Church at least six times a week, and there are three services at each church on Sundays. "They're not offered for convenience. The community expects that you attend all three!" says Bilbao, who made the commitment to do just that, believing it would integrate her more deeply into the rhythm of the community. (Not that there's much temptation to do otherwise, as it's against the law to work - or play - on Sundays.)
Living on the other side of the world does have its drawbacks. Bilbao, who keeps in frequent contact with those back home through e-mail, is keenly aware of the birthdays and holidays she's missed. And when tragedy strikes - such as the death of another Peace Corps Volunteer last year, the result of a shark attack - it was particularly tough for her to go through the grieving process while dealing with different cultural norms.
"There's a Tongan belief that when a shark bites someone, it is because he or she has done something terribly bad," Bilbao says, speaking of the shock and sadness the whole community felt at the newly arrived volunteer's death. "Naturally, cross-cultural misunderstandings were inevitable between people who loved her equally, but who mourned death in different ways."
Indeed, it's learning to function within a new cultural context that Bilbao would say is the most important thing she's learned while living overseas. "The process of cultural adaptation pushes and stretches you," she says. "It challenges the way you see life, others, and yourself. It plays flip-flop with your emotions and insecurities, but I can't help believing that at the end of the day, if we make an effort to avoid stereotyping one another, we are bound to become better persons in ways that we couldn't have imagined."
While visiting Fairfield in early 2007, Bilboa spoke, as part of a Campus Ministry-sponsored program, to students considering the Peace Corps as a volunteer option after graduation.
Ask Bilbao to reflect on how her presence has made a difference in the lives of the people she serves, and she first lists the projects she's been involved with: the youth workshop on HIV/AIDS, an environmental awareness drama, a library book drive, various Peace Corps Volunteer events, etc. But dig a little deeper and it's clear that one of the things she proudest of is the chance she's had to help children "imagine possible the impossible," as she puts it. "Producing 'Peter Pan' was a first for our primary school," she says. "The students had never had the opportunity to put on a children's play that dealt primarily with make-believe characters. I saw them use their imagination in ways they had not been encouraged to do before."
Days before the performance, she spent more than an hour with one small student who struggled with English. "Every time her turn came to recite a line during the performance, she would look at me for moral support and I would smile and nod," says Bilbao. "She correctly pronounced each word of the three short lines she had. I was so proud of her, of all of them. And maybe someday, when my students are grown, they'll think back to their time at a primary school on a small outer island and remember a certain Peace Corps Volunteer who believed in them."
That hope is one of the reasons Bilbao decided to extend her Peace Corps commitment to a third year. She's now back on the main island, spending half her time teaching English in the high school and the other half working in the Peace Corps office, training and supporting new volunteers. One of her current projects is helping the high school obtain easy-to-read English books, as current resources are woefully inadequate. Books in the school's two-room library, for example, are limited and outdated; many of the shelves are empty. Fortunately for those she serves, "Soraya is incredibly dedicated and hard working," says her long-time friend Wylie Smith Blake, now a campus minister at Fairfield.
Books solicited from individuals and organizations back home have started coming in, "and the librarian has noticed that this small-yet-magical corner has captured the interest of all the students who visit. It really is the place to be!" says Bilbao, who hints that she's eventually considering a career in the international arena. "My experiences have affirmed my interest in other cultures and the impact my efforts have had on others. These are not world-changing events, but in my book, it's the little things that count."