Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Eli Wittum, August 12, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Family, early life, education, and applying for Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: August 12, 2020. This is Randolph Adams, who served in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1969. I am interviewing Eli Wittum, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama from February 2016 to April 2018 and then became a response volunteer from June 18 to March 2020.

Segment Synopsis: Wittum served in the Peace Corps in the environment sector and response core as a multi-media specialist. His entire family had military background; he was mainly raised by his mom. He has a bachelor of science degree in environmental science, biology, and environmental education from Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He started as an environmental technician with Pace Analytical. He got burned out, and applied and was accepted into Peace Corps. He discusses how he found out about Peace Corps, why he applied, and the application process.

Keywords: Coast Guard; Duolingo; Duolingo application; Environmental education; Environmental educators; Pace Analytical; Salisbury (N.C.); Salisbury, North Carolina; Sustainability

Subjects: Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery; Biology.; Catawba College; Coal ash; Coastal surveillance; Communication in the environmental sciences.; Duke Energy; Education, Higher; Education.; Employee screening; Environmental sciences.; Japan.; Language learning and language teaching; Panama; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Science--Study and teaching.; Travel.; United States. Air Force

GPS: Salisbury, North Carolina
Map Coordinates: 35.668333, -80.478611
00:13:34 - Training for Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Um, let's get to your pre-service training then. Where were you trained and, and, uh what was your preparation like for your assignment?

Segment Synopsis: Wittum discusses his pre-service training. They were flown to Dallas, Texas where they were introduced and signed forms, then did the two and a half month introduction in Panama City, Panama, as well as Santa Clara. He was in the conservation sector. He describes the technical training, which included learning masonry, gardening, organic farming, tree nurseries, and planting, using more traditional practices for the area. He also had language training in Spanish as well as cross cultural training, which included visits to communities. He discusses his interactions with other volunteers, stating they were helpful and supportive. He lived with a host family during training

Keywords: Conservation; Host families; Spanish (Language); Sustainability

Subjects: Agricultural assistance.; Agriculture.; Communities.; Cross cultural communication; Cross-cultural orientation.; Cultural awareness.; Cultural competence.; Dallas (Tex.); Environmental sciences.; Friendship.; Gardening.; Intercultural communication.; Interpersonal relations; Language learning and language teaching; Lesson planning.; Lifestyles.; Manners and customs; Masonry.; Nature conservation.; Occupational training.; Organic farming.; Panama; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Planting (Plant culture); Santa Clara (Paraná, Brazil); Self-sufficiency; Social interaction.; Spanish language.; Teaching.; Technical assistance; Traditional farming.; Training; Tree farms.

GPS: Dallas, Texas
Map Coordinates: 32.779167, -96.808889
GPS: Panama City, Panama
Map Coordinates: 8.983333, -79.516667
GPS: Panama
Map Coordinates: 9, -80
GPS: Santa Clara, Panama
Map Coordinates: 9.04, -79.752
00:23:12 - Peace Corps job and life in Dos Aguas, Panama

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Partial Transcript: Uh, let's, let's move to your assignment. Uh, where were you posted?

Segment Synopsis: Wittum was posted in a remote community called Dos Aguas. He lived with a host family with seven children for the first three months. He then lived in a house a former volunteer had built. He worked with the environmental group that had been formed in the community; they were a group of farmers who formed a collective with the government. The community didn't have access to electricity and their water system was via aqueducts. He contrasts his well-off host family during training with his poorer family during his time in the remote town. He wasn't able to stay in contact with other volunteers because the village was remote and poor. He also had trouble staying in contact with official Peace Corps staff. He discusses how he would help out with schools, stating he helped with organic gardening training and recycling projects, but he preferred more hands on work. His main two projects involved eco-stoves and helping with tree nurseries and reforestation, both projects that helped provide long term resources to the community. He discusses how the community used bartering.

Keywords: Dos Aguas (Panama); Dos Aguas, Panama; Eco stoves; Eco-stoves; Environmental groups; Host families; Recycling

Subjects: Agricultural assistance.; Aqueducts; Basic needs; Communication.; Economic development projects.; Educational assistance; Electricity.; Farmers; Gardening.; Green movement.; Housing.; Occupational training.; Organic gardening.; Panama; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Peace Corps Partnership Program (U.S.); Planting (Plant culture); Poor.; Poverty.; Recycling Advocates; Reforestation.; Rural; Schools; Technical assistance; Training; Tree farms.

GPS: Panama
Map Coordinates: 9, -80
00:42:06 - Work day / Community relationships

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Partial Transcript: Um, what was a typical work day like?

