Monday, October 26, 2015

Full speed ahead! New Projects are in the house

This week we planned out the schedule for the next 3 months to come.  We are keeping some and adding on other new projects to our list. The aime is to widen our spectrum of participants, by including not only básico and primary school kids but also by making the adults into a target audience as well! The idea is for Li Ch’utam to take as wide a community as possible under their wings.

Check out our new “Summer School” schedule (although of course, here it's autumn...):

·         Daily activities: The afternoon extracurricular activities with the primary school children are still a big item on our list. We will diversify the offer by including, on top of the usual classes to teach them maths, Spanish, arts&crafts and sports, other new specialised workshops based on our volunteers' personal talents! One of our specials is Georgia's jewellery-making class, where we show the kids how to make bracelets out of different materials we find locally. The back-bone of all those activities is a combination of teaching basic skills and spending a fun time with our youngest participants.

·         Computer classes for basico kids: Once a week we offer the básico kids the chance to learn basic computer skills based on their school curriculum. Word, Excel or PowerPoint are the name of the game!

·         Computer classes for men: Computer classes again, but this time it is all about the adults in the village, and mainly men. Similar to the computer courses for básico, the point is to give them a chance to learn and practice basic computer skills necessary for working or studying and to give them a chance to apply them in their daily life, ultimately enhacing their livelihoods.

·         English lessons: After one thousand questions in the likes of “Qué es en inglés?” we decided to start an English course aimed at middle school students from Mercedes and La Constancia. At the end it is always helpful to have a fundamental knowledge of English. That makes the difference in their studying and work life and offers them great opportunities for a open-minded future.

·         One-on-one Literacy tutoring project: Or how to “learn how to teach“ aimed at training the middle-school students to teach literacy to the younger kids who are still struggling with basic reading and writing skills.  It's a nice way to give something back to the community: we train a handful of students, who could then start by helping their younger brothers and sisters at home…

·         Chocolate-making-project: “Mmmmmhm, qué rico!“. If your hear people in Nueva Mercedes say this in the next weeks, then our chocolate-making-project was a success! Our plan is to harvest cacao beans buying them in the houses of the local villagers, toast them, grind them and produce delicious chocolate with various flavours (vanilla, cardamomo, raisins, milk chocolate, peanuts, chile, rice...and many more!) The participants will simultaneously acquire a practical skill and learn about their own ancestral traditions (Mesoamerica and Maya culture in particular is the cradle of chocolate, as we know it today!)

·         Vegetable Garden Project: With any luck, soon we will hopefully see a variety of fruit and vegetables sprouting up in the gardens of local families of Nueva Mercedes. We decided to re-kick-start the project which was conducted last year with our previous team of volunteers (Ewa and her team), in collaboration with Edwin, the agronomer of the local finca. The ultimate aim is to help families, and especially the mothers, to supplement family income and give them tools for a healthy and balanced nutrition.
To inform our target audience, we did a village round to broadcast our schedule and make sure that everybody gets the message: we are here for you, to work with you and help you improve your future! It seems that everyone, including the volunteers, are excited and looking forward to the weeks to come!

1,2,3 – he, ho let's go!

Written by: Anne

Friday, October 16, 2015

From Pirates to Explorers: end-of-year school trip to Semuc Champey

Last year (2014), it was a pirate-disguised treasure hunt through the dungeons of Castillo San Felipe
on the lakeside of the splendid Lago Izabal. This year, Lichutam decided to celebrate the end of the
school year in mid-October by taking the older students (from 5th and 6th grades) on a breathtaking
hike and swim around the natural reserve of Semuc Champey.

Situated on the Lanquin river some two hours from Coban, this pearl of the natural heritage of
Guatemala has the most awe-inspiring giant “staircase” of turquoise cascades and crystalline waters
lying amidst the impenetrable vines of the tropical rainforest. The choice of the location came
down to a combination of factors: the cultural value and practicality. First and foremost, none of the
children from Nueva Mercedes have ever been to Semuc Champey. More surprisingly, hardly any
of them have ever heard of the place before we mentioned it. Considering that Semuc features on
the top of the list for tourist destinations of Guatemala and has several hundreds of thousands of
visitors per year, it is rather sad to think that the natives living in remote rural areas may never get a
chance to see it.

This is why Lichutam decided to give that chance to the students of Nueva Mercedes primary

On the practical side, Semuc is one of the closest and most accessible attraction sights to us in the
region of Alta Verapaz. Taking into consideration our limited financial resources, the time constraint
to organise the trip and the availability of transport, this was really the perfect destination from all
perspectives. The cherry on the top was the fact that due to recent political manifestations of the
local villagers in Semuc Champey, the site had been closed down for the better part of September. It
has been reopened in October and – luckily for us, when we went there the
entrance fee was...0! This alleviated strongly our financial charge and allowed us to take the
children on the trip and to feed all the 4 volunteers in the house for the rest of the month!

