Books, in Guatemala?
27 February 2012

I’m really glad that I don’t have to drive in Guatemala.  Our driver takes us on a road where a bridge collapsed during tropical storm Agatha, two or three years ago, but no one has bothered to rebuild it. On the other side of the river, a truck starts towards the river, showing the water depth to be about one foot. Julio, our expert driver, obviously knows he’ll go through. As I travel in this and other underdeveloped countries, I’ve found that people don’t seem to worry about things like a river crossing. They know a bridge or other infrastructure will not be built any time soon.  They’ll deal with problems when they occur.

The same happens with their educational system. The central government may build schools, but it doesn’t seem to supply the books. A child may show up at school one day, but not the next, if the family’s priorities have changed one way or another. New teachers find themselves assigned to classes they can hardly manage, without prior experience of assisting another, more experienced, teacher.

We’re driving to a couple of small villages to visit schools supported by an organization called Child Aid, with John van Keppel, their national director. Started some 25 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, as a school for deaf children, and then expanded to Guatemala as a developer of libraries in villages where there were no books, it has focused more recently on supporting and developing the human aspect of books: stimulating readers by making the material more accessible through enthusiastic teachers. I started to support their efforts at the end of one of my annual trips to Guatemala. I found Child Aid, read about them, thought they ran an operation worthy of my support. Today, finally, I was about to see it in action.

We stop at a Y intersection to pick up Nancy, who lives in Panajachel and came this way on the “chicken bus,” the name for refurbished school buses given a new life on these rough roads. Nancy is well dressed, as you would expect of a school teacher or administrator in our first world countries, making me self-conscious of my backpacker’s appearance.

Nancy trains and supports the teachers in the region who commit to attending six training sessions over the course of three years. In addition to the new ideas and methodologies they bring back from each one-day class, the teachers receive personal assistance and support from Child Aid’s all-Guatemalan staff (which includes Nancy), plus valuable, directly applicable teaching material. The teachers come of their own volition to perform a better job for their students, and school directors assist them by allowing them to take the day off. Talk about commitment! For most of them, this involves several hours of travel in each direction, on board the notably uncomfortable chicken buses, on roads with potholes and broken bridges.

We arrive at the first school, at the end of a seemingly new uphill street. The school building is a 2-storey concrete block construction, painted in the traditional vivid colours we see around this country (deep reds, ochre yellows, and sky blues). A few kids, at the end of recess, linger to watch us, possibly their first view of actual white people like the ones they’ve seen on television (minus the star factor, of course). After being greeted by the director, we climb the stairs to a kindergarten class which just as lively and colourful as any in the US or Canada.

The teacher, a young woman who may not even be 20, wants to show us how she teaches the concepts of abajo (below) and arriba (above) through the illustrated story of a frog.  She also distributes coloured paper samples so the kids can identify the various colours she mentions in the book, an active way to demonstrate they have understood the meaning of the words they just heard.

On our way to the next class, we see another Child Aid technique in action: bookshelves on wheels, which can be moved around the school where they’ll be accessible to the children.  Schools may not have the storage space for the books, so Child Aid brings them in plastic crates, sets them on the rolling shelves, and voilà! – an open library wherever it’s needed, wherever the children will be. Unlike a bookmobile, it offers focus: it can stay there, establish a presence, invite passersby to browse.

The next class we visit is the sixth grade, where we confuse the teacher, because, as he tries to explain tactfully, we interrupted the beginning of the science period. He quickly puts together a mini session about the differences between fiction and non-fiction. He puts books into a box in the middle of the room and asks teams to pick up a book, discuss among themselves to decide which ones are fiction and which ones are not.

Outside in the courtyard, the director offers us a warm drink in small plastic cups, the same drink they serve the kids every day when the school received it. Some kind of meal substitute, it is; apparently, a necessity when kids may come to school without any breakfast.

We continue our journey to another school, arriving at the end of recess. We’ve been warned: at our sight, the kids swarm around each of us as if we were movie stars. Best of all, they love to have their picture taken and see the results on the back of the digital cameras. The crowd accompanies us up the stairs to the library established and staffed by Child Aid. The librarian, who has been at this job only a few months, tries to create order as the kids unexpectedly invade and pose with books as though saying, “here’s the scene you came to see, and I want to be in it.”  The library is organized according to the Dewey Decimal system, as shown by a chart on the wall, and kids have full access whenever they please. From what I’ve seen so far, this modest library is one of the best in the country.

But it’s the end of recess, and this group leaves the room for the librarian to prepare for an actual class. She reads from a book about a dog hiding under a kid monster’s bed, capturing the kids’ attention away from the visitors and their cameras. I notice that she and the kindergarten teacher carefully mention the title of the book and its author before starting to read.  That’s how I retained the author’s name, Maria Martinez, guessing the book was originally written in Spanish, which turned out to be useful at the end. There was a game with questions about the story, and when nobody could answer the question, “what was the author’s name,” I raised my hand – and won 200 quetzales, on paper (fortunately).

We leave the school hungry for lunch, and decide to go down to Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, one of the natural beauties of Guatemala. The spectacular lake was formed by the collapse of a volcano (a caldera) some 80,000 years ago and has filled with rain water ever since (so the water can reach undesired levels, as happened recently). The view of this vast lake surrounded by high peaks is exceptionally beautiful.

On the way, John becomes curious to see a school in a village built recently to relocate the inhabitants whose entire hillside was swept by the waters from a hurricane. This is part of the story of Lake Atitlan: hurricanes pour water into this immense vase, washing off the slopes.  John is pleased to see there are new buildings for the school, yet he notices the original emergency construction of corrugated metal panels has been moved and rebuilt next to it. A quick peek through the door reveals a classroom occupied by two different levels of students, half facing one way, the other half facing the other way. Two classes in one, so to speak, with no windows and no electricity. The kids (apparently the older ones) seem busy at their desks. The teacher comes out and expresses his thanks and appreciation to John and Child Aid. From what I understand, he came to a training session recently and was pleased with it. We had come unannounced, so he didn’t prepare anything to show us, but his reaction said it all. Helping the teachers will take their students to new levels of learning.

Books, in Guatemala? I saw many of them, aging in the library of the Cooperación Española (funded by the Government of Spain) in Antigua, out of reach of the general population. I visited all the little bookshops in Antigua, all trading books left here by passing tourists, most of them in English. I learned that a few children could be sponsored to buy their own books and materials every year, but without a library, an enthusiastic librarian, and the support of the teachers, how could a child develop curiosity and a taste for learning? I can only think that Child Aid is pointed in the right direction, and running with the right solutions. And how could you resist the smiles on the children’s faces, the eagerness to learn?


Child Aid’s website, with detail of their programs
Centro de formación de la cooperación española en la Antigua Guatemala (in Spanish)

© Guy Tiphane 2012
Photos: Guy Tiphane

Guy Tiphane grew up in Laval and obtained an M.Sc. In Computer Science from Université de Montréal. He joined the founding team of Logitech, first in Switzerland, then in California, to write innovative software and to include users in the design of software and hardware. He obtained an M.A. in English Literature from Notre Dame de Namur University (Belmont, CA), winning the thesis award for his collection of short stories, Heating up the Fog. He lives in Berkeley.


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