We were sitting in the park killing time, not quite used to the unstructured hours now afforded to us since Peace Corps Guatemala decided our Spanish skills were adequate and reassigned our language teacher to another group. (So, now we get one 4 hour class a week and I am envisioning myself showing up at my site come November with confidence speaking in only the present tense…)
Carolyn and I started working with the local women’s office last week and were sharing with Justin and Janet how our charlas (presentations) at the local elementary school went. We had gone in with roughly the following instructions from our mentor, Magdalena:
“I want to make sure that we are empowering young girls. Ask them what they want to be when they grow up and encourage them to stay in school. Make sure they understand that girls can be powerful too.”
Which sounds simple. Except I am beginning to fully realize that nothing is ever simple – especially not here.
First, I’m pretty sure that while the woman that runs the school knew we were coming, nobody else did. Second, the school has a fairly open floor plan, meaning that in any given classroom you can hear the dance practice for Independence Day happening outside, the music class next door, and the general screaming of small children from all directions. Third, the kids were young. Really young. Between the ages of 4 and 6. And finally, like always, the language barrier presented its own wonderful set of challenges.
There I was, amidst a classroom of Guatemalan youngsters (and we all know just how much I love kids…), straining my voice to be heard above what sounded like some sort of parade surrounding us and attempting to ensure that the future of women of Guatemala know that they too can be president. I did this in front of five different classes.
So, back to the park. I was telling my fellow training sitemates about how an incredible number of Guatemalan kids claim their favorite animal is the giraffe and how their heroes fall into three categories: parents, superheroes and jesus when an adorable little girl in indigenous traje (clothing consisting of a long woven skirt and frilly top) walks up and tells us “You were in my class today.” She introduced herself and we gave her one of the cookies we were eating (which probably doesn’t help reverse the Guatemalan idea that gringos like to steal their babies) as she told us about how she wants to be a teacher AND a doctor. Jennifer then went on to give us all sorts of insights into our community; like how the albino man is crazy and talks to himself, how the village bolo (drunk) begs for food and how babies just love gringos. She shared with us all the activities that are going to take place next week for Independence Day, explained why there were so many people out on the street that day and told us about the church and how her grandpa rings the bells.
It was an enlightening experience. And not just because I now know not to drink out of the park fountain because dogs walk around in it.
I want to thank Jennifer for demonstrating a variety of things the Peace Corps staff has been trying to explain to us for the last month: That people will notice us. That any work you put into this experience will be rewarded tenfold. That the people of Guatemala are some of the kindest in the world. That meaningful development work isn’t about huge sums of money or giant projects; it’s about person to person connections and changing communities from the ground up.
Someday Jennifer might become a doctor AND a teacher. And that might be attributed in some minute degree to the gringas that told her she could and then encouraged her later that day in the park while feeding her cookies. It’s this possibility that is going to make the challenges of the next two years worth facing.