We would be lying to you if we said that this trip actually taking place and going according to plan
wasn't a total miracle. The initial plan was to organise the end-of-year trip to the biosphere reserve
of La Sierra de las Minas, with the support of a local environmental NGO. But when the NGO in
question told us that they would struggle to find the time to fit us into their busy schedule, we had to
improvise a plan B at the very last minute! Thankfully, plan B turned out be unarguably better!
It was literally a matter of hours before we put the whole thing into place. Getting the consent of the
teachers, calling the bus driver to reserve the vehicle, and doing a last minute village round to
inform the parents' of the partipating children and obtain their written permission to take the kids on
the school trip.

To our great amazement, we had a 100% turnout – perhaps for the first time in Lichutam history!
Every child who said they would come, was there in the bus at 2:30 in the morning, waving
goodbye to their parents who had brought them there with their packed lunches. It was very
touching to watch them see their children off. Of course they were scared and nervous, and praying
for the road trip to go well… Most of them had never heard of the place we were taking their
children to, and sadly, most of them had never travelled beyond Teleman. The only thing they asked
of us is that we bring them back home safe and sound.

But on that front, there were no problems, and thank god for that!

We arrived in Lanquin in the early hours of dawn, yawning and stretching in our seats from the oh-so-
painful 5 hour bus ride.

Everything was perfect. But the balance of forces of good and evil in the world cannot be
maintained for too long: something had to go wrong! Surprise, surprise! It rained…

Although it may seem like a banal detail, the rain meant that our bus driver, Fidel, could not go up
the steep and hilly road which turned far too slippery under the rain, in order to take us from
Lanquin to the heart of Semuc Champey itself. We had to rent a pick-up truck and squeeze in 30
people inside it for this half and hour journey under the pouring rain.

How disappointing it was to find out that only the day before there was such a bright sun shining
over Semuc that you could get a suntan in a matter of minutes!

But the rain did not stop us from enjoying the trip to the full. We still jumped in the (slightly
freezing) water, played water games, taught the children a few swimming strokes, played mermaids
and pirates, and explored the cascades one by one with them. The funnest part for them was of
course to slide down from one swimming pool (or “pozo”) of the cascade to the next, like on a reallife
natural playground!

After a few great moments in the water, we finally got out to wrap ourselves in our towels and dry
as much as the rain (still pouring) would allow it. Next mission: hiking through the thick vines and
the slippery stone staircase of the forest to reach el Mirador! All students, but more impressively, all
the teachers, set out on this adventure and arrived to destination. Believe us when we say it was no
piece of cake to walk up a steep mountain by stepping on giant stone stairs awkwardly peaking out
of the mud, holding onto a thin railing hanging over an abyss. And all of this, in the pouring rain
which made us shiver with cold, and keep our eyes on the ground at all times.

However difficult the journey, the destination was well worth it. When we finally reached the
highest peak of the mountain, after half an hour of rapid ascent, we gasped with awe: a
mesmerizingly beautiful turquoise snake slithered through the lush green forests wrapped in fog
some several hundred feet below. The sight made us catch our breath, fall silent, and stare in
wonder for a few timeless moments.

Even the headteacher, Elda, who was at first not too convinced with the idea of going to Semuc,
thanked us so heartily and said that she didn't expect to see such ravishing beauty…

What else is left to say? It was a truly perfect end to the school year.

We headed back to the pick-up straight after lunchtime, in order to get back to Lanquin and find
Don Fidel, our loyal bus driver, waiting for us to take us home. The bus ride back seemed much
faster, perhaps because we were all so exhausted from our active and dynamic day out… In any case, we
kept out promise to the parents, bringing 25 sleepy and happy children back into their arms to the
joy of all.

Written by: Katerina

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A small incident of great significance

Today in class, a little boy of 7, whilst playing with his classmates from first grade, fell and knocked his head hard against the sharp metal corner of the whiteboard hanging at the back of the classroom.
The wound was severe. When he came to the teacher's desk, his cheeks streaming with tears, Anne and I, who were talking to the teacher, flinched and gasped with fear. A patch of gushing blood the size of the little boy's fist covered one side of his head. When I saw it, I instinctly closed my eyes and turned my head away in terror.

The teacher laughed. What a very strange reaction. Perhaps, having exercised his profession for many years, he was used to accidents in the classroom, and this kind of wound no longer intimidated or shocked him.

In any case, Anne and the teacher stayed with the child, whilst I rushed home to get my First Aid Kit. We did our best to clean the wound but that could only do a limited amount of good to an open wound. Anne, who has some notions of first aid and nursing, said that he will need stitches.

The child gradually quitened down, and we took him back home to his family. When his mother saw him, she merely frowned. We explained the incident.

