Monday, July 27, 2009

Interesting Conversations

A great deal of my time lately has been passed in conversations with an array of people. And as I have come to expect, the more I learn and witness and discuss, the more questions I have rather than answers.

There are such enormous cultural and socioeconomic barriers. It can seem like an enormous brick wall without a door to pass through. I have faith that somewhere there is a passageway that I just haven’t learned to see yet. So I continue in search of the passageway and the secret password that will encourage those on the other side to open the door and let me pass through.

A good example for this inner conversation of mine is the solar oven program that Toshi, a volunteer friend of mine, helped the families with before he left in April. He purchased the materials, helped the families construct them, showed them in great detail how to use them for many dishes…but I have so far only found one family using their solar oven. So the families continue to struggle to find enough fuel wood, and mothers and babies continue to suffer the effects of smoke exposure. Some families say they don’t understand how to use them. Others say that it is easier to do what they have always done. Where was the secret password we missed? Should the families have purchased the materials at a very low rate? Should each family have gotten a home visit to help them use it in their exact location? How does one rectify what was missed and see the problem ahead in future efforts?

My other inner conversation is the one I have daily with my child development textbook, which I brought with me to Honduras. Reading ahead for class is helping me understand better how to address my children’s learning needs. Even the most talented and clever child needs heavy remedial help to understand how to follow directions, how to go about choosing the best answer, and overcoming the incredible difficulties of hunger and low self-esteem while trying to learn. I’m making posters that show which letters “touch the roof” and which ones “show off their tails” to help them write more clearly. I am making sure they understand how to do the math rather than just memorizing the most common answers. Encouraging creativity, the use of imaginative metaphors, using positive words and phrases…I believe these will serve these children just as well as memorizing their times tables.

Then there are the conversations I actually have with other people. As no one who knows me would be surprised, one of these conversations involved sexual education of the students in the school 10 years and older. We spent half a morning in split-gender sessions, reviewing anatomy and the anatomical processes of both men and women, exactly what the sex act is (sometimes left out of sex-ed here I’ve been told,) how pregnancy happens, the myriad of STDs (because the only one people talk about here is AIDS,) and how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. Then we took a break, let the kids write questions and put them in a box, and after the break we presented a little skit about how boys and girls can talk openly and honestly about sex, and then sat down and answered the questions the kids had put in the box and talked about making decisions about dating and that it is okay and maybe even preferable not to date while you are still in school.

I’ve been happy to see that both in this session and in a small assembly we had with the kids about the political crisis, Angel, the Director of the school, has been careful to tell the kids to listen to their own hearts and minds, not to blindly follow the words other people. It is so good to see someone telling these kids that they are smart and reminding them to think and use them noggin’s! I must remember to praise Angel for this.

On Thursday the kids were accidentally granted an extra long recess, because Angel, I, and another volunteer Nick became engrossed in a conversation about religion and god. A couple of the older boys from sixth grade, who are usually among the most atrociously behaved, were very enrapt and followed the conversation closely and respectfully.

It all started with a classic Angel question (he’s a very evangelical Christian,) “Kati, do you have Jesus in your heart?”

I said no and that he didn’t seem to be in pocket or behind my ear either. (humor did not deflect his intentions.)
“But who is your god?”

I don’t have one. I’m agnostic. I don’t know if there is one and I’m not going to spend my time worrying about it because I can’t prove it one way or the other.

“That breaks my heart. It breaks Hondurans’ hearts when people don’t have Jesus in their lives.”

Why? It is my choice.

“But you will go to hell if you don’t accept Christ.”

At this point Nick pointed out that in many parts of the world Jesus is not god or even a prophet and that other religions say Angel will burn in hell for believing what he believes. (This was news to Angel…not that the whole world isn’t Christian, but that they don’t accept his truth as their truth.)

I presented the idea that there is a seed of truth from which all religions grow like trees, and it depends on the soil it grows in, the needs of the people it serves, as to how it will develop.

“But I know Jesus is the only God. The Bible says he is the only God. And the Bible is the word of God.”

I suggested that maybe rather than historical fact that sometimes the Bible is a fable instead, a story to deliver truth through fiction. When I presented the possibility that evolution might have been God’s way of creation, that seven days for God might be millions of years, I’m pretty sure Angel’s eyes crossed trying to think it over.

“But aren’t you scared you’ll go to hell?”

I pointed out that I wasn’t closed to the idea of god, and that any god who would turn me away for having used the heart and mind he gave me wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with. If that was the case, I’d have plenty of friends to have a “fiesta” with in “el infierno.”

