Mayan Health and Education Project

Project Update

The focus of this project is to combat poverty in Guatemala, and promote a peaceful future for this country, still recovering from a 36 year civil war, through health and education in a rural community there. To begin, we travel to the village of Huixoc, nestled among coffee plants in the highlands of Guatemala near the Mexican border. The turquoise building is the school.

The educational aspect of this project focuses on the children of the village. Many of the students seen below on the playground and in their classroom will never even complete the optional six years of education provided by the government because of financial pressures to help support their families by working for meager wages in unskilled jobs: picking coffee or doing odd construction jobs.

Since my last newsletter in the spring of 2007, there have been many exciting changes in the school. Our second class started in January 07 and included several Ladino students who live in villages within walking distance of Huixoc. Some students walk up to two hours each way to attend school every day along roads like this one to Naranjal, a village further up the mountain. The route is steep and often muddy

As the school has a bilingual Mayan-Spanish curriculum, this presented a bit of a challenge for the community. Ultimately a third teacher, Ana Lopez was hired to teach the Mayan language, Mam to the non-Mayan students and reading and writing in Mam to all the Maya enrolled in the school none of whom could either read or write in their spoken native tongue.

Another goal of the school is the recovery of many of the cultural practices of the community which were set aside during the nearly four decades of violence. One of these traditions is the playing of the marimba. Marimba classes are among the most enjoyable aspects of the school program.

In July, 2007, I accompanied Zoila and Tijash, now living in Canada, on their visit to Huixoc. It was my first visit to the school while students were attending classes. I enjoyed sitting in on class projects, such as this one about the environment and watched them as they practiced their typing. The students have to share typewriters as there are not enough for everyone.

We had meetings with the school committee and teachers to deal with administrative issues that are a part of running any school. We also looked for another teacher for the third class which would begin the following January. The members of the committee continue to develop their leadership skills to deal with all aspects of this project, including the concerns of parents, students and teachers, balancing the books and paying the teachers. They also consult regularly with both Alejandro and me in Canada by cell phone. They do this as volunteers in addition to holding down the jobs that support their families. In September they organized a celebration for Guatemala's independence.

I returned to Central America in November, as part of a human rights delegation in Honduras. This allowed me to be present in Guatemala as a concerned international observer of the presidential election in Rabinal, the home of our mentor school. I was able to spend a very productive morning after the election with the director of the school in Rabinal, discussing topics of mutual concern and interest. We also set a date for a school exchange to take place the following March.

Both schools have adopted a bilingual curriculum which was developed in Columbia for indigenous people living in a rural setting. This methodology was introduced and taught through an organization called the Talita Kumi with its campus in the town of San Pedro Carcha, on the outskirts of Coban. We still receive all our textbooks from them and they continue to provide supervision and quality assurance for the teachers of the school in Huixoc.

March, 2008 was a very full visit to the school. Ian Cameron and his wife Katherine traveled by land and arrived at Huixoc just ahead of me and had started working on a video about the school. Ian had already produced an excellent video for the Canadian project, Child Haven, which runs a number of orphanages in India, Nepal, Tibet and Bangladesh. He had offered his services to create a similar video for the Mayan Project. It was a very intense week of filming and interviewing with over 14 hours of film to produce a 9.5 minute video.

The next couple of weeks were dedicated to preparing for the school exchange as the students rehearsed their presentations. While the students practiced, Zoila, Alejandro and I met with the Minister of Education and a representative from the Talita Kumi to initiate the process of registration of the school. Once completed, it would give the school in Huixoc the authority to grant junior high school certification and to apply for funding within Guatemala. This process is still on-going.

At 4 am on March 25th one hundred students, teachers, parents and representatives from Canada (Zoila, Alejandro, their son Tijash and me) boarded two buses for the 13 hour bus trip across Guatemala to our sister school in Rabinal.

The students spent two days getting to know each other, exchanging cultural presentations, playing football (soccer) in a friendly rivalry between schools.

The largest impact of this exchange was the moving stories the students heard about the civil war in Rabinal. This region had been one of the most devasted areas in Guatemala during the war. The government's wartime policy of genocide had been carried out relentlessly in the villages around Rabinal. As a community they had been courageous in their pursuit of peace and reconciliation by holding accountable through legal process those who had carried out these crimes against their people in Guatemala. We visited their museum which told their story. We also visited the Mayan cemetery with its monuments to the villages, naming every man, woman and child who had lost their lives during that tragic time.

Back at our quarters on the school ground, there were intense conversations, lead by the teachers, about these events which were both disturbing and new for many of our students. In the front row, showing open compassion and concern was one of the Ladino students: a symbol to the reconciliation which was also happening in the community of Huixoc. Through the opportunity to learn together and play together, the Ladino and Mayan students were developing a mutual understanding and respect for each otherŐs culture and people. This is the hope of reconciliation for future generations in Guatemala. This Mayan school survives because there are people in Canada who have been moved by the poverty and struggle for peace in Central America and have responded with such generosity

On November 24th, 2008, 22 young men and women became the first students to graduate from junior high school in a ceremony that honoured not only the students but also the committee who has supported the school locally and the people of Canada to whom the whole community paid tribute. The Canadian flag was held side by side with the flag of Guatemala while the Canadian national anthem was sung. All 800 guests who filled the school yard stood with their right hand over their heart and said thank you to Canadians who had made that moment possible for the children of their community.

We have a short video of the first class graduation (about 4.5 minutes) in Quicktime MP4 format. A free plugin for Quicktime is available here .

It is now 2009, a new class of 26 enthusiastic students have joined the school. Thanks to so many gifts of education that were given at the end of last year, 18 of the 22 graduates are now commuting to high schools. Their schooling in Huixoc has been accepted by every institution to which they applied and the work continues in the little school on which they took a huge leap of faith three years ago.

Thank you all for your amazing support that has made this story possible

Ellen Coburn