One thing that my time in Paraguay taught me is that Americans are obsessed with teeth. I always knew that I valued straight white teeth but it was not until I became acclimated to life in Paraguay that I realized the rest of the world does not, or possibly cannot, place such a high value on cosmetic dentistry. Paraguay is no exception.
Going to the dentist, even brushing your teeth with tooth paste, is considered to be a luxury activity. My 71 year old host mother does not own a tooth brush, and never has. Often you will see children with black teeth and terrible cavities, they do not go to the dentist until the only affordable option is to pull the tooth. Having all of your teeth is a huge status symbol. Aside from my ‘blonde’ hair my most commented on feature in Paraguay was my teeth. Paraguayans were constantly asking how many teeth I had, if they were all my original teeth, and how I managed to keep them into my twenties. These are questions we do not even think about asking in America.
I realized early on in my service that I wanted to help teach Paraguayan children the importance of dental care. Although it is too late to try and change the habits of Na Julia, the majority of Paraguayan children in my community wanted to learn how to keep their teeth. I told my family early on of my intention to teach in the school and they said that I should find a way to hand out tooth brushes. It was not until the last month in my service that I finally had everything in order: tooth brushes, individual flossers, tooth paste, huge model teeth, and a huge model tooth brush.
The tooth brushes and floss were all generously donated from my family dentist, Dr. Pascaner. She has been our family dentist for the past 10 or so years and was very supportive of my desire to join the Peace Corps. She worried slightly since the water in Paraguay does not have fluoride and I have cavity prone teeth but for the most part knew that I would come back 27 months later after having a fantastic adventure. My Dad told her of my intention to give a lecture series at the school and she jumped at the opportunity to help.
In total the dental lecture was given to 20 Paraguayans. This may not seem like a large number but my site only has around 30 children. Each child practiced proper brushing techniques on the model teeth, learned what foods to avoid, and discussed proper oral hygiene. Everyone that received a tooth brush commented on what a nice brand they were (colgate) and how they could never afford these tooth brushes. Although colgate tooth brushes only cost around $3 to $5 in Paraguay that price is not realistic for subsistence farmers.
It is an interesting experience watching as the younger generations in Paraguay being to put a higher value on things like oral hygiene. Things are beginning to change in Paraguay and although development work is slow I am very pleased that I was able to play a small role in helping these kids develop habits that will benefit them throughout their lives.