Monday, July 26, 2021

Surprise and Inspiration in Guatemala

     I spent a brain-bending and heart-shaking couple of weeks in prepandemic NW Guatemala, February 2020, at the Maya Jaguar Educational Center (MJ). The school is an outreach of Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala (AAV). This singular organization has a dizzying but beautiful vision of restoring the Maya to self-sufficiency and self-respect through excellent education and health-giving nutrition. My time there was at once fascinating, frustrating, frightening, fun, and inspirational. 

Where is the Adopt-A-Village school?

The campus crowns a mountaintop in remote and rugged NW Guatemala an hour from the nearest village—and three full travel days from the airport in Guatemala City. It is close to the Mexican border. This aerial view includes some of the 200 acres of pristine rainforest upon which the campus has evolved for over three decades. Pristine because Founder/President Frances Dixon fenced the property and installed a locked gate at the only entry, saving the rainforest from the fate of the surrounding area where coffee plantations, cardamom fields, and wood gathering have all but destroyed the natural landscape.  

She wanted students to learn in a natural environment filled with bird songs and rainforest fragrances. Classrooms and administration buildings are on the right side of the photo, along with teachers' cabins. On the left, boys' cabins, the girls' dorm, a cafeteria/kitchen, numerous raised-bed gardens, rainwater collection tanks, outhouses, greenhouses, and a coop with 50-some chickens. 

The school's prized Toyota 4WD pick-up works as hard as any student. A driver picks up students at meeting points on roads to deliver them to the campus, where they will study for 18 consecutive days before going back to their villages for 10-12 days. In the meantime, the truck is in continuous use doing necessary bumpy and long trips to school and village operations. The truck must be replaced every two years!

Education on the Mountain

 Learning is a life-altering practice at Maya Jaguar (MJ). Although having a visitor on campus is unusual, students paid rapt attention to their biology teacher. These are older students who accept that the work they're doing in two years requires four years in public schools.

MJ's curriculum significantly surpasses educational standards established by the Guatemalan government. Regardless, these teens are committed to an education that can deliver them from poverty and servitude. So far, graduates have become nurses, teachers, and computer experts, rather than life-long field workers and 14-year-old mothers. 

 This group may look rowdy, but it's not. I was a wacky stranger encouraging     them to smile and wave for the camera as they arrived on campus for 18 days.   

Eighteen consecutive days!? Yes. Then back for 10-12 days in villages helping their parents, who initially were reluctant to release their hard-working teens for days on end. A compromise was reached; students are released to study 18 days (without a break) at MJ then return to their often distant (between a one-hour and 10-hour drive) to help the family in the coffee and cardamom fields, fetch water, gather wood, tend cooking fires, watch younger children. On and on it goes. Endless work. The same is true at the school, except the focus is on academics, plus a couple hours of chores. They rise at 5:30 a.m. and lights out at 10 p.m. 

You'd never know that the Maya Jaguar students were (or had been) disadvantaged. If I could make but one remark about the school's boarding students? 

They are the hardest-working teenagers I've ever met and the most cheerful, polite, and unjaded. And well-groomed.

Vidalia Marli Ortiz Domingo is one of them. She's wearing red in the photo below. PK and I help sponsor her education. Click here for information about donating or sponsoring.

This was Vidalia's first day at school and may have been the first time she'd slept in a sturdy building with wooden floors, flush toilets, and sinks with running water just down the hall. The dorm also has limited generator-produced electricity, but lights are on until 10 during evening study time in a commons room. Each student is supplied a solar-powered flashlight if further illumination is required. 

Vidalia and I had commonalities. Neither of us wore the traditional colorful embroidered Guatemalan clothing sported by the two other girls pictured. Me? I wore standard USA jeans and a T-shirt covered by a shawl. Plus, my usual hide-horrible-hair bandana. Vidalia wore used clothing, a boy's shirt, a plain navy skirt, and ragged ill-fitting flip-flops. She wore the same things every day. Not that any student arrived with a bag crammed with outfits. 

