I have been in or on a pretty amazing array of motorized vehicles in the last 24 hours, from public buses (a.k.a. ‘chicken buses,’ retired school buses from the US, often painted up in classic Latin style, but sometimes with the names of American counties still painted on the side) to a taxi with half of the dashboard missing, to the backs of pick-ups, to, a half-hour ago, a vw van with no fewer than 25 people in it, two standing on the sideboard and hanging out of the open side door. It was a good day in Pachaj. I’d say it was worth the dodgy transportation, but the truth is that I enjoyed that part too, so it’s hard to call that a traded sacrifice.
I started the day in my $19/night hotel, which provided the first non-cold shower I’ve seen on this trip. The shower here is wonderfully hot, interspersed with ice cold, and I’m thrilled at that luxury. I hadn’t shaved on this trip until this morning, and it’s nice to be smooth-faced and -headed again. The electricity is entirely out at the moment, but my laptop has plenty of battery, so I can get a few things done. The truth is that I’ll probably get more done, since I can’t procrastinate online.
PEG has had a relationship with the public school in Pachaj for several years. We bought a few computers for a computer lab a while back, and they are still being used there, though there were some complications in the community over who had control of the computers, etc. For a time they weren’t where the students all had access to them, and some of our communication “went pear-shaped,” as the Aussies say.
That bump in our relationship with the school only made today that much sweeter. From that experience we learned that when we are negotiating a plan together, it is essential that all of the stakeholders in the community have a hand in that conversation. Today they did. Parents of students were there, the director of the school was there, teachers were there, and the mayor and several of the ‘cocodes,’ town commissioners of a sort, were there too, and took part in the conversation.
When I first started working in Guatemala I felt uncomfortable with the inevitable speeches and emotional presentations of thank you gifts that are a part of the work we’re doing here. In truth, I still do. I’ve stopped trying to discourage them, though. I now understand that the respect of speaking at such an event is as important as the respect shown in being spoken about.
Perhaps more importantly, I have begun to understand that in a society where many of the parents are illiterate (some of our documents have thumbprints instead of signatures for some of the committee members), accountability has less to do with the paper agreement than it does with everyone being present at the meeting and hearing the same thing. Having everyone’s eyes on the project makes it much less likely to go astray.
Today I was presented with a beautiful piece of weaving made by my friend Miriam and her husband, and embroidered with my name, the name of the school and today’s date. I will treasure it, and hang it in our home as soon as I return.
The school in Pachaj is the only public school in a town of about 8000 people, with many outlying areas beyond the town borders sending their kids there as well. All ages attend the same school. When I visited in February, they were holding classes in the open air on the porches of the school, and they had loosely partitioned a few of the porches with scraps of plywood and other random materials to create temporary classrooms. To put it simply, the school is bursting at the seams.
The school is bilingual, teaching in Spanish and Quich’e (pronounced Kee-Cháy), one of Guatemala’s many Mayan languages. They teach Mayan mathematics, culture and history along with Euro-centric math, history and language. I have been there to see classes meeting before, and I can attest that it is a fine school.
Today we agreed to fund the construction of a new classroom at the school, and began conversation about buying some school desks as well. They need 400 of them. One classroom will cost about $2500, money that has been donated primarily through my concerts and John Smith’s, a musician friend who accompanied me here before I left for Australia.
We have many other projects in Guatemala, but this one is really taking root in my heart, partly because I am developing friendships here that go beyond construction projects and budgets. We shared tamales and hot chocolate today after signing our agreement, then I piled into the back of a pick-up truck with six Guatemalan women in traditional clothing to go to the bank and open an account. Three of them will need to be there together to make a withdrawal.
The first bank we visited couldn’t process my US check, and also explained that the women would need copies of their power bills to verify their addresses in order to open an account at any bank. So we went back to the pueblo and they all went to their various houses. I went with Miriam to her house, and it turns out that she operates a daycare there, so I got to play with the kids and see her husband working at his foot loom, weaving a classically stunning Guatemalan tapestry. She found the documents she needed, gave me a bag of apples they had grown, and off we went with the other women to another bank in the city.
We got some stares. I brought a blazer with me for this day, since I was meeting with the mayor and all. Even at not quite six feet tall, I tower over these six women. I’m wearing nearly all black and they are wearing impossibly colorful huipiles, all doubtless hand woven by people they know, or by themselves. We make a strange looking team, for sure, but we are friends.
Jauna Herlinda Yac Salanic was one of the women. She is a community organizer and a women’s leader and lay pastor, having trained with Karla Koll, a Presbyterian mission co-worker and friend of mine. She and Karla came to the US for a month-long tour which only ended this week. While they were in the US they ate dinner in our home, and it was wonderful to see Juana Herlinda again so soon, and here instead of there.
I had hoped that Karla would be at the meeting today, but due to a tragedy that touched her family deeply, she needed to be elsewhere, and I’m glad she was right where she was. I was a bit unsure about having some fairly subtle conversation without any recourse to a translator, but as it turned out, I think we made ourselves understood very well, and negotiated some potentially sticky points with goodwill and clarity.
I was also pleased to find that another organization has donated funds to build three other classrooms, and they are already underway. Still more space is needed, but this year we can only fund one. Perhaps next year we will fund another.
Sincere thanks to each of you who have been a part of this work through contributions. I explained very carefully today at the meeting that this was not my money, but was primarily very small donations that many, many people had contributed. This year also saw our first very large donation, and I’m glad to put those to use as well, but I’m particularly glad to know that so many people are doing a little bit each. That’s what a movement looks like, and it’s how we change the world.
un abrazo fuerte,
Photos to go with this blog are here.