Fería, Volcanoes, Literacy: A Cautionary Tale

June 2, 2010

The Great Facilitator Hope group, convened in a comedor

Many of you have probably heard that the Volcán Pacaya erupted on Thursday.  Rest assured, I am safe and sound, although mildly disappointed that Pacaya waited until after I moved to rain ash on Guatemala City. That, dear readers, would have been a good photo post.

By now, you have probably also heard  that tropical storm Agatha passed over El Salvador and Guatemala over the weekend, washing out roads around the country and causing landslides from Guatemala City to Sololá. The Prensa Libre is reporting that at least 150 people are dead, and at least 100 more are missing.  It´s a sobering reminder of how precipitously many poor families live, with just one storm tipping the balance between survival and disaster.

FREIRE finally.

Although it rained in the Zona Reyna for almost 24 hours straight, ironically I probably couldn´t have picked a safer place to wait out the storm. On Sunday the sun came out and the mud began to dry, just in time for the last day of fería. Supposedly a celebration of Lancetillo´s patron saint (in this case, la Virgen herself), fería might best be described as a mix of toned down carnivale and barbecue-less 4th of July. Festivities include a parade, a soccer tournament, lots of kuxa (moonshine) and a beauty pageant to select ¨The Flower of Lancetillo.¨ (In theory, the queen is selected because her knowledge of indigenous culture and language, but the MC went on and on about the ¨beauties of Lancetillo,¨ making me skeptical of this claim.)

Notice that ¨attending literacy classes¨ is not included in the list of fería activities.  What follows is a cautionary tale, a warning of the dangers of mixing fería and the travails of daily life in Guatemala with work.

Decorations for the election of ´The Flower of Lancetillo´

My first week in the Zona Reyna was Busy and Purposeful and Revealing. On Monday, I attended a CONALFA meeting where, illustrating just how few resources the institution really has, facilitators were asked to pay for copies of attendance lists that were to be sent to Guatemala City. In the course of the meeting, it was also revealed that the departmental offices in Quiché have run out of Spanish language text books.

On Tuesday, I attended the first literacy group, which I will henceforth refer to as ¨the disaster,¨ where the 25 women in attendance (and the 20 children they brought with them) sat on pieces of board and stone on the dirt floor because there are neither chairs nor tables. The two facilitators are enthusiastic, but they aren´t implementing any recognizable methodology, Freirean or otherwise, meaning that the participants spent all mornings copying the numbers between 50 to 100 into their notebooks.


There was no public transportation available in this village, so we walked back to Lancetillo. Two hours, uphill.

The municipal hall was crowded and hot, and the competition took hours. I was sleeping on the floor with the babies by the time it was all over.

On Wednesday, I visited a smaller group, which might be called ¨the project.¨ The facilitator is implementing the correct CONALFA methodology and seems anxious to improve, but students still spent most of the class copying an evaluation that the facilitator printed on the board: an evaluation that actually appears on page 70 of the textbooks that everyone, miraculously, has, and brought with them to class. It started raining on the return trip, so I arrived back wrapped like a tamale in borrowed plastic tablecloth because the $50 raincoat I bought in Guatemala City is not, in fact, impermeable.

By Friday, I was feeling overwhelmed, so thank goodness I got to visit the ¨Great Facilitator Hope¨ that is the literacy group of S. The bad news: half the participants from last year´s process have withdrawn because the last facilitator apparently stopped attending classes,  the women meet in a tiny comedor because the school director won´t allow them to use the space, and everyone, including the facilitator, was nursing a baby through the 3 hour class. The good news: said nursing facilitator- who hasn´t finished high school and has never worked for any education program – can teach. Even more importantly, she´s teaching the Freire methodology, and doing it exactly the way I would if I spoke Q´eqchi´.

(Lest you walk away with the mistaken impression that I am puffed up with white woman´s burden zeal, and will soon acquire a verandah and a copy of Cicero to carry in my back pocket, let me reassure you that Q´eqchi´ has put me firmly in my proper place. Despite my best efforts, which included Sunday classes in the city and a week in Antigua, my Q´eqchi´vocabulary consists of about 35 words, and the facilitators teach exclusively in Q´eqchi´.  Making me remarkably useless.)

Dancers leaving the stage- which I couldn´t really see- and a man with a very nice hat

So, I began week two determined to Make Progress. I would 1) encargarme of the dozens of babies, 2) create new instruments that would force the facilitators to actually plan their classes and 3) impose Methodology on ¨the disaster.¨  I bought $40 worth of beach balls and foam puzzles in Cobán and put my mother to work digging up low budget preschool activities. (She rose to the challenge admirably, like the spectacular Children´s Museum employee that she is.) I designed a format for class planning including spaces for signatures. And, I went in search of missing guides from last year, so that the facilitator working with the less advanced women in ¨the disaster¨could give Freire a go.

Unfortunately, this is Guatemala, and it was fería.

Ironically, ¨the disaster¨ was the only group that even met. I was positive I saw the facilitator from ¨the project¨ in the election on Tuesday night, but when I showed up in her community on Wednesday afternoon, her father informed me that she has been bitten by a poisonous worm and had gone to Lancetillo to seek medical treatment.  So no class. (She maintained the same story later, explaining that she was bitten on Tuesday night after the election while staying with her in-laws.  I´m willing to bet this worm is called fería.)

Tuesday I spent trying to track down the missing guide, which involved two visits to the house of last year´s facilitator, who lives down a dirt road that leads up into the mountains. The second time I made the mistake of taking Mercedes, my bicycle, who like her namesake is not designed for six inches of mud. The facilitator was decorating a float for the next day´s parade and so was not to be found, but her mother told me that she gave the guide to the new facilitator, who subsequently quit and gave the guide to the current facilitator, who says the old-new facilitator still has it. So, no guide.

On Friday, I hopefully set out via pickup truck for the ¨Great Facilitator Hope¨ group.  I arrived at the comedor, and no one was there. I waited patiently. No one came.  I tried to call the facilitator, who didn´t answer. Then the cook came out and told me that the facilitator´s son was sick and she had to take him to the doctor, so no class.  (I stopped by her house on the way back to verify that he was not suffering from an acute case of fería, and as it happens the facilitator had told the truth: she had only just arrived back from Lancetillo carrying her son.)

Lesson: In a country where one illness or tropical storm can make the difference between survival and disaster, literacy is not always a priority. And sometimes, a rare opportunity to relax  is more important than holding class.  I need to chill out, and let things move at their own pace.

All was not lost on Friday afternoon. The owner of the comedor took pity on me and gave me a free mug of arroz con leche. And the rains ended,  and we were safe from mud and sinkholes and erupting volcanoes.  And so, I survived to fight my literacy battles another day.  I went swimming in the river. The End.

The Flower of Lancetillo herself, peacing out at 12:30 AM


One Response to “Fería, Volcanoes, Literacy: A Cautionary Tale”

  1. love it! keep blogging…xo, katie in panamá

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