On Thursday, we visited the Foundation of New Hope school on the outskirts of Rabinal. It represents one of the few examples of an educational institution that tries to reflect an alternative path to development based on the needs of the poor and primarily indigenous families who represent the survivors of the Rio Negro massacres and violence of the early 1980s.
This is a privately funded education centre with funds from abroad including participation by BTS who helped build the first set of classrooms and dormitories. Amazingly, the project was able to attract some funding from the Canadian government as well.
We met Don Juan, one of the directors of the school and the property manager, as well as the educational director, Sandra. They explained that the school began in 2003, in which classes were held in homes. From a beginning of 37 students, the school has now grown to serve 137 students at secondary levels and another 37 enrolled in a 2 year high school program for rural development facilitators. Supporting this is a staff of 15.
While predominantly a day school, the centre is able to accommodate 30 students who live too far to commute daily. In keeping with the concept that the skills and knowledge one learned at the school are designed to be disseminated to the communities, the students from the dormitories go home on the weekends not only to reconnect with their families but to work and share ideas learned with their families.
First, three languages are taught: Achi in several dialects from the area, Spanish and English. A number of agricultural projects and conservational projects have been developed, including a fish pond, a corral for livestock, composting toilets and methane gas capturing project using cattle dung. The program includes teaching of the Mayan culture including traditional mask, costume and dances that have been recognized as international heritage by UNESCO. Even the method of learning reflects the cooperative approach of indigenous people. Instead of the individualistic nature of public schools where students compete with each other, students here are grouped in fours and encouraged to work as teams drawing on the collective skills of the group. Finally the placard on the educational centre wall courageously proclaims “we will not forget” or “let’s not forget” the history of the persecution and massacre in Rio Negro is taught including the amazing resilience to this atrocity.
Unfortunately the government does not see this school as part of the solution to building a new and more respectful recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to direct their own development. The financial constraints are a continuing problem: This past semester had to be curtailed because funds ran out to pay teachers salaries. Additional funds are needed to build two more classrooms to accommodate the 2nd year of the rural development program. BTS has launched a fund-raising drive and Canadians can contribute through the website http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/keeping-the-hope-alive . To help sustain the school, parents are asked to pay fees and help with tasks at the school. The fees charged: 200q for day students per year and 400q for residential students are low compared to other schools which charge as much as 150q a month. This is a project worthy of support as it represents an effort of indigenous families living in poverty to create an affirmative future for their children.
(ed. note: Early Thursday morning, several delegates climbed Kayub, a sacred site for the Maya Achi people).