Segment Synopsis: Wittum states that there was not a typical work day. Some days he would work in the school. For three to four months, he installed eco-stoves. Some weekends he would work on tree nursery projects, which involved filling bags, collecting river sand, dredging the river, pulling sand from the river to mix with the soil and rice husks to make fertilizer. He discusses how kids wanted to go to the river and play; he describes how they would fish with machetes. He describes the relationships between people in the community, which included feuds with the Catholic Church. He describes his vacations during Peace Corps, one of which involved his mom getting hurt.

Keywords: Eco stoves; Eco-stoves; Feuds; Rice husks; Sustainability

Subjects: Agricultural assistance.; Arguments; Beaches; Catholic Church.; Church controversies.; Communication and culture.; Dengue; Dredging.; Economic development projects.; Ecuador.; Educational assistance; Fertilizer requirements; Fertilizers.; Galapagos; Garden fertilizers; Intergroup relations.; Interorganizational relations.; Interpersonal communication.; Interpersonal relations.; Isabela Island (Galapagos Islands); Manners and customs.; Manual work; Mountains.; Occupations.; Organic fertilizers.; Panama; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Quito (Ecuador); Rice hulls; Rivers; San Cristóbal Island (Galapagos Islands); Sand; Schools; Social interaction.; Social norms.; Sustainable agriculture.; Technical assistance; Travel.; Tree farms.; Vacations.; Vendetta; Work.

GPS: Panama
Map Coordinates: 9, -80
GPS: Ecuador
Map Coordinates: -2, -77.5
GPS: Isabela Island (Galápagos)
Map Coordinates: -0.5, -91.066667
GPS: San Cristóbal Island (Galápagos)
Map Coordinates: -0.83, -89.43
GPS: Galápagos Islands
Map Coordinates: -0.666667, -90.55
GPS: Quito (Ecuador)
Map Coordinates: -0.233333, -78.516667
00:54:46 - Reflecting on time in Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Uh, looking back on your tour of service, what do you think is--would you consider your main accomplishments?

Segment Synopsis: Wittum considers the eco-stoves project his main accomplishment during his time in Peace Corps. He states that a lesson he learned was to listen to community gossip because you can learn from what they're talking about. He regrets not getting the business group going, as well as regrets that more projects weren't more sustainable. He reflects on whether he accomplished the goals of Peace Corps (assistance, technical assistance, and increasing understanding of other cultures). He discusses the relationship between Panamanians and the U.S. military. He discusses how Peace Corps affected him personally, stating it made him realize how privileged he was.

Keywords: Eco stoves; Eco-stoves; Ecological sustainability; Sustainability; United States military

Subjects: Agricultural assistance.; Bombings; Business.; Communities.; Contemplation.; Cross-cultural orientation.; Firearms.; Friendship.; Gossip; Intercultural communication.; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles.; Manners and customs; Military.; Panama; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Privilege; Sustainable agriculture.; Technical assistance; Thought and thinking.; United States--Armed Forces.

GPS: Panama
Map Coordinates: 9, -80
01:06:28 - Evacuation from Panama and returning to U.S.

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Partial Transcript: Um, let's move on to the evacuation.

Segment Synopsis: Wittum states that he first heard of COVID-19 occurring in China in January or February. Restrictions started happening in late February and early March. He discusses his reactions to learning about the virus, as well as the reactions of members of the community. He discusses a friend who needed internet to conduct an interview with someone in the U.S. He states that Panama went on lockdown fairly early, including road closures. He states that people weren't quarantining in Panama City and that rural communities pushed back against the lack of quarantine. He discusses the evacuation plan. He quarantined with his older brother in South Carolina until they had a falling out, at which point he quarantined in North Carolina. He states it was challenging going home on short notice, giving up a stable job. He discusses how Peace Corps helped with the transition, including weekly Zoom or Skype or Google Hangout meetings to help with job seeking. He discusses his job search following Peace Corps, getting hired at the EPA for a media/public relations job. He discusses how the uncertainty and lack of control was hard for him. He thinks Peace Corps is valuable for seeing and understanding other cultures.

Keywords: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Evacuations; Immunocompromised; Lack of control; Loss of control; Panama City (Panama); Social distancing

Subjects: Air travel; Airplanes.; COVID-19 (Disease); Cross cultural communication; Cultural awareness.; Epidemiology.; Evacuation of civilians; Health planning.; Immunodeficiency; Intercultural communication.; Media & public affairs; Mental health.; Panama; Panama (Panama); Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Panama.; Physical sciences; Public health; Public relations.; Quarantine.; Road closures; Social distancing (Public health); Social medicine.; Travel restrictions; Travel.; Uncertainty.; United States. Environmental Protection Agency.; World health.

GPS: Panama
Map Coordinates: 9, -80
GPS: Panama City (Panama)
Map Coordinates: 8.983333, -79.516667
GPS: North Carolina (United States)
Map Coordinates: 35.5, -80
GPS: South Carolina (United States)
Map Coordinates: 34, -81