Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Note to Self

“Nevertheless, all of us working in development must remember that our job is not to become heroes, but to make heroes out of the people with whom we are working.  Some gratitude will always be forthcoming, but when things are as they should be, the people will mainly be thanking each other.”
--Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement by Roland Bunch

I like this quote. I strive to remember it in my work. I try to get out of the way, and help the people I work with direct their own development. However, you can't empower someone who isn't interested in what you have to offer.    

It's all in the balance. Try to instill enthusiasm, but be careful to choose your audience well.  

In the five months I've been here, I've seen little interest or motivation from the women who invited me here to begin with. Maybe that will change, and if it does I'll be thrilled to spend more time with them.  In the meantime...   

I think it's time I find a new audience.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Half step forward, Full step back.

Greenhouses.  Tomatoes.  Selling!  Profit!

I have been hearing about these things as a project for my site since before I arrived. The women in the womens group that invited me here had tried growing tomatoes and peppers with previous volunteers, but they just didn't thrive. Not terribly surprising, given that we're at over 8,000 feet in elevation. Somewhere around the middle of 2010, someone suggested to them that maybe if they built greenhouses they could get some real growth going. Keep the heat in, help the sun loving nightshade cousins toast their toes a little and hopefully they could produce some tasty crops to eat and sell.

When I arrived in November, we had a meeting to introduce me to the women. I asked for patience as I got to know them all, and also for input on what projects they might like to work on. The only thing any of them volunteered was growing tomatoes in greenhouses.

Through November and December I went to a few houses to help people plant radishes and carrots, and learn my way around. Mostly, though, there wasn't any work to do because of holidays, and the fact that my counterpart was on vacation from her work at school (and wanted to be on vacation from work with the women, too).

In mid January things got rolling at school, so we started having a few meetings with the women about greenhouses. I went to the city to check out prices on materials. We tried to get a sense of who was committed to the project so we could get going on a trial run.

Throughout all the meetings we played a game of telephone through my counterpart, who shuttled the information from K'iche' to Spanish and back again so I could communicate with the women. Well, somewhere in the game (as often happens) part of the message got lost.

Initially we had over 15 women who wanted to sign on to the project. They each thought they could pony up the Q50 (about $6.25) required to purchase a shared roll of the UV resistant plastic that would hold up for at least a few years on their greenhouse. In mid February we had a meeting to select which greenhouse size and design they wanted to use. I walked them through the costs of production I'd found based on the material prices and quantities I'd found for six different size and shaped greenhouses, ranging from Q200 to over Q500.  The women were quiet.

I had thought I had been very clear about the fact that the plastic was just one of many costs in making the greenhouse. However, they hadn't considered that purchasing materials to build a frame, to make supports for the tomatoes, and to buy the tomato seedlings would add up to much more than the Q50 they'd discussed with their husbands to cover the plastic. Although I had emphasized how much more cost effective it is to team up to make one or several larger greenhouse rather than build many, many smaller ones, that alternative doesn't appeal to them. My suggestion of making very small shelter pegged to the side of their houses to try growing just for consumption and not for sale this first year wasn't popular either.

Every woman chose to withdraw from the project. Perhaps in the future when they can save up, they said. It seems more likely to me that we would need to find some source of outside funding for them to be able to build much.

If they are unable to commit more than Q50 to the project, their household budgets are even tighter than I imagined.  My host family spends Q300 a week on groceries.  They are better off than many of the women in the group, but even so, Q50 is not a huge sum of money in Guatemala. Whether from lack of motivation or lack of means, the greenhouses aren't going forward any time soon.

Honestly, I was both disappointed and relieved. Working on such a tangible project is rewarding because you can see your progress as you build the structures.  On the other hand, I was nervous about making our first project together something that was making them stretch financially, when we didn't know each other well. Building 15 or more greenhouses and planting tomatoes in all of them was asking for trouble as far as I was concerned. Tomatoes are disease prone, for one thing. For another, I don't know how much these women are willing or able to commit to caring for their crops. They wanted to sell them for income, but this is a small town. If they each had a successful crop coming ripe at the same time they likely would have flooded the local market and not made as much profit as they dreamed.

So, four months into site we had spent a lot of time winding up, only to decide not to throw our pitch after all. To mix my metaphors, we're going back to square one. Time to shelve this idea and check out others. Maybe we'll come back around to this one down the road. Maybe not.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Guatemalan Cuisine: Eggs and Tomatoes

The drama of Guatemalan Cuisine is like an ensemble cast miniseries. The story is mostly about the ongoing chattering and even bickering of the characters, but it's nice to have a little romance on the sidelines to keep things interesting. Eggs and Tomatoes might be considered the B plot romance. They often come as a pair, and add substance and flavor to any episode/meal in which they appear. They can each take on many forms, and can push a meal over from being a bit ho hum and into pretty satisfying territory.

