By: Nali E. Asamoah
Coming to Oaxaca, MX I didn’t really know what to expect or what I would really take away from the experience.
I am a first generation college student and this was my first time out of the country since coming to America. My family is from Ghana and I was born and raised in Italy for the first years of my life, but have now lived in the suburbs of Chicago for the majority of my life. Although I have come from a multicultural upbringing, I would now describe myself as more American than anything. After spending three years at a community college near my home, in the last year of my life I was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school and moved across the country to Philly to continue my education.
In my first year at Penn where I was placed outside of my comfort zone in every way possible I have learned more about myself and what I want out of life. And in continuing to develop my understanding of the world and my influence as a person, when the opportunity to study abroad arose, I absolutely wanted to take.it. When I first moved to the U.S. and was in English as a second language courses I was often the only black girl amongst Mexican and Latino immigrants and growing up in such a diverse community I have often interacted with the Mexican community. In high school I took Spanish for four year and was really inspired by the teachers that I had who were so passionate about us learning and enveloping ourselves in another culture. And so when I decided to come to Oaxaca, I wanted to do just that, while also improving my skills as a future nurse.
Before volunteering with En Via we had two weeks of Spanish courses and cultural immersion classes, in these first weeks in Oaxaca what I appreciated most was the difference in lifestyle that Mexicans had. Getting used to life being a lot slower and enjoying little things instead of rushing to get to the next place, in the U.S. we are all so on a schedule, especially at school, so that was the nicest culture shock. Asides from the warm sun and palm trees that was definitely a change in scenery, the hospitality of the Mexican people is something I instantly fell in love with. Granted, being an extranjera I’m sure played into it, but just the “buenos días” and warmth the people gave to each other even in passing was comforting to see.
In the next four weeks our volunteering with En Via began, and I worked with my three other classmates to develop the workshops on Women’s Health and Diabetes and see where we as nursing students could fit into En Via’s vision. We were lucky enough to able to give our workshops in four different pueblos, Abasolo, Guelace, Teotitlán and San Miguel del Valle.
Although I came to Mexico with an intermediate level of spanish, giving hour and a half long workshops in only spanish definitely grew my abilities way more than I thought possible. In addition, working with women who often times had Spanish as their second language, because they spoke their indigenous language Zapoteco, challenged me even more so to create cross-cultural communication.
The culture of Mexico varies so much from the pueblos to the city and each pueblo that we visited had it’s own culture. One of the most memorable experiences was visiting San Miguel del Valle. Before going into the pueblo we had been told that the women were very conservative and that some topics regarding women’s health, such as birth control and STDs, would be harder to speak about. So naturally going into the community I had already began developing a plan to break the ice and also had my own reservations about not wanting to offend anyone or overstep my boundaries as an outsider. Initially, meeting the women from San Miguel they all wore similar knee length dresses with aprons, and we greeted everyone with a handshake and curtsy when we entered. In addition that day we had Rocio, who is an En Via volunteer accompany us since she is also from San Miguel, which gave me some relief, but I was still very nervous.
As we began our workshop and started going through women’s health through the lifespan from basic anatomy to chronic diseases Annie and I were surprised to see how much of the information the women already knew. That’s one assumption that we also made and were completely wrong on, that the women we would interact with wouldn’t know many of the things we spoke on.
Getting rid of that “savior mentality”, in that we were these foreigners coming to educate these women with the knowledge that we had and treating them and interacting with them as individuals in charge of their own health, completely changed the conversation and the way that the women interacted with us.
Giving women, as the center of the family and as individuals, the tools to take care of their own health and to pass this knowledge onto their children and families was a privilege. The grace and kindness the women showed us was so warm and genuine and I left believing we were received well, because by the end of our two days in San Miguel the women all wanted a picture with us.
By the end of our time in Mexico we were able to realize our role as nursing volunteers through formulating these health workshops, as part of in En Via’s vision to promote social and community development. Everything about my stay in Oaxaca drove me out of my comfort zone, there are so many things to love and so many lessons to learn when you are forced to be uncomfortable but also welcomed with kindness as the Mexican people treated me.
Thank you to Oaxaca, Fundación En Vía and The Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca for the experience.