Other things in common? The day we arrived on campus was the first either of us had seen what is officially called the Maya Education and Developmental Center, a place I'd envisioned and longed to visit during years of volunteering for AAV.

Also, we both sucked at speaking Spanish. 

Vidalia is a native of Guatemala, a Latin American country, and she can't speak Spanish? Well, no. As a U.S. citizen attending public schools, I had more opportunities than she did to learn Spanish. Which I neglected to do, much to my regret. 

Why was Vidalia, or any other Maya youth entering the school, unable to speak the national language?

Like all the school's students, Vidalia grew up in a village speaking only Mam, one of three Mayan dialects in the area. The free public schools available to villagers do not teach the Spanish language, and teachers, by all accounts, rarely show up. Few Maya children make it through sixth grade. If they do, families must pay for mandatory school uniforms for junior and high school, which is out of the question. So Maya kids are done with any hope of schooling past age 12. Into the fields, they go. And for too many girls, on to early childbearing. Most drop out by grade three.

Learning Spanish is the first order of business and Vidalia looks as perplexed as the other newbies experiencing their initial Spanish language lesson. All classes are taught in Spanish. Talk about immersion!

It turns out that Vidalia was fortunate to be at MJ at all. Her family, more destitute than most, was in crisis. Her father had been forced off a small plot of land he believed he'd purchased with a handshake years ago. Handshake deals are common in villages where illiteracy is rampant. With scant notice, his impoverished family, including three children, was forced to vacate. He pleaded with AAV founder and president Frances Dixon to delay Vidalia's school start so the girl could help the family relocate. 

Frances said absolutely not. Not much trumps a child's needs in her view, especially a girl's urgency to be present on her first day of a real education. Frances will go off big time on the fate of uneducated indigenous females, including early childbearing, domestic violence, and life-long servitude. She's seen it all.

But Frances has a great big heart. Instead, she arranged temporary help for the family. Vidalia arrived with other students in time for her first day which included three nutritious meals packed with veggies, beans, and flavor.

           Food Matters on the Mountain

Every meal at MJ is a nutritional powerhouse. Everything on the plate was grown on campus or AAV's Educational Farm two hours distant. Every meal is homemade, and each vegetable is chopped by students during their 6 a.m. rotating chores. Every morsel is eaten, as I learned the hard way when I was late to dinner. Once.

The nutrient-packed meals are integral to AAV's mission. According to UNESCO and USAID, the Huehuetenango Department (state), where AAV is located, is the sixth-worst in the world for chronic child malnutrition, with 70 percent of young children stunted and malnourished in many villages. AAV is changing that statistic, which likely worsened during
the pandemic and the terrible storms and floods of 2020.

Below, Frances consults with master gardener Pasqual and driver Juan, not far from student housing. The raised beds and greenhouses are interspersed with boys' cabins and the girl's dorm. Every student is engaged in organic gardening.

A certificate of Organic Gardening is awarded to graduates, in addition to an academic diploma and a certificate of computer science. Perhaps best of all, students carry horticultural knowledge back to their home villages where gardens are becoming the norm. (Adult villagers may also benefit from gardening instruction at AAV's Educational Farm.)

A gardener myself, I was delighted to see all this cultivation and witness students caring for plants, including a young man using his solar flashlight to weed tomatoes around sunrise one morning. All students perform chores daily, including the hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. No sleeping in for these teens.

Washing your own dishes after a meal and then returning them to the kitchen to dry is just what you do. See Vidalia learning the ropes?  A cook employee takes responsibility for the large pots required to feed 50+ people, but students are assigned to other kitchen chores, including cleaning. These are but three of 40 rainwater tanks on campus. 

Please click the link and enjoy.

         Next up - Mountain education thrives during the Pandemic. Visiting Vidalia.