The lack of sophisticated information Angel possesses is astounding to me, given that he is in charge of so many children’s educations. For example, at one point one of the boy’s asked if Toshi has god. Angel said, “Oh yes. Toshi is Buddhist.” I had to explain that actually Buddhists don’t necessarily have a god, that it is a philosophy and life way rather than religion, that Buddha is a prophet to be emulated not a god to be worshiped. (Sorry, Toshi, you’ve been outted!)

What made it a successful conversation for me was to have those two boys witnessing use discuss such a possibly heated discussion without attacking each other’s beliefs, without insulting Christianity or Agnosticism, without threatening our ability to work together and do good in children’s lives. I complimented Angel and explained why I was willing to have this conversation with an Evangelical Christian: that he did not, not once, try to change my mind. He did not forget that I live a good life, full of giving and love despite my lack of religion.

And it is goodness that brings us together ultimately and most productively. While helping collect and document data for an informal nutrition study with Dr. David Black of Project Esperanza here in La Ceiba, I have had to opportunity to meet other development workers and to brainstorm and discuss with them what they are working on. I have found other folks who hold a similar interest in the possibility of networking amongst projects, to share mental and physical resources, to support each other through the hard times and to keep frustrations in perspective, and to maybe even (maybe I’m dreaming, here) helping the people the groups serve to access others people in other parts of the country.

I can’t overstate how important talking is to my work here. The willingness to listen is most imperative. I have to take notes sometimes to remind myself of phrase that I want to mull over later when the afternoon heat keeps me within a five foot radius of the nearest fan. There is always time to think here and to keep the conversations going and always questions to fuel the thinking.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jungle School Video

Finally! I have finished a video of my experiences the first time I came to Honduras to volunteer at the Jungle School.

HHK is always looking for sponsors and volunteers, so tell your friends and love ones and strnger on the street to come watch this video and fall in love with these kids.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It’s a Jungle out there…including the politics!

I have returned to La Ceiba, Honduras to volunteer as a teacher in the Jungle School in the rural Cangrejal River valley. There is all the same beauty, and all the same dirt, as when I left three and a half months ago. It is amazing how fast things change until you realize that they really don’t change at all.

I am once again teaching 2nd and 3rd grades, although I have fewer students than before. Apparently many students haven’t come to school for the last few weeks due to a variety of concerns, which are really just easy smokescreens for not feeling that school is particularly important, if you ask me. For starters, there has been the political crisis since the end of June and there was also a robbery at the school and the robber was associated with a couple of families, so those children are not coming to school to avoid the gossip and social reactions. Most of my students, however, have trickled back, and I have eleven of the original sixteen on a fairly regular basis. I have no reason to really fear for my safety as a result of either of the above situations, so I see no reason to deny these kids a decent education while they can get it.

I’m sure people want to hear about the situation here because from the news it looks like people are sporting strong feelings and are very polarized. I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of a demonstration. The loudest voices (besides the kids at school) is the cat in heat outside my house right now (…I’ve been joking that I am going to start going to bars and yowling to see if it helps me get a boyfriend.) The Ceiba area public school teachers have finally agreed to stop striking in support of Zelaya and are returning to their classrooms this Monday. I don’t know if that agreement extends to the rest of the country or not.

Otherwise things are quiet here. People would have to actually rely on their government for consistency and support to make them terribly concerned about the situation. In San Pedro Sula (3 ½ hours away) and Tegucigalpa (7 hours away) there are demonstrations still going on by Zelaya supporters which aren’t violent but do close down the highways. According to the polls, half the people don’t like Zelaya and half the people don’t like Michelletti, but what the polls leave out is that only a tiny fraction of people believe that at the end of this anything will change. Here the situation is not called a “military coup.” It is called a “political crisis.” As I understand it from the Honduran press and people I have spoken with, it is widely understood here is that Zelaya’s arrest order was issued by the Supreme Court prior to his ouster, that the military chose to exile him to keep the country from erupting in violence, and that Michelletti does not intend to hold on to the presidency but pass it to whoever wins the previously scheduled elections in November. Politicians do awful corrupt things here all the time and you just have to keep going about your day, it seems. People’s main concern seems to be that things at least not get any worse.

So everything is the same, if not actually quieter than before. There has been a curfew on and off. You never know what time it starts, so the bar scene is lots of people asking everybody else “a que hora es la toque de queda?” And a lot of shrugs in response. On the bad side, it isn’t feasible nor just to keep such policy in effect. On the good side, there has been far less crime here as a result of people not being out on the streets at all hours of the night. The curfew has been lifted for the last few days but is going back into effect again as the rhetoric heats up in the approach to the next set of political negotiations mediated by Costa Rica’s president. It effects me less than not at all because I fall asleep by 9:30 each night, absolutely exhausted after a day at school and an evening of planning the next day.