Tomatoes here aren't really eaten fresh (well, almost nothing is, actually).  They usually make their appearance in chirmol, a tomato based salsa that is made and consumed for each meal -- it's not purchased, and it's not stored.  The process begins by roasting a handful of tomatoes, sometimes on the comal where tortillas are cooked, sometimes in the coals of a fire.  They are peeled and then mashed.  Lime and Cilantro are pretty obligatory ingredients, and sometimes a bit of onion or garlic sneaks its way in as well (although Guatemalans don't seem to care for garlic all that much).  It's not a spicy dish, it just adds some moisture and tang to whatever it's served over.  Which, can be most anything.  Eggs, dobladas or empanadas, beans, rice, potatoes, any of the staples.

These tomatoes went into the coals after cooking on an open fire out in the courtyard.

Here's my machucador for mashing tomatoes, and other sauces.

Eggs make an appearance on Guatemalan tables far more frequently than does meat.  In eating with my host families during training and the first few months at site, I probably ate at least one egg a day.  Sometimes it was an egg cooked in soup for dinner.  Sometimes a scrambled egg with tomatoes and onions thrown in for breakfast.  Sometimes a fried egg with chirmol on top, accompanied by black beans and tortillas.

My favorite egg dish quickly became verduras envueltas (wrapped veggies).  My training host mother would whip this out for a lunch or dinner probably once a week, and I always had to hold back from taking a third helping.  It's more or less like a vegetable tempura, and she did it with green beans, cauliflower, and broccoli.  She separated the egg yolk from the whites, and used her electric beater to whip the whites until they were stiff.  Then she added the yolk back in and kept whipping it, so it was still fluffy but had the whole egg there.  Each hunk of cauliflower (or handful of greenbeans) was dipped in the eggy froth and fried in the slightly greased pan.  Once cooked, it was served with (you guessed it), chirmol on top, and on lucky days, a bit of queso fresco crumbled and sprinkled on top.

My site host family has "huevo de comal" in which they beat an egg, add cornflour, and then cook it on the comal as they would a tortilla.  It comes out somewhere between a pancake and a tortilla, and they serve it with chirmol as well.  And, of course, tortillas.

I get my eggs from the cooperative shop nearby;
sometimes brown, sometimes white, always loose in a bag.  

Now that I'm cooking for myself, I still use an egg or two a day.  I'd be concerned about cholesterol, but since I don't really eat dairy or meat in my site, I figure I'm probably not in too bad of shape.  I do a lot of eggs, beans, and tortillas meals, just like I had with my host families.  I haven't mastered how to make chirmol well, but I'm getting there.  I also have been breaking out some recipes from home as well.  I make corn crepes/tortillas about once a week, french toast when I decide to splurge on some bread, and I'm thinking about some egg salad sandwiches soon, too.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Turns out today is Mardi Gras, which is called Carnival here.  Totally snuck up on me.  The town as a whole doesn't do much, but the kids got a party at school.  Forgetting the day, I breakfasted, showered, did some quick laundry, and headed to the health post to see if any of the women in my group were around to buy veggie seeds.  Ela and Elkin came by to collect me, so I could see the party at school.

We went in to the large school courtyard and there appeared to be a strange fusion of Halloween, Holi (the color festival in India), and Easter going on.

Kids were dressed up in costumes everywhere, the girls tended toward sparkles and fairy wings (both purchased and home made), while the boys tended toward footy pajamas with a Spiderman mask.  Never mind that the footy pajamas were generally covered in dolphins or cows jumping over moons.  There was a smattering of animals... dogs, tigers, and such.  Elkin proudly sported a new Sportacus costume from Lazy Town, one of his favorite TV shows.  There were a few clowns running around (again, onesies of varying colors, topped with a classic rainbow wig), and Elkin did NOT like them.  Hendrick started out running around in a full on Batman costume, but tired of that and stripped down to the Ben 10 outfit he was wearing underneath.  Pretty sure that was his pajamas, actually.

There was colored powder and confetti everywhere.  General chaos reigned, as kids, parents, and teachers alike ran about ambushing one another with their colorful ammunition.  At first I only saw them with baggies of confetti and grabbing piles up from the floor.  Soon, I noticed the were also using cascarones (colored eggs shells filled with confetti and then closed with tissue paper).  One girl near me sort of shyly sprinkled some confetti on my head, smiling, but was too timid to throw it with much gusto.  It didn't seem to be a terribly religious celebration, but they certainly went into it with enthusiasm!  Not too different from Fat Tuesdays elsewhere, I suppose.

One teacher had a microphone and was talking over the madness trying to get just the first and second year students out in the middle of the courtyard.  Eventually most of them turned up to give their "presentation" of a dance.  Clearly nothing in particular had been planned because when they turned on the music, the kids all sort of hopped around in a mob.  Each successive grade came out as well, taking their turns.  Those not dancing were too busy attacking one another and eating snacks to pay attention.  

