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In the glow of the kerosene lamp: Finding happiness and creating opportunity in Latin America


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by Annie O'Donnell, Capital Resource Intern, Global Partnerships

Annie O’Donnell is the Capital Resource Intern at Global Partnerships (GP), assisting GP with event planning and other fundraising activities. She became interested in GP’s work after returning to Seattle from serving as a Peace Corps Community Environmental Conservation volunteer in Panama for two years. Annie will begin her master’s degree in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University this Fall.

For two years, I lived and worked in the small farming community of Caisán. It’s home to about 200 families and is nestled in a world of equatorial vibrant green in Panama’s western highlands. Those who live along the main road in Caisán are lucky to find themselves on the power grid, but most families live down dirt roads in homes without electricity. They are dimly lit by kerosene lamps but warm and inviting all the same.  

Making the evening meal in only the glow of a kerosene lamp never seemed a challenge for Chelena, my host mom. She enjoyed that time at the end of the day – when the animals were fed, her three children were home from school, her husband from the farm, and me from touring the town. My Panamanian familia and I would gather in the kitchen, and eat and laugh as we swapped stories from our day.

I came to cherish our mealtime together, when the stresses of the day would dissolve with the sun light. It didn’t matter that my Spanish was imperfect or that, as a blonde standing three feet taller than everyone else, I looked different. Chelena called me mi’ja, short for my daughter, and I called her mamá. Though their home was small and their resources tight, I was part of the familia. This meant I was not allowed to contribute financially. My family watched out for me. Mamá never let me leave the house without an umbrella. They don’t have many material possessions but they treasure family, and that makes them rich in all the ways that really matter.

Living in rural Caisán, I learned to wake up early every morning to fill buckets before the water ran out for the day. I made sure to always have a flashlight and to shake out my boots in case of snakes. In the evening, people left their front doors open as a symbol of invitation for a cup of coffee or lemongrass tea for passersby. During my evening strolls I would learn deep history of the intertwined families in my small town. Though I felt like I was millions of miles from home, I also felt like I was a part of the local community.

Family and community are highly valued by Panamanians and their neighbors, and I think that’s the reason the region holds the top seven spots of the 2014 Gallup Happiness Report. This is despite Latin America being rife with economic hardship, crime and drug trafficking. The report surveyed people from 138 countries; it measured frequency of their feelings of enjoyment, being treated with respect, and how often they laughed or smiled. The report makes a strong statement: though life in Latin America can be hard, happiness endures.

Yet, Panamanians—and other Latin Americans—living in poverty do yearn for better things. My host mother accepts kerosene lamps, but knows it would be easier for her children to study if they had electricity to light their home. She dreams of her children becoming professionals but there are few economic opportunities in Caisán; almost every family tends a small farm and sells produce to earn income. Life isn’t easy in rural, poor communities like Caisán. But despite the challenges, positivity, as I saw it, and as the Gallup article suggests, can overcome a great deal.

Imagine the impact that could be possible if positivity were paired with opportunity – such as the chance to study at night with solar lights or receive training on sustainable farming techniques to grow more food.

By learning about my family and my community’s hopes and dreams, but also seeing the challenges they face, I recognize the importance of GP’s market-based approach to help people who don’t have access to essential services and goods. By investing in their futures GP is effectively working to help eliminate the very conditions that allow poverty to thrive. It is an honor to be a part of Global Partnerships’ work.

Blog Tags: kerosene lamp   Latin America   Panama   peace corps   poverty   

Annie and Chelena
Chelena (left) treated Annie like one of her own children, and baked a cake and cooked a special tamale to celebrate Annie's birthday. Chelena's kerosene lantern can be seen hanging in the background. © Annie O'Donnell

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