I wish there was some way to sugarcoat this post, but there simply isn’t. Before joining Peace Corps I had heard that the experience often turns idealists into cynics, but I scoffed at the idea that it could ever happen to me. This past week proved me wrong.
I’m currently in the middle of starting a women’s soymilk cooperative. There are two parts of the project. The first part is doing over 30 demonstrations in various villages showing women how to make soymilk themselves. That part has been very successful: we’ve had about 200 women show up to almost every demonstration so far, and I was able to do a huge demonstration and nutrition talk at an International Women’s Day celebration with more than 300 women. It surpassed my expectations; I was planning on 50 women attending each demonstration. I love being out with the community health workers and being able to talk to parents about nutrition.
But the second part of the project, founding a soymilk cooperative to sell soymilk, has made me feel like a complete and utter failure. When I first arrived in my community, it was heart-wrenching to see women come to the health center week after week with children constantly in the red zone (extremely malnourished), despite nutritional counseling. The soymilk cooperative was a way for them to make an income so that they could afford more nutritious food for their children. I’ve been working on this project since October. I’ve put my heart and soul into it: applying for a grant, having meeting upon meeting with government officials, an agronomist, the members of the cooperative, community health workers, and my counterparts. I finally received the grant money in February, and I bought all the necessary equipment, opened a bank account, taught some basic business skills to the women, hosted a two day training for 183 community health workers, and found a store to sell the soymilk on market days. And now I feel as though it’s all unraveling before my eyes.
Our first day selling was two Wednesdays ago. We broke even. I was disappointed, but my counterparts were still hopeful and told me not to be discouraged. They told me it takes time for things to take off, and many people don’t know what soymilk is. They assured me that it was because we started selling the soymilk at the market in the afternoon, instead of the peak mid-morning time. My co-workers said that with more education in the villages, people would understand that soymilk is much cheaper than other forms of protein available, and much better (especially for children!) than banana beer. This past Wednesday, we broke even again. I was still paying the women, despite not making a profit, and they were still enthused about the project.
I wanted the women to take ownership over the cooperative so that it’s sustainable. So we tried to have them sell the soymilk all by themselves in the store for a few hours last Wednesday. And they sold exactly zero liters of soymilk. When I came to join them in the afternoon, people who were curious about the muzungu would come into the store, and often buy some soymilk. It was an incredibly frustrating catch-22: without me being in the store, they don’t sell soymilk, but with me being there, it becomes about me and the women aren’t able to take ownership over it.
But the biggest disappointment came on Friday. Another Peace Corps friend made an order of 35 liters of soymilk for a 5k youth race we were hosting on Saturday. It was exciting, and the women in the cooperative all agreed to meet Friday afternoon to prepare the soymilk. I specifically told the women that the soymilk had already been paid for and that it was really important to show up on time. Friday afternoon came, and only one woman showed up. I was crushed. We worked as fast as we could, but eventually the woman had to leave to make it back to her house by dark, so Sr. Agnes and I continued making the 35 liters of soymilk long after the sun had set. I felt awful: it was Sr. Agnes’ birthday, and we were stuck in a smoky room crouched over a fire waiting for the soymilk to boil. Both of us were at the end of our fuses, and Sr. Agnes, who was usually the one calmly reassuring me that the project would succeed, said that it was a clear sign the women hadn’t bought into the cooperative and we should stop it. That night I came home covered in smoke and ash, and didn’t even care enough to change clothes before collapsing into bed.
I imagined the project to be challenging, but I never imagined it would be this incredibly difficult. I’ve failed the women, my community, and myself. I’ve never in my entire life felt such an overwhelming sense of disappointment. It all feels so real and raw. I didn’t just do badly on a test or not make it onto the varsity tennis team or something. These are people’s lives. These are children whose future still remains uncertain and whose health will be permanently affected. I will still see the twins who are really two years old but look like infants, and the little girl whose ribs jut out of her tiny frame, but now I will be under no false pretenses about thinking I can help them. I will have to look the children and their mothers in the eyes every week and admit that I have no idea where to begin.
Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that I don't know what I’ve done wrong. Was it because of factors outside my control, like the fact that the women live in various villages, some a two-hour walk away, and only one has a cellphone? Was I naïve about people even having money to buy soymilk in the village? Did we not do a good enough job of informing people about the nutritional benefits of soymilk and where they could buy it? Will people ever see the benefit of buying soymilk instead of banana beer? Will it just take a little longer, and then catch on? Should we keep trying for a few more weeks? Is this all just a (large) bump in the road, or an unsurpassable obstacle? Are people just deciding to make soymilk themselves instead of buying it from us? Did the members not clearly understand the incentive of the cooperative? Why didn’t they even bother to show up on Friday? Did they feel disempowered? What more could I have done? More questions run through my head than answers, and I’m left feeling bitter and confused. And I’m not sure where to go from here.