Who We Are
Vía 4, 01-00, Zona 4
Edificio Campus Tecnológico
Torre 2, Oficina 1102
Guatemala, Guatemala 01004
P.O. BOX 8643
Boise, ID 83707
I have been volunteering here in Guatemala since February 2010. For my first few months I lived in a small town called San Andreas Itzapa working with a nonprofit called Maya Pedal, building pedal powered machines out of recycled bicycles from the United States and Canada. During the lunch hour, I would often venture into the street and play with the kids that were hanging around the shop. They were always curious about me; who I was, where I was from, and how long I was staying there. Sometimes they would teach me a word or two of Kaqchikel and I’d teach them a word or two of English. After some time I found myself wondering, did these kids go to school?
A couple months later I began volunteering for Semilla Nueva to research the state of the education system in Guatemala. My task was to investigate the feasibility of incorporating environmental education and sustainable agriculture curriculum into Semilla Nueva’s community work and eventually into the broader government education policy. Semilla Nueva saw this as an important task because while kids in rural communities learn the traditional subjects of math and reading, they don’t learn much about agriculture—the basis for their livelihood. I have been working in schools teaching English, interviewing teachers and administrators, and doing online research. This research has opened my eyes to the enormous challenges facing Guatemalans and makes me appreciate how privileged I am to have had the free public education I received in the States.
While on a weekend trip in San Pedro La Laguna, I wandered into a local art gallery and met an older man named Rodrigo. We chatted about this and that, and before long I found out that he had been a primary school teacher for the last 20 years. He said the education situation has improved over the last few years in Guatemala, but he is still only paid about 2000 Quetzales a month ($250 USD). Of this small salary, he usually spends half on teaching supplies and materials, including books and paper that students can’t afford. “Otherwise, many students aren’t able to even come to school” he says. He has to work a separate job as a painter to help bring in money and support his family.
Rodrigo also explained to me that the school in San Pedro was well-built and had enough space for most of its students, but only because it was built and is supported by a US charity, not by the government.
I wondered if Rodrigo’s experience was a more widespread trend or an isolated phenomenon. After doing a little investigation of my own, I found some startling statistics:
These statistics become real as I walk through the markets of Xela and spot 6-10 year old kids selling chiclets (gum), other random plastic trinkets, and see them perusing the streets looking for shoes to shine. At the bus stations I see them combing every bus earning a Quetzal ($.12) here and there selling ice cream or candy. It’s truly heartbreaking to see so many kids working away their youth and losing the chance for even a basic education.
Rural schools are especially hard hit, often receiving the bare minimum from the federal government. Frequently this is little more than a building and pay for teachers, and often rural areas have no school or no teachers. The rural community of Xacana Grande, where three volunteers from Semilla Nueva are working, has a primary school of eight classrooms for grades pre-K-6. Unfortunately it has not been maintained. The plumbing has not worked for about a year and the roof now leaks. In the absence of assistance from the government, the community must keep the building in good repair on its own. The government here only provides a small salary to the teachers that is below subsistence level providing school from 8am-12pm five days a week. Students are responsible for purchasing materials such as pens, notebooks and uniforms. This often is prohibitively expensive for poor rural families preventing many children from attending school.
On the plus side, the Semilla Nueva volunteers living out at Xacana Grande have had success connecting with teachers at the primary school. They recently planted an organic vegetable garden to illustrate agricultural science. To complement the garden they are developing lesson plans and materials about compost and soil health that can be integrated into existing curriculum requirements. The school garden project will help provide the school with additional income and nutritious food while giving students a hands-on way to learn about the science that is the most relevant to their community’s livelihood. Soon I will be living in Xacana Grande, living with a host family, and working to continue these projects after the current volunteers leave. With luck, I hope that I may affect a handful of young minds to think critically about their lives and the future that is in their hands.
Reflecting on the reality I’ve seen here, rural communities have been largely left to fend for themselves. I’m confident, though, that the programs Semilla Nueva is working on can help address this need. By working with local teachers to develop agricultural education through school gardens and other interactive projects, we can help teachers create their own teaching materials and teach by means of a relevant and interesting topic. With luck and determination, these lessons will be duplicated and shared with other communities in the future, affecting the lives of many children in Guatemala.
Aaron Michalson, a recipient of the Christianson Grant from the InterExchange foundation, has been volunteering with Semilla Nueva since May 2010