"Who pushed you?" his brothers asked him.
"No-one," the little boy shook his head shyly.

"Children are always fooling around and misbehaving." said his grandfather as he came out of his room.

The adults in the family seemed to take this as a normal matter of course. They didn't manifest either pity, empathy or exceptional concern for the child. These things happen, and they should not and will not disrupt the daily grind of their lives.

We explained to them that it's an open wound, and if it gets infected (which, with all the insects, dust on the road, and the general living conditions in the village, is more than a probability), it could be a danger for the child. We offered to take him to the nearest centro de salud in Teleman.

"Do you want to go?" the mother asked the child. The little boy shook his head vehemently, a new wave of tears invading his terrified eyes.

"You see, he doesn't want to go." she told us. "But maybe he doesn't need to? Maybe the wound will be cured naturally."

We didn't understand this reaction at first. Of course no child would willingly go to a hospital to endure the pain of getting stitches! But if the adults understand the gravity of the situation, they must impose that decision instead of following the child's desires.

But of course, it's not that simple. The great majority of families in the village don't have the money to pay for proper treatment. In all honesty, with the scarce and unreliable information on medical treatments, it was unclear to us how much exactly this sort of medical attention would cost. Some say that you would only have to pay for the thread, and the stitching is done for free. Others insist on the fact that the anaesthetics would cost a formidable sum of money. The worst thing is that it seems that even the families have no definite information on which to base their decision. And they are not willing to take the risk.

But money is just one aspect of it. The other is, as ever, culture. A friend of ours told us recently of a "parabole" which sums up the Maya Q'eqch'i's approach to child injuries. Imagine an outdoor garden party with adults sitting outside enjoying drinks and conversations, and children playing around them. A child runs towards them through a field, falls down into the mud, hurts himself badly, and starts crying. In Western culture, most adults would rise to their feet, and rush to the child's side to see if he is well, the parents in first line. The reaction of the Q'eqch'is, however, is pure, unrestrained, hysterical laughter. Oh, look how dirty he is! Oh how funny the way he fell down!

It's strange to realise this. But we are not here to judge or to establish cultural or ethnic hierarchies. We are in their land and in their homes. We must do our best to understand them, despite our differences, although it is no easy task.

As we stood there, comforting the little boy, and putting a bandage around his head to cover his wound, Anne and I were facing a difficult moral choice. What is the right thing to do in this situation? Take the child to the medical centre despite his family's apparent reticence, to make sure that the wound was treated properly? Or leave this family to take care of their children the way they want to, without our intervention? After all, haven't they been living here for hundreds of years, before "we", Westeners, came along? They're surviving just fine without our help, despite the arduous and challenging conditions they live it.  If they judge that it is not necessary to take a child to receive medical help for a wound of this kind, don't they know better?

In the end, a certain degree of humbleness and resignation made Anne and I leave things as they were. We thought that in any case, it would not be right to go against the family's wishes, even if we sincerely believed it to be for the greater good. The worst attitude to adopt in an intercultural relationship is cultural imperialism. "We know better than you" is not a slogan we wish to adhere to.

So, we kneeled infront the little boy, looked in his eyes and told him: "Well, you've become a real man now!"
And for the first time since the incident, he smiled.

"You're going to be strong, aren't you? And no more tears!"
He nodded his head, his smile widening, tears still glistening in his eyes.

"Thank you for bringing him." said his elder brother.

Indeed, the entire family thanked us for our care. They seemed touched that we would take the time to bring their child back to them after – what appeared to them – such an insignificant event.

As we said goodbye and walked out of their house, somehow I felt closer to them. It's funny, how  a small, unnoticeable and banal incident can bring people together, open a window onto the culture of those people, and make us reflect upon their lives as well as our own.

In the end, we still don't have the answers to the many mysteries of cultural interaction that living side by side with the Maya Q'eqch'i community has cast us into. But the beauty of this experience is that it makes us ask those questions that truly matter. And for that and much more, we are very grateful.

Written by: Katerina

Sunday, October 11, 2015

New team, new beginnings, new season's greetings

Marta completed her volunteership with Lichutam and left us in September. Since then, a new team has arrived! We are now the Fantastic Four of El Polochic Valley: Anne, from Germany, Georgia, from Greece, Patrick, an Irish gentleman, and Katerina leading the team.

Here are the our new volunteers' impressions of the first week.

A First Week in Polochic, by Patrick

My first full week of life at Lich'utam has just come to an end. And finished in style I might add. I'm the only male in the house, living with three girls from different parts of Europe. “So lucky” you might be thinking, and you might be right, but our notions of lucky might be slightly different!
As the only male I get my own bedroom, while the three girls share one large bedroom. For me that's pretty darn lucky.

At the end of last week, at the beginning of October, we all met each other over the space of three to four days. This was a nice touch; to start volunteering with people at the same time, to share the same experiences and to be able to talk about all the novel things as they occur to all of us, at the same time.

