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In Guatemala, Building More Than a School

By Marjory Zoet Bankson
September 2009

"Take time to play with the children,” we urged the 17 American pilgrims who had come to the Chimaltenango highlands of Guatemala to help the residents of Las Lomas build a primary school in their remote village. “We’re here to build relationships as much as a school.”

By the second day in Las Lomas, schoolgirls were shyly asking to bend rebar squares and boys were twisting wire to make reinforcing columns that will hold up the roof of this new four-room, earthquake-resistant school. Their fathers worked with us to dig trenches and carry cement blocks. Three of the village women cooked lunch for us daily, while most of the others watched carefully from afar.

Our week-long work experience, organized through Lumunos (formerly Faith at Work), was coordinated by PAVA (Programa de Ayuda a los Vecinos del Altiplano) or the Aid Program for the Highland Communities. PAVA began in 1982 when a former Peace Corps volunteer recognized that many indigenous people, isolated by a raging war, were starving. Several friends teamed with a public health student from Tulane University to identify food needs in the countryside.

A group of wealthy women from Guatemala City began making nutritionally-rich “cookies” which could be transported by motorcycle to these remote villages. Today, those women are the backbone of PAVA’s local board of directors. Additional support is provided by American churches and pilgrims like us.

Once the peace treaty was signed in 1996, PAVA began to focus on building bridges, clean water projects, and primary schools where the Mayan children could learn Spanish, the dominant language. There are 22 Mayan languages in Guatemala. The diversity of Mayan traditions is mostly passed down through weaving and ritual storytelling. Having a local school means that the children can preserve their heritage and also learn skills they will need to find jobs elsewhere.

From the beginning, PAVA has encouraged local community organization by requiring that the village pool funds to buy the land for their school and provide the labor for building it. PAVA provides construction equipment (wheelbarrows and a cement mixer) and a mason to oversee construction. The government provides a teacher and school supplies. All must be in place before the project begins. We arrived to find that the villagers in Las Lomas had already cleared and leveled the land for their school, and had begun the initial trench for the foundation. They were clearly eager to get started.

We worked hard all week, surrounded by stunning mountain views and the colorful woven textiles of the Mayan women. Our younger pilgrims had shared clapping games, bubbles and balloons, jumped rope, and played hide and seek on the precipitous hillside with the students.

The villagers surprised us with two piñatas on the last day, one for the little children and another for the Gringo “big kids.” We realized that playing together is just as important as working together, and we felt blessed by the villagers as we left — planning to return for another PAVA project next year. (Field Focus)

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