Blog for March 12th 2014 Read other posts.
‘Maltioc’h’ ! Edgar Castro, principal of the New Hope Foundation School, welcomed our group with this greeting in the Achi language. We were tired and hot from the long bus ride on a winding mountainous road, heading north-east from Guate to Rabinal (Baja Verapaz). This unique high school offers an innovative program in Achi and Spanish, with an emphasis on Maya culture and history as well as practical skills connected to the agrarian economy of the region. The school was founded for survivors of the Rio Negro massacre and relatives of those who were brutally massacred on March 13th, 1982. The school was built with international funding, including contributions from Canada (before Harper changed CIDA’s mandate!). We will be joining the annual pilgrimage and ceremony that takes place where the massacre occurred. Many students had already left the school to begin the long trek, so there was no cultural presentation during our visit., though we saw the masks and costumes used.
We took refuge away from the sun in a cool classroom, constructed of wood rather than cement blocks, where about 20 students aged 11-12, boys and girls, were sitting in groups of four at round tables. This arrangement is part of a progressive, interactive learning model to promote cooperation and leadership. Smiles on happy faces conveyed eagerness to answer our questions and to ask some too.
Edgar and a retired volunteer English teacher originally from the area introduced us to other members of the staff, some of whom are student teachers, and explained the school’s philosophy. Having worked for 30 years in education in Canada, I was surprised by references to ‘solidarity’ and ‘gender equity’, social goals that are not usually specifically highlighted back home. Edgar gave words like ‘teamwork’, ‘respect’, and ‘leadership’ added meaning, in this context related to survival. Cultivating leadership here is not limited to promoting individual skills , but entails the role of every student as representing their community. There is a collective sense of commitment and responsability.
Having taught waste and energy management in a high school ecology program, I was particularly interested in how these concepts are applied here. My ‘ecological’ tour started with ‘Donde estan los banos ?’ A student directed me : ‘Up the hill, beyond that gate. ‘ Expecting an outhouse with noxious perfume and flies buzzing around, what a pleasant surprise ! These people are way ahead of us !! They treat waste with respect, as a source of natural wealth. I was mesmerized by the toilets designed to separate urine and feces, using lime to create a well balanced compost, free of smell, that serves to fertilize the permaculture vegetable gardens. Wow! I was enchanted, and took too many pictures . We in the ‘first world’ know how to recycle human waste in spacecraft , but not on planet earth. My admiration only increased as we visited another jewel in the crown : a model ‘methane producing digester’, beyond even the CCDA’s use of ‘ red wrigglers ‘.
I caught up with the group in the medical dispensary. A nurse from the community, who had attended this school, answered potentially controversial questions (about sexual orientation, contraception, and abortion) in a thoughtful, informative way. Three people stayed there to avoid the intense heat, and learned of her own personal loss of her father, sister, and brother-in-law in the massacre. She apologized for showing her emotion, but her sharing demonstrated powerfully that some wounds never heal.
Back in the town of Rabinal in the afternoon, some of us visited the legal clinic run by Jesus Tecu Osorio, a survivor of the slaughter and author of Memoirs of the Rio Negro Massacre. He explained the historical context of that event and showed a C.B.C. news broadcast from the late ‘80s on the repression by Rios-Montt, backed by the C.I.A. under the Reagan administration. He then led us on a tour of the monuments in the cemetery, where the lists of names of hundreds of innocent people, many of them members of his own family, brought to mind words like genocide and holocaust. This site, marked by humble mounds of earth, contrasted with the brightly coloured mausoleums in another graveyard across the street, for those who can afford a respectable funeral. We paused respectfully by one long continuous mound of rough earth covering the remains of 177 women and children from Rio Negro, brutally massacred at Pak’oxom, and two other mass graves of victims tortured and executed at the military camp in Rabinal, a site now used as a football field. An immense sadness engulfed me. Why so many horrors in such a beautiful land? For a brief moment I felt ashamed of being a human being. The last signs of daylight were quickly fading away, and the candles on a fresh grave were burning very bright. Jesus was leading us out of the cemetery, and I recalled the image of him hugging one of his kids, when we first met him at his home. Hope can follow despair and rekindle our faith in human beings. The children at the school are alive and well, and will not forget. Nunca mas.