This week we spent our mornings in the classroom, acting as assistants to the teachers, or in my case, a very old student. I found my thirty one years of life experience close to useless when Anna, my teacher, started teaching in the indigenous language Quich'i. Even as she taught in Spanish, I noticed many of the fourth graders in my class spoke and wrote better Spanish than me. However in Maths, I excelled, I was able to move around the class, supporting the students with their maths formulas, equations, multiplications and fractions. Maths in my class has become the universal language.

Our school provides education for children from kindergarten to sixth grade. I'm helping the fourth graders. Fourth grade is a mix of ages. There are ten year olds and there are fifteen year olds. Many students struggle with literacy and are easily distracted in the classroom. The result is a classroom of students of different ages. In one case, a gentle fifteen year old boy has been passed out by his younger brother who is now thirteen and a grade above. I hope the elder passes his exams this week.

After school, we rest, cook lunch and return to the kids in the afternoon. They are always very happy to see us. We plan on doing activities with them to reinforce their literacy and maths, computer skills and personal growth. It should be an interesting, challenging but very positive summer.

To top of the first week, we four visited one of the Lich'utam founder's family members. We stayed on his farm for some rest and relaxation and saw the beauty of Polochic from the air. Soaring up into the sky in his two person flying trike was a treat I won't soon forget.  

My New Far Away Home, by Anne
Stunning landscapes, swarms of mosquitoes and of mischievous kids – little rascals –  that is how I got to know Nueva Mercedes during my first days. 
In order to gain new experiences, open my mind and see more of the world after finishing my studies, I left good old Germany for faraway Guatemala. I spend my first month in Antigua, a beautiful historical colonial city, to improve my very basic Spanish skills before I started my volunteership. In week four I had to say “¡Hasta la vista, Antigua!” and “¡Hola, Nueva Mercedes!”. Together with Katerina, Georgia and Patrick, my new house-mates and co-volunteers, we set off on the long journey crossing the whole of Guatemala to reach the little village. After a typical Guatemalan bus ride (a lot of fun for me!) through small streets, overfilled cars and many shaking bodies, the tropical heat and a stunning mountain landscape welcomed us – the motto here is “Natur Pur”. Our first stop before we saw our new house was the colourful Teleman market in order to refill the empty fridge at home and provide for our survival in the first week there. An inviting wooden hut will be our home for the next months to come. Spiders, lizards and toads received us in a friendly manner – although it takes some time to get used to. But in contrast to my worst fears, up until now I´ve only seen snakes and scorpions just from afar – and let´s hope it will stay that way! The following day,  we went on the first visit to our new workplace – the Nueva Mercedes primary school. Hundreds of big, dark round eyes stared at us accompanied by countless “¿Cómo te llamas?“  and ¡Bonito tu pelo!“.

 A very particular welcome indeed. 

Soon, the first encounters, a few games and conversations with the kids made it clear to me that there is potential here. And hopefully we can help to foster this potential at least in some of the kids. Unfortunately it is not always that easy. The Guatemalan way of life in many aspects is incomparable to the German or European one. Especially regarding education there is so much to be done. Poverty and complicated living conditions don´t make it any easier. But some motivated and engaged people, who I have had the privilege to get to know during this short time fill me with hope. Hope, that it is possible to make a difference if we work together – not only here in Guatemala but globally. And even if it´s not feasible here “die Welt einzureißen” (to change the world), I am still happy for every single smile I can bring to people´s faces. That´s why I am really looking forward to the next five months that I will be here.
Guatemala, here I am – show me what you´ve got!

 Georgia's first impressions:

Strongest first impression: the kids! Those little faces that took them about 2 minutes to get to know us and since then they did not hesitate at all to call our names and ask us to play with them. Even though the conditions at school are not easy, everyone is trying their best with the resources they have; the teachers, the kids, and us. And of course, it is worth it since you see after a while some results of your work. For example, at times, during our afternoon activities in the primary school, a few distracted kids, not interested in the ongoing group activity, ask for our help in doing their homework. I remember one kid who, the first time I asked him to write down what the teacher was saying, didn’t like it and made fun of it. However, after the third day he was already used to my presence and he started asking me to approve what he had written. Another example is that a few of them after finishing their exercise come to me before and after they show it to their teacher in order to get a big “¡Perfecto!” o “¡Muy bien!”. They really seem to enjoy that moment judging by their big “¡Gracías!” smiles. 

In general, I have really enjoyed my first days in Nueva Mercedes and even though it is sad that the school year is over in the second week of October,  I am looking forward to starting our projects and morning activities with the kids. Hopefully, there are going to be many of them. This is why we tried our best to get their attention, make them like our activities so that they are motivated to keep on coming to our extracurricular educational afternoon sessions where we make them discover the world!