Weather is often a notable aspect of a volunteer’s Peace Corps service. From snow to rain to lack-there-of, precipitation shapes the life of a volunteer and the communities they call home for two years. For Chris Maxwell-Gaines, weather continues to shape his life. On this week’s episode, we learn about Chris’s service in Suriname, his work with rain collection and water access, and how his service helped create his career.
Photos from Chris’s Service
Chris Maxwell-Gaines’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
I served in Suriname, South America, from 2000 to 2002. I served with my wife as a married couple. We lived in a small village, deep in the interior of the country which is the northern Amazon rain forest. The only way to access our village was via a 2-day boat trip up river from the coast or a 2 hour single engine plane trip.
Our job titles were “Rural Community Development Specialists”. We took that to mean, anything and everything related to human and resource development that the village wanted to pursue. Our main goal was to assist the community in drilling a water well. While we helped the community receive grant funding to drill a water well and set up a water distribution system, it was not completed by the time we left our service. About 3 years after had come back to the US, our main counterparts from the village contacted us to assist them in obtaining the funding again so that they can complete the water well. We are very happy to say that they completed the water well system on their own, without any Peace Corps volunteers present. Talk about capacity building!
In addition to working on the water well project, we also did many smaller projects:
- Painted a world map and map of Suriname on the walls of the school
- Raised funds to purchase books for the school library as well as solicited for donated library books. Books were both in Dutch and English.
- Organized a Project Design and Management training in our village for many of the village leaders in the various village organizations.
- Organized a sewing training for the village women’s group. Through the SPA program, we were able to purchase foot treadle sewing machines for the women’s group.
- Taught English classes to adults in the village.
- Consulted with local entrepreneurs about developing their individual business ideas.
- Held an after-school program from 2pm to 5pm each day in order to provide the village kids more structured educational time.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
One of my favorite Peace Corps memories was a project that was actually initiated by a Baptist missionary group stationed in a surrounding village. They had funding to install a radio tower on a nearby “mountain”. While I knew the underlying reason for the radio tower sponsored by a missionary group, I also saw the potential in the villages of this area being able to receive radio signals from the capital, Paramaribo, as well as future cellular signals. We were transported up to the top of this mountain and spend a week, living in the bush, clean-cutting a large area where another team would come to set up the radio tower. We slept in hammocks in make-shift shelters. We hunted each day for our meals. We bathed in small rain forest creeks. It was like going back country camping here in the US but without any of the camping “luxuries” that we have here. It was an amazing experience!
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
My least favorite Peace Corps memory was actually me looking forward to my future after Peace Corps. Being young, you have a huge future ahead of you and it is hard to not think about it and try to plan it out. I remember being awake at night, in my hut, in the middle of the rain forest in South America, thinking about my career path and plans for when I returned to the States. Boy, was I foolish. I was in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I couldn’t help but to think about my future instead of focusing on the present moment. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely intentional about my time in country but I should have realized that my future would take care of itself and that thinking about it can wait.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
I miss being out in the world, doing whatever small part I can to make other people’s lives better. Being in our village, our villagers were so appreciative of anything and everything that we were doing to help them make their lives better. The feeling of appreciation, for even doing the smallest things for them, it something that I miss about my experience in Peace Corps.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
That time flies by so fast, yet it moves so slow as well. The individual days seems to go on forever but the two years in Peace Corps seemed to fly by so quickly. This lesson has stayed with me ever since. Before Peace Corps, I wore a wristwatch. Since Peace Corps, I have not put a wristwatch on. I know I have a cell phone to tell me the time. That’s not the point… my point is that I don’t feel attached to the western notion about hardcore productivity, maximizing every minute of the day.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying that you’d like to share?
Swakii – it is hard to translate but it essentially means “low energy, tired, a little sick” all rolled into one word. My wife and I still use it today in our conversations. It encompasses the perfect way you feel sometimes and it’s cool to say, “I’m feeling swakii.”