This article was originally published by Winrock.
Winrock’s September Volunteers of the Month are dynamic duo, Dr. Jonathan Deenik and Dr. Glen Fukumoto. They both come from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and volunteered together this summer in Myanmar, providing training to farmers in Hmawbi Township on soil quality improvement techniques, including soil fertility management and composting using poultry and livestock manure. Our Country Director, Dr. Ai, notes that these two volunteers have “strong technical expertise, high cultural sensitivity, the ability to adapt to and understand local farmers’ needs, an impressive teaching style, and complimentary qualities to form an effective team.” Jonathan and Glen have volunteered together in Myanmar three times and Dr. Ai explains that because of their work “our program has received positive impacts beyond our expectations; the trainees love them, respect them, and continue to request their return.” To learn more about the technical aspects of their assignment, check out our recent blog post.
We asked Dr. Deenik and Dr. Fukumoto to reflect on their experiences as Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers. Their responses are below:
Why did you want to volunteer?
Deenik: Volunteering is an important part of my life. I volunteer regularly in community work days, taking care of agricultural land in my community of West Oahu. This commitment to volunteerism was solidified by my 5-years as a Peace Corps volunteer (1985-1991).
What was the highlight of your most recent volunteer assignment abroad?
Fukumoto: The resourcefulness of the host-farmer and the support in coordinating an unplanned demonstration on building a composting unit as part of the workshop session. The host asked what was needed for the demonstration and gathered all the materials – carbon source, nitrogen source, local materials used to build the compost bins and aeration pipes, within 24-hours. During the day of the demonstration, he assigned a small farm crew to work with me in setting up the area and prepare the materials for the demonstration.
What made your Winrock volunteer trip distinctive?
Deenik: This was my third volunteer assignment in Myanmar. The growth, deepening, and fruition of our special relationship with the Myanmar staff, especially Dr. TK and Dr. Ai, is DISTINCTIVE and immensely rewarding.
Dr. Deenik delivering his training with the help of Dr. TK
How does your experience affect your world view?
Deenik: Our work with Winrock in Myanmar provides a unique opportunity to experience what life is like for Myanmar people from a wide range of perspectives – farmers, educators, civil servants, students…. Through these personal interactions, we see the uniqueness of their situations, but also recognize that we all face similar experiences, and thus we better appreciate the notion we are a “global family.” Maya Angelou expresses this most eloquently in her poem “Human Family.”
Fukumoto: The Winrock F2F volunteer experience makes you realize how little we know of the world. The country borders are not simply lines on a map, but are a place rich in traditions, culture and different values and the struggles and triumphs of its people. Through the farmer-to-farmer program we develop relationships with the people and their community, with hopes of advancing and improving environmental quality, or food production, or the individual lives that we touch. At the same time, these assignments enrich ourselves with new friends and knowledge of a new place on this planet.
What advice would you give a new volunteer?
Deenik: Practice humility and patience, and above all have fun.
Fukumoto: Before your trip, read all the information sent out by your Winrock recruiter, heed all safety and medical advice, read as much as you can about the country and your related assignment and keep an open mind. While in country being respectful, being humble, and learning a few words of greetings in the host country language goes a long way, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey.
How have your assignments made a difference in your own life?/Has your assignment caused you to do anything differently once you returned?
Deenik: My life experience is enriched with each assignment, where I meet and learn from so many people. These experiences continue to humble me and reinforce the essential need to be tolerant and patient, but also intentional.
Fukumoto: The assignments, especially in the rural agricultural settings, make you realize that many of your personal challenges and struggles are quite minor compared to daily struggles of the lives of the people we engage with. Living a simple life can be more fulfilling than climbing the ladder of success in our hectic and complex lives. On the first assignment, several volunteers embarked on the Yangon Circular Train (it’s a must for the first-time visitor to Yangon). You get the essence of the life in Myanmar and the warm hearts of the people. Nearing the end of the loop ride a nice gentleman, most likely a daily commuter on the train, greeted a colleague and followed with a simple question, “Are you happy?” Often in our busy lives we never think about our state of mind … but now I think about it more than before … and yes, I am happy.
Why should people consider volunteering?
Deenik: Volunteering with Winrock promotes the effective transfer of knowledge to communities who have requested technical assistance. It also allows volunteers to broaden their world view through meaningful human interaction.
How do you feel about the support from Winrock?
Deenik: The Winrock staff here in the U.S. and in Myanmar have provided stellar support. The assignments are well-researched and address a grass-roots community need, which makes for a meaningful and rewarding experience.
Fukumoto: I would go anywhere in the world with the support of Winrock. The F2F program staff, from the preparation, arrangements, guidance/logistics and de-briefing by the recruiters, to the support from the field office professionals, are simply outstanding. Knowing you have the support/safety net in the background and the hard working and knowledgeable field staff, allows you to focus on the assignment. After the hard work is done, opportunities are provided for you to learn and discover the culture and the arts, the history, and modern life of the host country.
Dr. Fukumoto with the compost building crew. ““The support of the host farm was phenomenal. I was in awe of the connectivity of the farming community in gathering all the materials needed for the demo.”
When your friends/family find out that your volunteer assignment aboard, what do they say or ask?
Deenik: They are always curious and interested in this part of my work. Recently, I spent more than 4 hours sharing pictures of my assignments in Myanmar and Guinea with my 93 year old aunt. She was fascinated.
Fukumoto: Where is Myanmar? Why are you going? Is it safe? How’s the food?
How do you feel that your volunteer assignment has contributed to create a shared understanding across different cultures through person-to-person interactions?
Fukumoto: The Farmer-to-Farmer program and the outreach activities of interpreted workshop presentation and demonstrations has allowed us to share our ideas, best management practices, and farmer adoption/implementation examples from our work experiences. These experiences provide evidence/reinforcement that the presentations are not simply theoretical, but have practical/proven applications with successful results. Farmers understand and believe other farmers more than from academia; but by blending academia and direct farmer experiences, I believe, it brings a greater understanding of the principles and applications of the topics in the assignment.
The visits with the host farmers are extremely valuable. The farm view through the eyes of the farmer provide a grounded understanding of the their issues and challenges of production, environmental concerns, marketing, and other local constraints that impact their operations.
What keeps you going back to volunteer?
Fukumoto: Genuine interest in sharing my knowledge and experiences in tropical livestock systems that can potentially increase farmers and livestock organizations knowledge and understanding, which I hope can lead to successes in the field for improved sustainability, productivity and a healthy ecosystem.