It's a long stretch from February to June, and the silence of the Lichutam blog which the spans over that period has been equally long.
Since the last blog post, a lot has changed. For a start, the team has been entirely renewed: Nicoline, Kinga and Michel said their goodbyes to Mercedes some four months ago, and the new volunteers, Vittoria and myself (Katerina) only came at the end of April. This is part of the reason why the communication on this blog has not been functionning all that smoothly since then. It appears that the Lichutam tradition up until now has been for previous volunteers to post a little welcome note to introduce the new recruits. But in our case, we arrived to an empty house two and a half months after the last of the volunteers left, and had to make do with a self-welcome! Luckily enough, in our second week Nicoline, who was still in Guatemala, found the time to come back to El Polochic for 5 days and give us a much needed and much appreciated crash course on how to survive in Nueva Mercedes wilderness. :)
The idea of coming here and taking things over after a two months gap was somewhat unsettling: would the uninhabited volunteer's house be overgrown with vegetation and swarming with insects and forest creatures who will have had the time to nest there in the absence of humans? Would the long break weaken Lichutam's connection with the community? Were the kids at school still eagerly waiting for new volunteers to arrive? It turns out our fears were totally groundless. The house was in a perfect condition (only had to kick out one cheeky snake sleeping under a dusty cardboard box in the corner of the living room!), the teachers and the kids opened their doors for us at the primary school, and from the very first day the question that we get asked the most is "Hoy, computación a las tres?" meaning "Will there be afternoon activities today at 3PM?". Nothing seemed to be lost, and no bond broken. We came into a community which seemed genuinely happy to have Lichutam back.
For the first two weeks, despite a thorough introduction and everyday interaction with the kids who ask us to repeat our names every ten minutes or so, every time we passed by a house in the village, we heard children's excited voices shout "Kinga! Nicolina! Kinga! Nicolina!". To me, that is an unmistakable sign that the previous team left a real long-lasting impression in Mercedes people's hearts and minds. This, the "actividades a las tres" engraved in the kid's memories, and the fact that for the vast majority of Mercedians the name "Lichutam" needs no further explanation makes us aware of the real legacy that has been left behind by previous generations of volunteers. A legacy that we come to inherit, and that we could not be more grateful for.
Since our arrival at the end of April, much has been done to honour that legacy and to set the wheels of Li Ch'utam back in motion. We started by taking up the 5 backbone projects from where the last volunteer team had left them.
First and foremost, supporting teachers in Nueva Mercedes primary school during their morning lessons. Following the explicit desire of the teachers, we gave our attention to the lower grades (1st and 2nd) which are those who require the most care. After all, acquiring numeracy and literacy skills is the unquestionable foundation of education without which a pupil cannot proceed to the next level.
Secondly, extracurricular afternoon activities with all those children who ask us everyday "Hoy, computación a las tres?". If truth be told, this has turned out much more challenging than we expected: with an unpredictable number of kids who come every day, of all age categories spanning all 6 grades, it is mpossible to plan classes out properly. Most of the time, we ended up with an unmanageable number of hyperactive children zooming around the classroom or the field in desperate search of our individual attention. Even sitting them down or quitening them up to explain the rules of the game we were about to play required a Herculean effort. We figured out very soon that imposing European/Western classroom discipline on these kids was like trying to teach horses to juggle with coconuts.
And we gave up. Chaos it is! If we can only occupy 10 children at a time, while the others run around playing with their classmates, so be it! If we have to individually repeat the same information to every single child who didn't listen to instructions (so, all, basically), so be it! Patience, patience and more patience, my friends, that is the only magic formula... Having said that, the amazing thing about these children is that once they have your attention, they will absorb anything and evertyhing you teach them. They are impatient but also eager to learn, they are excessively energetic but will put their heart into any game that you propose to them. They want to be with us. They want to play with us, they want to learn things from us. And that is a delightful and fufilling feeling worth every troublemaker's mischief in the world!
Third, computer literacy classes with básico students from La Constancia. At the beginning of May, we got to meet the director of La Constancia secondary school, Maximiliano, who stressed his urgent need for students to have ICT classes as soon as possible. Just imagine: computación is a compulsory part of the National Secondary School Curriculum, and La Constancia did not have up until now a single computer, let alone at IT teacher to deliver the classes. Lichutam took over in 2014, tutoring all of La Constancia's students (around 40 in total) in intensive 4h sessions 2 times a month. Since then, La Constancia expanded and now has over 70 pupils. After considerable efforts, Maximiliano managed to obtain access to some 10 computers through partnerships and donations , and has hired an ICT teacher. But 10 computers and 1 teacher for 70 kids is nowhere near enough. Therefore, Lichutam has proposed to continue the tutoring of 20 básico students living in Nueva Mercedes. So far, this has been working very well and the students receive 1h30 of weekly computer literacy classes.
Fourth is the scholarships project. Apart from Li Ch'utam's long running Básico scholarships currently supporting 19 students from 17 families, we have initiated a new scholarship to encourage young and talented Diversificado (high school) pupils from Nueva Mercedes. At the moment, Mercedes has 4 scholarship candidates, three boys and one girl. Two of them live in the village but travel to the nearby town of Senahú, and the other two are in the regional centre of Alta Verapaz, as far as 4 hours away from their home in El Polochic. This means considerable transport and accommodation costs for all 4. The applicants will receive 250Q to support them with these and other expenses (enrolment, monthly fees, materials, uniforms, etc.). As with the básico scholarships, we expect the word to spread fast and wide, and the fruits to be ready to harvest as soon as next year. When the villagers get wind of Li Ch'utams support offered to those willing to pursue education further, parents are bound to encourage their children to follow the same path, and as in the case with secondary school students, the growth will be exponential. This year we have 4 Mercedian kids in diversificado. Next year, we might have the double of that. And so on! We, certainly, will put all our hopes and efforts into materialising this dream.
Last but not least, the fifth project that we relaunched with the help of Vittoria Wuhrer was the weaving workshop. It was a beautiful beginning full of hope and aspirations, which for various complex reasons didn't work out the way we had planned.
But this post is dense enough already, and Vittoria's story of picking up the loose threads in Nueva Mercedes deserves its own separate space. So, this will be Chapter 2 of "catching up after a long absence" blogpost.