But now the important things…my kids! They are doing quite well most of them. Their classroom discipline has gotten a bit slack since I left, but without adequate volunteers the Honduran teachers often leave them fairly unsupervised to copy pages from their books. The thinking here is that reading and writing the material will help them learn it. But for a second grader, only semi-able to read aloud at all, copying the material is a slow . word . for . word . process . and . they . can’t . keep . track . of . what . they . are . reading . you . get . the . idea? I can’t entirely blame the teachers. If there aren’t volunteers, they are faced with teaching up to 4 grades by themselves. It is impossible to lead even two classes at the same time when they have completely different materials provided by the government and the kids are incapable of following directions on their own. (Don’t get me started on the fact that the government textbooks are way too complicated for their intended grade levels…WAY too complicated.)

So, I have come to a very seemingly simple concept for my time here…to get the kids following directions and reading for content. Crazy ain’t it? Actually finding the solution in the paragraph above the question? But this is almost entirely beyond many of my kids. This weekend I’ll be researching the process for reading comprehension in American schools and start culling or creating materials and strategies to use with my kids. I’ll keep you posted on my successes (if there are any.) If nothing else, my following directions curriculum can involve a fair deal of games like “Mother may I?” and “Simon Says…” (except they’ll have to be more like “¿Papá puedo?” and “Diego Dice...”)

Worry not, those who know my penchant of activism, I am not involving myself politically in any way. It is not my country and none of my business ultimately. I don’t even entertain the thought of asking questions about the situation even with those I already know quite well. That said, I was struck by the hilarity of third world politics today while teaching Social Studies to my second graders. We were reading about public services: drinking water, electricity, phone and postal service, streets and bridges, trash pickup, waste removal, basic education, and health services. My kids do not have access, at least not on any regular basis, to a single one of these things. They live without running water, without electricity, without postal service…they burn their trash…they go to a private charity school because they can’t afford the “public” education…they walk miles on difficult mountain paths to get to school because there are no roads to their houses…they only go to a doctor for an emergency…the family might have a cell phone but they rarely have minutes to make calls and the kids must bring it to school where there is electricity to charge it…and here is the government telling them what they should be providing…I MEAN REALLY GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOK PEOPLE!!!! I can’t help wondering who wrote the book (blind conservatives or ironic liberals perhaps?) The poor kids just looked at me like I was crazy…didn’t I know what life was really like? I assured them that I do know. We talked about how many of these things aren’t true in the valley where the school is and the kids live…and that some of the things aren’t true in the cities, either. And I presented the question for them to think about, should the government provide these things? I assured them they didn’t have to answer in front of anyone but encouraged them to think about it. I’ll see if we ever get around to the discussion again.

So, maybe I should retract my statement about not getting politically involved, but I will hold to the fact that it was not my fault. It was on page 42 of the government issued 2nd Grade Social Studies textbook!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Coup be damned!

Yes...that’s right…I’ve decided to go back to Honduras! By tomorrow evening I’ll be happily ensconced with the fabulous Aguero family in La Ceiba. I fly Continental to San Pedro Sula and take a bus right from the airport to La Ceiba.

What’s that clamor coming from the south central region of the US? That’s my family in Texas…some of them think I’m crazy, but I say…

Yes…twelve days ag0 the President of Honduras was, via military escort, unceremoniously put on a plane to Costa Rica while still in his pajamas...


Yes…there has been unrest between the ex-President’s supporters and the military but…

…that’s in the capital, Tegucigalpa, which is a LONG way from where I work.

…I know the layout of La Ceiba well and can avoid crowds should I need to do so.


Yes…I am a little concerned, which is, as I see it, a good sign that I’m not seeking adventure nor being blind to the realities but taking seriously both the work to which I’m committed and my personal safety.

I’ve had my ear to the ground, as it were, reading several sites regularly as well as talking with my friends there in La Ceiba. For those interested in a non-CNN take on things (as much of their information comes from Telesur, the Venezuelan state run channel) I recommend BBC, Associated Press, and Reuters. I’ve been heartened by the more open opinion pieces in Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. For those who can read Spanish, there are three Honduran daily papers online: La Prensa, El Heraldo, and La Tribuna. (You find those at, etc.) I’ve also checked in regularly with the US Department of State so that I can know what it is I’m representing as a result of my passport. Google News carries the headlines from all over the world and the Cuban papers serve for a particularly good hoot from time to time if you find overtly propagandized statements to be funny.

As for myself, I am abstaining as much as possible from opinion. It is not, after all, my country. I am curious and open to learning the viewpoints of Hondurans from all sides of the argument(s). What I want is to get back to teaching incredibly disadvantaged kids who deserve better than the world is currently giving them, to help them gain the skills of language and mathematical literacy and critical thinking, and to let them know that they are loved, even if it is only by a gringa voluntaria.