Welcome to Chajul

Day 3: Wednesday, August 1, 2012

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Our first day in Chajul was a long one. First of all, you start to hear roosters and dogs and other animals at 5 a.m. and one morning I was awoken at 4 a.m. by a truck blaring its horn as it rounded switchbacks. We started this day with breakfast made by Gricelda and Maria, two LHI scholarship students. They made pancakes with pineapple, watermelon and bananas. Two different LHI scholarship students came to the posada to prepare breakfast every morning at 6. I had a hot shower. The sun was out and it was a beautiful first day in Chajul.

We got a rundown of the basic Do’s and Dont’s of Chajul like not to hike on any trails alone and always ask someone if it is ok to take their picture as some of the older generation believed that you would steal some of their soul if you took their picture (I forgot to ask before taking my picture of the slaughterhouse above and the men inside ran out telling us not to take any).

We walked to LHI and passed many people on the way. All of the woman looked very dignified wearing their traditional Chajulense woven skirts. You can always tell what town a woman is from in Guatemala by the color and design of her skirt. It is maroon in color and takes a month or more to weave each one. Nearly all women in Chajul weave and learn at a young age. May of the men wear hats and carry machetes on their belts and commute miles to their land plots to farm their corn and beans. Children are everywhere, always smiling.

We passed animals in the street, pigs tied to posts, kids running around, girls weaving on front porches and groups of children asking for us to take their picture. Whenever you take a picture of someone it is a nice gesture to show the person the photo on your camera. Some kids were flying homemade kites of string and plastic bags that flew surprisingly well. We quickly knew where the plastic bags in the electrical wires overhead came from.

We toured the offices at LHI and met some of its office staff. There were many people from Chajul who work at LHI. LHI works closely with its 65 scholarship students by subsidizing their education and offering them support and resources like tutoring, Spanish lessons, a computer lab, and constant contact to make sure they are on track. It also works with other organizations on initiatives like the Safe Stoves Program making safe stoves with exhaust pipes to the outside so family’s homes are not filled with smoke. They also support the local women by having an artist cooperative in which they sell woven goods at fair market values.

At LHI we met with a local school psychologist who works with students at schools in the region. She talked about issues facing local students which were similar in many regard to the issues facing my students in Boston. However, the issues facing students in Guatemala are certainly on a different scale. For example, there is a 45% illiteracy rate in the country, and there is an adult illiteracy rate of 75% in Chajul. There is prejudice against children with disabilities. Scholarships like the ones that LHI provide are extremely important because many men want their daughters home working and helping wives, so many girls do not make it to high school. There is the issue of Chajul’s bilingual nature: Ixil is the traditional language, but it is a predominantly spoken language. Children learn this language as babies and then instruction in school is in Spanish starting in the 3rd grade, so students struggle with instruction in a 2nd language. This sets Chajulense students behind students in the capital city, for example. There is a lack of knowledge about contraception, and there are a lot of pregnancies among teenagers. These girls are stigmatized and often disowned by their families and must move in with their boyfriends’ families where they are not treated much better on average. She said that students want to learn about sex ed, personal development, and relationships. It is a very private culture so there is no talk about sex ed in homes. She said that when girls menstruate for the first time, they often think they are dying. There is a lot of violence and sexual violence in Chajul. Although it is common for students in other parts of the country to leave school and join gangs (Guatemala is a popular place for drug trafficking) she said this does not happen much in Chajul. There is a culture shock/revolution happening where kids are not following old customs and they are dressing differently than their parents. She said there were 23 suicides among youth in neighboring Nebaj in 2011, many from young women feeling trapped from living with in-laws. She said that domestic violence is common all over Guatemala. There is a high rate of domestic violence from intoxicated husbands. Chajul is a migrant population with men and young men going to the coast every November and December to work on sugar fields. She said that many of these men spend all of their earnings on alcohol and prostitutes and often bring back STDs to their wives. She said that the quality of teachers in Guatemala could improve. The system is set up so that students who attend a high school with a specialty in teaching preparation (like the ones in Chajul) can then become teachers the year after they graduate high school without an advanced degree or much practice. There are also not many professional development options for teachers and the evaluation process is nonexistent in some cases and flawed in others. The much-maligned educational system in the United States seems rosy compared to the status quo in Guatemala. The psychologist’s talk was quite informative and we got a great overview of the lives of many of the students we would be interacting with over the next 9 days in Chajul.

After lunch we prepped for the “Donde esta Spot” activity in the library that is down the street from LHI and supported by LHI. Lindsay and Lisa read the book to about 65 students at the library and then the students broke off by grade level and worked on making little murals in which they drew Spot and then covered him with cut-out paper with some object written on top. The students loved the activity and they were extremely artistic. I made my way around the room working with some of the younger students who needed a head start or an example to get them started.

After the “Donde esta Spot” activity we headed back to the posada and had some down time before a great fried chicken dinner. After dinner, Frank and I co-planned our two-hour math workshop for Thursday. We typed up notes on his iPad and got a good idea for what we’d do with the 20 students we expected. I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the workshop as Frank will be handling all of the translation of my instruction to Spanish, and I have no idea about the students’ ability levels or what they hope to get out of the workshop other than help with math.

Also, my missing bag arrived from Miami. It’s amazing that the airline sent it from Guatemala City up to Chajul in a van and it only took a day, and all of its contents — calculators, school supplies, etc. — were there.

Tomorrow: math workshop with middle school and high school students.

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About prcloth

I am a high school math teacher in Boston who spent two weeks on a volunteer program in a town of mostly indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala. I worked closely with the sponsor NGO, Limitless Horizons Ixil, and the residents, students, teachers and librarians of Chajul to extend educational opportunities to the region. I have included some details from this rich, authentic cultural exchange.
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