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A day in the life of a PBI field volunteer

Take a peek into the lives of our field volunteers; Owen Campbell from Quebec shares his experience in Guatemala.

Owen Campbell is from Quebec, Canada. He volunteered with Peace Brigades International in Guatemala in 2007. He wrote this piece in 2008, shortly after he returned from his year in the field.

During my year in Guatemala, I lived with a total of 20 different people from more than 10 countries. Picture a house filled with all that cultural and personal baggage, everyone working long hours, six days a week.

Sounds like reality television!

And, to add some spice, people were constantly rotating in and out of the team. Just when you thought you had a grasp on the whole group dynamic, it would shift again.

At any given moment, there were people still on a high from arriving, people who had hit the six-month stage and had grown reflective of their experience, and grizzled vets who were looking ahead to freedom from collective living at the end of their one-year commitment.

All these variables made for exciting day-to-day living!

Accompanying threatened Guatemalan human rights workers involves a tapestry of many different activities. These activities range from the more mundane — such as report writing, answering phones, making calls, meeting with authorities, shopping for food, cleaning the house (with all communication in Spanish, mind you!) — to meeting with high-level authorities or travelling for three days in the Guatemalan countryside with a defender of rural workers’ rights.

All these tasks rotate through the team. A PBI volunteer must be open to change as we are on call at all times and sometimes there can be emergency situations that cause the schedule to be shuffled, and even reshuffled again.

With that in mind, I give you a “typical day” of a Guatemalan team member:

7:30 a.m. – Phone rings: it’s my shift to be on phones, e-mail and door answering duty. I run to the phone. It’s Jorge, one of the people we accompany. He wants to meet with us urgently at noon, I take down the details.

8:30 a.m. – After eating breakfast, I go to the office, turn on the computer, check if there are any important e-mails and print off press releases that organizations have sent us for the rest of the team to read. We must stay up to date.

9:15 a.m. – Doorbell rings: it’s the garbage pickup, also my job this morning!

9:30 a.m. – Most of my housemates are up and moving, some are already out on accompaniment. My job as phone manager in the morning is to phone those who are out on accompaniment to see how they are doing. Everything is fine, they say. They should be back by early evening in time for supper.

9:45 a.m. – Emergency meeting to discuss Jorge’s phone call. We decide that Nadia and Kike (two of our volunteers) will go to the meeting. I then ask someone to cover me on the phone because on Tuesday mornings the phone manager also has to clean the living room!

1:00 p.m. – Some breathing space after cleaning; decide to check my e-mail, write to my mom and dad and finish a report on a meeting I had with the police chief in a small village (where we introduced ourselves as PBI volunteers and discussed why we were in the area). I then print the report and place it in a folder for the rest of the team to read.

2:30 p.m. – Check e-mail and make a phone call to confirm our supper guest. She works for an NGO that provides legal advice to human rights workers and is quite high profile. Each week, we try to have at least one or two such suppers with guests. They help to give us different perspectives on the situation in Guatemala and maintain good relations with organizations that are part of the social justice movement.

3:00 p.m. – Another team member and I put on our PBI vests to go visit the offices of various organizations that we accompany. (We always do accompaniments in pairs). The idea is to keep in contact, see what their security situation is like and provide an international presence in their offices.

5:30 p.m. – On the way back we stop for ice cream in the central square of Guatemala City, a well-needed pause, and I am relieved that it is my partner’s turn to write the reports on our visits, as I did it last time.

6:00 p.m. – Arrive at home just in time to welcome Jacques and Maria who are back from their three days away accompanying Eloyda, who was giving workshops about the impacts of mining on the lake near where she lives.

7:30-9:00 p.m. – Our guest arrives and I go downstairs to greet and chat with her, as does the rest of the team. We eat all together, a delicious meal, and are able to get our guest’s opinion on the new government, find out more about her work and enjoy a few belly laughs as well.

9:30 p.m. – After the volunteer who has been the evening’s cook has finished cleaning up, we have a team meeting so that Nadia and Kike can share what they found out in the meeting with Jorge. It turns out he needs accompaniment to the western part of Guatemala where he will be meeting with communities that work with Jorge’s organization.

As a team we weigh the security situation: Have we worked in that place before? What has Jorge’s security situation been like recently? Do we have the people available to go? After the discussion, we come to the consensus that we will go.

The next in line on our accompaniment roster are myself and a newly arrived volunteer. I hadn’t had any accompaniments planned this week, so I am happy at the change of events and the chance to leave the capital for a bit.

10:30 p.m. – I pack some of my things for my departure tomorrow with Jorge. As the “veteran”, I get the emergency contacts in order for our departure.

11:00 p.m. – There is a soccer match on TV. Kike’s team is playing. We sit down and watch the game, cheering with Kike.

11:30 p.m. – Bed time!