I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle, and wondering whether I could get any ammunition of my own when I saw a flurry of movement to my left and I was hit squarely with an egg.  To my dismay, this was not one of the confetti filled eggs, but a fully raw egg, leaving me with white and yolk dripping down my face, hair, and shoulder, into my pockets and onto my feet. Although I hadn't been the intended target, I definitely got the full brunt of the projectile.  The girl next to me (who I think was meant to be the recipient) was horrified, and the assailant was nowhere to be seen.

So, my festivities were cut short.  I don't do that well with sticky, so I excused myself to wash my face, hair, and clothing for the second time that day.  I had to chuckle as I walked home, with egg seeping through my sweater and onto my t-shirt beneath.  Whoever threw that egg is going to have a good story to tell his buddies!

I didn't have my camera along, so I took some shots of of the patojos (kids) when they got home after I had cleaned up.  Even though Fernando and Elkin are not old enough for school, they were quick to embrace the festivities.  And, why take the costume off once at home?  Play time!!

Elkin is announcing something very important.  No idea what he said.


Hendrick didn't want to be in the picture, but he couldn't stand that they were posing "wrong" so came to fix them up.

Much better.  Apparently.

Monday, March 7, 2011

School Daze: Junta Directiva

A Junta Directiva is like a board of directors. Among the first things I saw in my first week of observation in school was the process of electing the Junta for each grade in the Básico school (which was also each classroom, essentially a student council).

Political geek that I am, their method of voting was curious to me. The kids shouted out names of classmates in a verbal nomination process. No one needed to second the motion; say a name and it gets on the board. Then each person nominated was written on the board and numbered. As soon as there were as many nominees as positions on the Junta, nominations stopped.

One student went around the room asking each classmate to vote verbally, and then would call out the number across the room for another person to tally on the board. They were told not to call out names, just numbers. But since the whole room is watching and listening, it’s not like that creates any secrecy. It’s a time consuming process as well. The person with the most votes becomes President, the next gets VP, then Secretary, Vice Secretary, Treasurer, Vice Treasurer, and after that Delegates. There was no sense of tailoring the person nominated to the role... they just went straight down the line of titles. During a parents meeting later, the parent Junta Directiva (I think something like the PTA) was chosen the same way.  

Why it's done this way, I don't know. They could easily have done a show of hands for each nominee and counted. They could have asked people to write their preferences on a slip of paper. They could have dropped beans into a jar for their preferred candidate. As it is, it means that those voting toward the end of the process can see who is ahead. It means everyone knows who is voting for who. Perhaps it's something about valuing each person's input that they vote one at a time? Perhaps it's important to vote publicly? But if that's true, why use the numbers? Clearly (and per usual), I have more questions than answers.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

School Daze: Getting Started

In the middle of January, school started. Ela works with Junior High aged kids in the next town over. I’ve more or less agreed to do team teaching with her. I was particularly interested in helping out with the Home Ec class as a means to teach nutrition, which fits right into my program of Food Security. On the first day of school I also said I would give one afternoon a week to meet with whoever was chosen to teach English, since the person who had taught English last year took a different job and was not going to be replaced. None of the other teachers speak English. So, I planned to work with three age groups on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Week I:

On the first day of school, a Monday, we had an all school assembly. Everyone crammed into a classroom to review the rules and introduce the teachers (including yours truly). The kids were told not to come on Tuesday, so the teachers could get things straightened out. By that I mean deciding on a course schedule and which teachers would teach each subject. Apparently teacher planning days before the school year begins is not a norm here.

The next day some Mayan Justice was handed down on an apprehended thief (in this case, just some public shaming). So, the teachers went to watch the spectacle.

On Wednesday there was still no schedule, so they went by last year's schedule. Theoretically. They were doing it by memory, and not everyone's memory lined up. Ela and I used the day to do introductions with the kids. She already knew most of them, but they each stood up and said their name for my benefit. Generally they were quiet and didn't enunciate much, sometimes talking from behind their hand. Side conversations were rampant with the other kids, leaving me unable to distinguish 80% of the names, so Ela repeated each name loudly and clearly afterward. In the end it felt a little futile, since my mind is not a steal trap for names after hearing them once and it took a lot of time. On the other hand, we had nothing planned for the class period, so…

After all the names, Ela gave a little monologue of her advice for the kids as the year starts. She lamented the attrition rate. Of 36 kids from 2nd Básico last year, 20 advanced to 3rd. Of the 76 from 1st last year, about 45 made it into 2nd. Some of this is drop outs, some is people being held back to repeat a year. There were also some new faces, so I imagine others chose to go to a different school, since there were some transfer kids coming in. 

