My Spanish language learning school Pop Wuj (www.pop-wuj.org) was founded in 1992 by five people who wanted to create something different than the for-profit schools that began to proliferate at that time. At last count there were 43 Spanish language schools here in Xela, Guatemala, but Pop Wuj may be the only non-profit cooperative run by teachers. Pop Wuj is now managed by 12 Directors, each one with a different area of responsibility, such as President and Director of the Social Work program, Administrator, Treasurer, Secretary, Director of Academics, Director of the Medical Clinic, Director of the Stove Project, etc. Pop Wuj is not the only school here that operates programs that use volunteers, for several of the other schools also connect language students with volunteer opportunities.
Monday I went with Carmen, President of Pop Wuj and one of the five original founders, to a community on the outskirts of Xela. When we got there we were escorted behind a quasi-car repair shop to the dwellings in back, and then were invited into a room where there were seated 8 women on plastic chairs, as well as about 4 young girls and one baby. Each woman gets 100 quetzales each month (about $12 U.S. dollars) from Pop Wuj to help pay for transportation to Xela for school for their child, and also to buy school supplies, food, etc. However, since most of the families have several kids, there is some sort of sliding scale for multiple children, in other words 100 quetzales for the first child, 90 quetzales for the second child, and so on. Carmen usually goes once a month to dispense the scholarship aid, however she began by apologizing for missing last month since she had a family emergency. After Carmen finished speaking, I was invited to give my prepared presentation on the basics of computing, and on the positives and negatives of using computers. You may not have known that though these indigenous people often live in concrete block homes with dirt floors, they are exposed to computers on a daily basis. For one thing, many of them carry a cell phone (which is kind of a mini computer with an operating language and a keyboard that is used to give the cell phone commands). Also, not only do they see computers every day around them when they are in town (at the bank, in stores, at the dozens of internet cafes here, etc.), but also all of the public schools now have computers that the kids are using. Thus, though the parents may not know how to use a computer, they need to know what their kids are experiencing, and obviously they need to know that there are some risks with their kids surfing the internet, risks associated with excessive computer use, etc. I must admit that I was a bit surprised to see a laptop on a bedside table in the room when Carmen and I walked in, evidently the whole community pitched in to buy the laptop for everyone´s use. As a result, judging by the applause I received after my short presentation, I think they were very appreciative of the information I shared with them. It is interesting because I have never ventured too far into the weeds of computer technology, however to this small community of indigenous people I am perceived as an expert.
Tuesday Carmen, two indigenous women who work at the school, and I went to interview a woman to see if she qualifies to receive a concrete block stove to be built by the Pop Wuj stove project team, the school has built several hundred of these stoves over the years in the homes of indigenous families. Many thousands of these homes still use an open pit fire in their home to cook meals, with no way other gapz between the wall and the metal roof to release the smoke outside. Over 60% of Guatemaltecos burn wood to cook meals. Thus, over time the walls of the “kitchen” become caked with soot, there is a high incidence of respiratory disease in these communities, and everyone in the family risks getting burned by flames or embers at cooking time … especially the small children who wander about. Pop Wuj builds a concrete block stove with a metal plancha top that also includes an exhaust pipe, not only does the exhaust pipe send the smoke outside, but the stove is 40% more fuel efficient (thus saving them money and saving the forests from being decimated), and the new stoves retain heat in the winter months (it never snows here, but it can be rather chilly on Winter nights). To determine if this lady qualifies to have a stove built for her (which was a no-brainer in my opinion), we ran through a series of questions to determine her need. My job on this day was to ask all the questions on the form while Carmen took notes, questions such as how many kids does she have, how old is each child, is each child in school or working, what is the name, educational background, occupation, etc. for both mom and dad (too often the dad has left to try to immigrate illegally to the U.S.), has anyone in the house been burned by the current stove (the answer to that was yes, but not seriously), and lastly why do you want a stove. Not only was the cooking space for this woman caked with soot, she has 8 children living in the home raging in age from 9 to 22 (and two children had died, one at age of 4 and the other at age of 9). She is 44 years old, but she looks like she is twenty years older, the only thing that gives away the fact that she is not older is that her hair is still jet black with no gray whatsoever. It is really difficult to describe the living conditions in this home, I really have nothing to compare it to, but it definitely seems third world poor. All of the floors are dirt (whereas in other indigenous homes there are at least concrete floors in one or two bedrooms). While I was asking the questions, 2-3 chickens were wandering about in the room. Life sure seems hard for this family. Then we went to the home of the cleaning lady for the school, a bit nicer home in light of the fact that students of Pop Wuj over the last 15 years have constructed 75% of this home. A few steps outside of the side entrance into the home compound there were two pens, one containing 2 turkeys and 6 chickens cramped together almost standing shoulder to shoulder, and beside that pen was a small pigpen about 5 feet by 5 feet with a pig in it, and there was a baby pig roaming about. This indigenous family actually lives pretty well, they had concrete floors, a newer corrugated metal roof, and they seemed to have enough food available. Even so, the poverty here is severe, but I suppose that if that is all you have ever known than perhaps it is more tolerable. I don ‘t know.
