Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Santa Marta, Santa Ana and Radio Victoria

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers in my life!  Interesting...while there was no "kitch" for Easter, thre is all saved for Mother's Day!  There are more red hearts and little "I love you balloons" than I have ever seen for Valentine's Day anywhere.  This is a serious event here and in fact, it is a National Holiday - celebrated annually on May 10th.

This week I had the opportunity to job shadow/observe  and support the work of the Formal Education Team.  This group of former teachers and a former principal of the school in Santa Marta work with the staff, students, parents and the community in order to address gaps the education system.  They are working on revising the Ministry of Education curriculum to include a number of additional topics, increasing the capacity of teachers, developing the early childhood education system for children pre-natal – 3 years old and working to develop the capacity of parents and the community.    Part of this work includes adult literacy learning circles.    The Ministry of Education provides only part of the funding for the core needs of the school and so money for additional teachers, programs, materials and for the “ADES Formal Education Team”  all come from the International Community. 

            The Santa Marta school is large for a rural school.  It has about 600 students who attend for ½ a day of classes, either from 7:30-12:00 or from 1:00-5:30.  The school has classes for children from Grades 1-Grade 11 (the end of High School).  Each classroom is home to a morning and afternoon class.  Some teachers teach full days and others teach part time (one section).   In addition to the classrooms, there is a small library with few age appropriate books, a computer lab with internet that was funded by the International Community, a science lab with very limited equipment and a multipurpose room for assemblies.   For physical education, the students use the “gancha” a dirt field used for soccer that is adjacent to the school.

            This week I spent three days at the school observing and helping with Grade 1,2, and 3 classes , attending a professional development workshop for teachers,  and helping to plan and deliver a special activity on values for the primary students.    What an experience…both really positive and very challenging.  On the positive side, I saw very passionate and engaged teachers who are working very hard with very limited resources.   The kids were great.  I was a big hit and mostly they weren’t shy about trying to talk to me in either Spanish or English.  They had a lot of fun running up to me and saying “hello” and running away saying “goodbye”.   I even received a few drawings from the kids!

            I met a young girl named “Lupe” in one of the classes.  Lupe very easily becomes upset and then she becomes the classic “mean girl”.  She has the most ferocious “angry look” I have ever seen and then she becomes very aggressive with whomever or whatever has upset her.    However, when you look at “Lupe” you notice that both she and her clothes are dirty and her hair, while long, is not tied back in a ponytail.  Here it is a sign that things are very wrong at home, as cleanliness is so highly valued here.  At one point, “Lupe” came and showed me a healing over small cut on her very dirty hand.  I took out my bottle of hand sanitizer and cleaned her hand a bit and then asked if she wanted some “special cream” (hand lotion).  I rubbed that on.   She then showed me another healing over small cut on her finger.  We did the same process.   She looked up and smiled at me and from that day on, whenever she saw me she smiled.   The poverty in the students is apparent.  I have never seen children with the level of severe oral hygiene problems as I saw in the Santa Marta school children.  I was deeply saddened by the state of one child’s shoes (so tattered they could barely be called shoes), until I noticed one child with bare feet. 

            In order to address some of this, one of classes I attended starts the day with songs about brushing your teeth three times a day and follow up with the importance of washing your hands to keep your stomach healthy.   Students who are healthy enough to be at school are celebrated and good wishes are sent to the students who are sick. 

            During my 3 days in Santa Marta, I spend the nights at home of Nora, one of the members of the education team who lives in Santa Marta.  She is single and lives with her mom, brother Carlos (14),  her sister and her niece Estefany (5).   Everyone was very kind and I had a great time.  Carlos liked to practice English with me.  Estefany is a bright and precocious girl who talked non-stop to me in simple, clear Spanish the whole time I was there.    

            I spent the weekend with my Guaco house mate Soto and his family in Santa Ana, an area about 2.5 hours from the ADES office.  Once again, I had a great time meeting his family and spending time with his extended family.  Soto’s mother helped me with my Spanish pronunciation by reading with me in Spanish.  She explained that she never went to school until she moved  for a few years to Los Angeles in 2000.  She then learned how to read and write in English and then with the encouragement of her teacher, learned how to read in Spanish.  Highly impressive for a woman who would have been in her 60’s at that point!  She was very proud to introduce me to her other 6 children and to her many grandchildren who attended a family luncheon on Sunday.    Many of her grandchildren are now attending University in various programs. 

            Clearly this was a very interesting and engaging week for me.  At the same time it was very difficult for people at ADES.  This week 3 staff – who work as journalists at the local community radio station (a program of ADES)  received multiple death threats because of their work in promoting anti-mining and environmental work.  In response, the anti-mining and environmental sector organized a press conference at the front of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office in order to demand both protection for those who were threatened and a thorough investigation into the “intellectual authors” of the threats, assaults and murders of people doing this work in this area of El Salvador. 

            I continue to be deeply impressed and impacted by the dedication that people have to their work despite overwhelming challenges and risks.   These threats don’t stop the work and in fact in some ways fuel it as people become even more determined.  At the same time people have been murdered over these issues and so these threats are treated very seriously.   A number of steps have been taken to protect those threatened and to date everyone remains safe.

            One of the things that I am learning is that in response to fear, people can become isolated and rush to “protect their own” or they turn to their community and work together to form a clear, thoughtful and cohesive response.  This week I wanted to let you, my community, know about what is happening here.    Please pray for the continued safety of the staff at Radio Victoria and of those working in the anti-mining and environmental sector.   The impact of Canadian mining companies abroad is serious and significant and for me it is now very, very personal.

            Please be assured that I am very safe and I am being well looked after by my Salvadore├▒o/a hosts.  The United Church of Canada is also aware of this week’s events and have been in touch to ensure my safety.   If you have any questions or concerns about these issues or my safety please comment on my blog or send me an e-mail.

Part of Santa Marta School

A teacher addressing the students at the beginning of the "Activity  to Promote Values"

Students playing a co-operative game.

Soto and his wife  Mirdala (middle), son Rodrigo and me (left), Reina (Mirdala's sister), and Cesar and Martin (Soto and Mirdala's sons).

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