Next she warned them against romance, since apparently the congress is considering outawing noviazgo (dating) in the schools, with expulsion as the consequences. How all this is defined or enforced seems unclear. Regardless of whether that ever makes it onto the books, she blames early marriage for a lot of the attrition, and laid on a heavy guilt trip about how many hours their parents work in the sun to afford to send their kids to school.

Finally, she forbid the kids from speaking K’iche’ in class. Anyone caught speaking K’iche’ will have to write lines (in Spanish) as punishment. On the one hand, I get that they’ll never get good at Spanish if they’re not forced to use it consistently (that’s how any foreign language goes). On the other hand, part of me cringed as she told them that K’iche’ is fine at home but it will never get them anywhere in life and will only lead to discrimination against them. How true that is, I don’t claim to know, but it made me think of the many languages already lost around the world and mourn a little.  

Week II:

Ela had volunteered to teach English, and rearranged the schedule so most of the English classes would be on Mondays and Wednesdays when I would be there anyway. That would be fine, except it means I miss out on the bulk of Home Ec classes, which had been switched to Tuesdays (when I take K’iche’ and cannot get to the school). 

Ela and I only work Monday-Wednesday, so when we arrived on the next Monday, we still didn't know who we would be teaching at what times.  Apparently there was no way to communicate that to us between Thursday and Monday.  (Cell phones?  Anyone?)  As we looked at the schedule, it became clear we were scheduled in multiple places simultaneously.  We pointed the issue out, and it was resolved the following week.

Monday, we made things up on the spot in the classrooms, because we hadn't known who, what, or when we would be teaching. Not all the kids had desks, so we lost some class periods looking around for seating in storage, cleaning it off, and getting it into the classroom. We also spent some time electing the Junta Directiva (student council) for each grade.

Week III and Beyond:

By the third week, things were settling into a rhythm, of a sort. At least we started in on content.

The school didn’t know when exams would be or when each quarter would begin and end (apparently that's decided at a national level). Even if Ela been interested in sitting down with me for long range planning, it would have been a challenge. 

We did a diagnostic quiz on the English level of the kids, and the 3rd year and 2nd year students didn't know anything from the previous years' curriculum, so we started everyone on the first year stuff. Home Ec consisted of dictation.  

My inner camp counselor was screaming to get these kids out of their desks and doing activities. Happily, Ela is excited to work actual cooking into Home Ec, and we made Jam last week. One small step, but a good one. Despite my best intentions not to be sucked into actually being the English teacher and making sure to just provide support, I'm essentially taking over that class on the days I'm there. We'll see how well I can ease back out of that, and if it's worth the effort. I learned yesterday that exams for the quarter are probably only two weeks away, so we'd best figure out what we can test the kids on.

I love having scheduled things to do each week. I love working with kids again. My direct communication skills are being challenged and honed as I negotiate just what my role will be.  I am learning tons about how the education system works here, and while I see many hurdles, I am glad this is becoming part of my daily work.  

Saturday, March 5, 2011

School Daze: Some Context

I have been observing and beginning to help teach classes in the public Básico school in the next town over (7th-9th grade age kids). Before getting to my role, here are some things that stuck out at me about how the day to day in this school works. 

These kids have 9 class periods a day, half and hour each. They take 15 subjects. They are taking all their courses in Spanish, although most speak K'iche' in their home. With class sizes of over 50 kids, a good portion of each class period is taken by calling attendance.  

Classes are regularly cancelled. Sometimes for official reasons -- Valentine's Day, or an assembly for the parents. Other times because the teacher just doesn't show. Maybe he wanted to run an errand. Maybe she didn't like being scheduled for classes late in the day. It happens with alarming frequency. The students have no text books. There is no budget for worksheets, so any photocopies come out of a teachers pocket (I haven't seen anyone ponying up for that).  

Many classes consist of a teacher dictating out of their single textbook, while the kids write what they hear verbatim in three colors of pen, coded for Title, Subtitle and Body of the text. The kid’s heads move in synchronized waves as they look up at the teacher and down at their papers. Self directed activities are all but unheard of, and I have yet to see a student speak up to ask for clarification (even when it's clear the bulk of the kids are confused). It appears that when homework is given, it is graded on a pass/fail basis. If you have something to show (even if it's completely wrong), you get the points. If you don't, you get a zero. Homework is graded during class, calling the students up during attendance, making it common to teach no new material on days that homework is due.

On the other hand, the teachers haven't yet been paid and have been working for approaching two months.  It's harder to fault them for laxness when they're working for free thus far.  I will not be surprised if there demonstrations or strikes on the horizon.

Friday, March 4, 2011





Wet soil. 
Add straw.
Mix well.
Pack into form.
Repeat ad nauseum.

Let sit 5-10 days, varies with weather.