Wednesday I went with the mobile medical clinic operated by Pop Wuj to a small indigenous village about an hour´s drive from Xela. The school had rented a van to transport us, including the dentist who does contract work, a volunteer pediatrician from the States who is here for 6 months, 4 students from the States (two in med school, 1 RN, and 1 in nursing school), Carmen and her husband Roney (who oversees the clinic), and me. The “pharmacy” we brought was a 4 drawer plastic filing cabinet filled with various meds, the dentist worked in one room of the concrete block house, the two medical school students received patients in another room, and the 2 nurses served on the frontline processing new arrivals while asking a bunch of questions and checking vital signs, etc. Gradually people from the community started streaming into the clinic, and waited their turn in the “waiting room” on plastic chairs set up on the dirt floor of the courtyard outside someone´s home. You may wonder what I was doing there … well, at some point I did get to work in the ¨pharmacy¨and was assigned the task of cutting pills in half; afterward, the pediatrician agreed that I could now put “pharmacy assistant” on my resume. But we also gathered everyone in the waiting room around me on plastic chairs under a shade tree to hear my presentation on the positives and negatives of using computers. One by one someone would hear their name called and leave my presentation to go see the doctor and/or dentist, and then return to the circle at the same time someone else was called out to get checked. Then Carmen did her monthly scholarship gig, dispensing 100 quetzales per child (or less) to the mothers.
Thursday was a busy day as well, and what makes each day so busy is that I do the social work program in the morning, and then in the afternoon I have Spanish school for 4-5 hours until about 6:00 P.M. After school I check email, go home to have our late dinner (sometimes as late as 8:00 PM), and generally fall fast asleep soon afterwards. Thursday I went with Carmen, with the pediatrician, and with a new medical student to the daycare facility Guardería that Pop Wuj funds. The doctors measured the height of each kid, checked their weight, gave each vitamins as well as anti-parasite medicine, and checked each for lice. (Part of the reason we made the trip is that it was reported that several of the kids had lice, so they were also dispensing special shampoo). Then each kid came to me and I recorded their name, birthdate, and age … in part to have a record of when to celebrate the kids´ birthdays, usually at a group party 3 times a year. There are a total of 40 kids in the program at Guardería, ranging in age from 3 to 15. Carmen has asked me to coordinate the school year ending party for them Tuesday of next week … including piñatas, treats, and what not.
Friday Carmen and I went back to Guardería, which is the third time I have been there. Although it is only 20 minutes or so from the school, It is quite an adventure getting there … the paved roads end and the pot-hole filed dirt roads begin, made even worse this year by all the rain in recent months which came streaming down off the mountain creating big gulches in the road that are too deep to drive over. Also, in spite of the holes, Carmen tends to drive as fast as she can, which makes the trip there a bone-jarring adventure. Honestly, I don´t know how the shocks on her car last even a month. When we arrived and stepped outside the car we could hear the unmistakeable sound of a tire going flat, there was a big ol´nail in the right rear tire. So, with the help of a neighbor who had a jack, we first fixed the tire. Then I went inside and gave my presentation on computers, and then Carmen went through the monthly dispensing of scholarship money to all the mothers and talked at length about hygeine, etc. I was in the other room hanging out with the kids while Carmen was having her chat with the 15 or so ladies, and then just before we were about to leave one of the workers at the day care center brought me her laptop that was disabled by a virus, so I spent a long time with that … first I had to figure out how to boot up in safe mode while reading the instructions in Spanish, then I did a full system restore back to a date about 3 months ago (because they thought the virus hit them about 6 weeks ago), and I had to wait for quite a long time for that program to run (since the laptop was much older and slower) … and voila, it appeared to boot up normally albeit without 3-4 programs they had installed in the last 3 months (one of which was a virus protection program installed after the problem was discovered). Before I did the system restore I tried to explain in Spanish what I felt we needed to do, and that some of the recently installed programs would be deleted, but she had no clue what I was talking about and so she pulled over an 11 year old for me to consult with. I explained everything to him as well, and he basically just kept nodding his head … so I figured, okay we are good to go!
So there you have it, this has been my life here in Xela for the last week. The school actually asked me to go on a stove building project this morning, Saturday, but I had to say no … it has been an exhausting week, and today I need to do laundry and catch up on a bunch of other things. And tomorrow I am going on an all-day trip with one of the Spanish teachers and 5 other students to an 18,000 acre coffee plantation, and it just happens to be harvest time so it should be very interesting.
Love to you all from Sheri and I, and if I may speak for the citizens here as well, love from all Guatemaltecos.