Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Guyana

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in its Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Guyana, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Guyana.

Outside of Guyana’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Guyana are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Guyana, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Guyana

The Peace Corps staff in Guyana recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female trainees from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

The Peace Corps cannot control every host country national’s treatment of Volunteers, and some of you may experience subtle discrimination or even blatant bigotry. Through training, we will try to prepare you, individually and as a group, to cope successfully with these challenges. The country director is responsible for seeing that, within the Peace Corps family, the rights of all Volunteers are respected. No matter what your background, the staff in Guyana is committed to giving you the support that you need to be an effective Volunteer.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

The following information is provided to help you prepare for the challenges you may encounter in Guyana based on your ethnic or racial background, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, or disabilities. The text is intended to stimulate thought and discussion and may or may not be applicable to your own Volunteer experience. We want to make all Volunteers aware of issues that one particular group or another may face. As you read, you might ask yourself, “How would I feel if that happened to me?”

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Gender roles in Guyana are markedly different from those in the United States, and you will need to understand these gender roles to be effective in your project and satisfied personally. Guyanese women have traditional roles, especially in rural areas, where they run the household, prepare meals, clean, and rear children. In addition, some work in the fields, run small businesses, and care for farm animals. Young, single women generally do not live by themselves. Those who do are often perceived as women who do not live a decent life. Men also have specific roles, and “manliness” is very important. Men are expected to be dominant in almost all aspects of society; they are expected to smoke, drink, pursue women, be strong, and discipline their wives and children.

In Guyana, it is common for women, including Volunteers, to be verbally harassed by men on the streets. Although it is unusual for a man to try to touch a woman, he might whistle, make comments on your looks, or ask you for a date or for sex. North American women are obvious targets because they are so visible and have a reputation of being liberal (sometimes interpreted in the local context as being promiscuous) in male-female relationships. Female Volunteers must learn to handle these situations and may have to accept certain constraints male Volunteers do not have to accept.

Male Volunteers also encounter harassment, but much less frequently. If you do not drink, smoke, or like to pursue women openly, you may be kidded or chided for not being manly enough. Male Volunteers who cook, wash clothes or dishes, and clean the house often seem strange to their neighbors. Pre-service training will orient you to these local customs and gender roles.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Volunteers of color in Guyana may face specific challenges. In Afro-Guyanese communities, for example, African-American Volunteers may be treated according to local social norms because it is assumed they are Afro-Guyanese. This can have both positive and negative outcomes. Within the Volunteer corps, you may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer in a particular project.

Once you move to your site, you may work and live with individuals who have a limited or stereotypical understanding of the United States and its citizens. A Volunteer of color may not be perceived as being North American. A Volunteer with a Hispanic surname may be considered a citizen of a Latin American country rather than the United States. Likewise, a Volunteer of Asian descent is not likely to be perceived as being North American and may be called by ethnic names common in Guyana, such as “Chinese girl.” Out of ignorance or stereotyping, some people in your community may view you as less professionally competent than a white Volunteer. In any community where you are not known, you need to be prepared for staring, pointing, comments, and prejudice. Finally, you should be prepared to hear derogatory terms and racial epithets that would be completely inappropriate in the United States. In some cases, the terms may indeed be used in a derogatory manner, while in other cases the terms may be locally appropriate words that are not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Suggestions for how to respond to these issues will be provided during pre-service training. Both the Peace Corps staff and a peer support network of trained Volunteer counselors are available to provide support.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Maturity and age are generally respected in Guyana, and older Volunteers are likely to find it easier than younger Volunteers to integrate into their communities. Younger Volunteers often have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals in their communities. In addition, older Volunteers tend to be harassed less often.

As the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s, older Volunteers will work and live with individuals in the Peace Corps community who may have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. Your interactions with Peace Corps staff may also be different. Staff may not always give you the personal support you expect, while you may be reluctant to share your personal, sexual, or health concerns with staff. You may find that younger Volunteers look to you for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role.

Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees may encounter a lack of attention to their specific needs for an effective learning environment. You may need to work with staff to develop an effective individual approach to learning.

Finally, Peace Corps service may present certain social and logistical challenges for senior Volunteers that younger Volunteers do not face, such as handling family emergencies, maintaining lifelong friendships back home, giving someone power of attorney to attend to financial matters, and so forth.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

In Guyana, sexual orientation is a closeted issue. The topic is rarely discussed by Guyanese, and it is likely that many consider homosexuality to be immoral. Male homosexuality is illegal. In some instances, basic civil liberties may be ignored, and homosexuals may be hassled in bars or in the streets. There are certainly homosexuals in Guyana, but they are likely to live in the city, away from their home communities.

One of the challenges for both lesbians and gay men is dealing with harassment by people of the opposite sex who are attracted to them. Lesbians have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Gay men must deal with machismo, talk of conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.

Acceptable U.S. styles for hair, earrings on men, extensive body piercing, and certain mannerisms or clothes may be viewed with suspicion or disfavor in your community. Also, it is important to note that AIDS is a critical issue in Guyana, and gay Americans are sometimes blamed for supposedly bringing the disease into South America.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers should be aware that they will not encounter the level of openness and acceptance that they may be accustomed to in the United States. They will need to be circumspect with Guyanese colleagues and community members about their sexual orientation. Volunteers who decide to reveal their sexual orientation often confide in the medical officer who has been a source of support for Volunteers. Peer support plays a critical role to Volunteers of diverse sexuality. An additional resource is the lesbian, gay, and bisexual returned Peace Corps affiliate group of the National Peace Corps Association.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

The three major religions in Guyana are Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Christian Volunteers may find it difficult to accept and work within the boundaries placed on personal behavior by non-Christian religions. For instance, a Hindu or Muslim woman’s tendency to be submissive or her unwillingness to be away from home for long periods can be hard to accept by Westerners. This situation may also pose challenges for Volunteers who want to organize women’s groups.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Guyana without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Guyana staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

That being said, Guyana is not an easy post for Volunteers with disabilities. Wheelchair ramps at building entrances and handrails along walkways, for example, are almost nonexistent. Elevators are few, and many do not work because of disrepair or lack of reliable electricity. Blind people have few resources upon which to rely.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Our experience has been that when trainees or couples live together during training, they spend most of their time with each other rather than sharing in the rich cross-cultural experience of spending time with new friends and host families. While married couples will stay together with the same host family during training, it is incumbent upon them to take full advantage of the homestay period to engage with the family and community. During training sessions, couples are expected to behave in a professional manner. Overt displays of affection are not considered acceptable behavior in Guyana.

In addition, a request to be absent from training when your spouse is mildly ill, for example, will not be automatically granted.

Couples should consider how varying degrees of enthusiasm about Peace Corps service, different adaptation to the physical or cultural environment, and homesickness will affect their lives. A husband and wife may have to deal with changed marital roles resulting from local societal expectations. A married man may be encouraged to take on a more dominant role in the relationship, or be ridiculed for performing domestic tasks or refusing to have extramarital affairs. A married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or expected to perform traditional domestic chores instead of working. These expectations can create tensions for a couple at work and at home. Finally, couples need to consider how they will cope with competition (e.g., one spouse learning new skills faster than the other) or differences in job satisfaction.