Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tom's Visit, Part 2 of 4: Classrooms Off Campus

Text by Tom Kemple

Tom Kemple is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a long-term friend of Pop Wuj. With his colleague Sylvia Berryman in Philosophy, he has been bringing groups of students to study in Guatemala since the summer of 2010. In November and December of 2017 he spent five weeks studying Spanish, building stoves, helping out in the Pop Wuj Clinic and Nutrition Program, and having fun at the Family Support Center. What follows are some writings from his trip created in the course of his research project on university fieldschools and study abroad programs, titled “Global Citizenship at Home and Abroad.” We hope you enjoy Tom's stories and insights as much as we enjoyed having him back at Pop Wuj.

My daily rhythms give me a certain confidence and security in being here: Isabel and the Mayan Cosmovision symbol behind her greet me as I enter the school; I immerse myself in Spanish classes every day; watch a film in the evening (“Men With Guns” and “Ixcanul: The Volcano” are well worth it); attend Luis’s roundtable on justice for indigenous people; help out in buying and delivering materials for safe stoves; attend a birthday party at the Family Support Center; help make a fruit salad for our weekly Thursday dinner; or go on a long weekend hike to Lake Chicabal with Alberto and some other students. 

Pop Wuj Entryway

I am slowly getting used to the confusions and irritating inconveniences at my homestay as well: the door to the bedroom only closes after a struggle; the electric heating unit in the shower seems permanently set to tepid, and always hits me in the head; and my housemate and I were locked out of the bathroom for several days when I closed the door behind me. The two-block walk to and from school is an obstacle course of broken sidewalks, dog doo, and unpredictable traffic, which is especially hazardous in the dark.

As I learn to modify my ordinary assumptions and everyday habits, I also come to understand something about myself as a citizen of a supposedly more developed and civilized world. Everyday I have to unlearn things that had always seemed normal and natural to me, and I retrain myself to see my habits and assumptions as products of a long history that I otherwise take for granted.

As many of the students we’ve brought here have said over the years, Pop Wuj’s Safe Stove Project in the poor indigenous village of Llano del Pinal just outside of town is among the most challenging and moving experiences one can have in a lifetime. I spent last Tuesday (election day in the U.S.) helping Carmelina, Benedicto, and another student, Alison, to sift, measure, and mix sand, cement and water for the last of the three stages involved in building a ‘safe stove’ (estufa segura).

A Completed Safe Stove

Doña Maria, the old woman in the blue blouse in the photo, is almost blind from cooking over an open fire over a lifetime in this tiny shack, which I could hardly bear being in for more than 10 minutes at a time (and I live with a chain smoker!). As my Spanish teacher Gerson pointed out to me, the main incentive for people like Doña Maria in having a stove built is the economic saving rather than the health or environmental benefits: 5-6 bags of firewood per month at 30 Quetzales each (about $4US) can be reduced to 3-4 bags with the new stove.

These savings seem to be offset by the large concrete house which is also being built on the plot, presumably from remittances in US dollars sent by relatives working in the States. Despite these improvements, Doña Maria tells us she plans to continue cooking in the shack and living in the wood and straw hut located just behind it.

The afternoon unfolded without a hitch, with our leader Carmelina, who lives in this community (and who took the photo of us), giving us very clear instructions, all the while chatting in K'iché and Spanish with Doña Maria and some neighbors who stopped by.

The next day Carmelina led me, Mynor, Elizabeth, and Carmen, along with 14 members from the families who would be receiving stoves in the coming months, to buy and distribute the stove materials. This time things did not come off so smoothly: the hardware store opened late; we had a hard time organizing a human chain to get 800 bricks loaded onto our truck at the factory; the store that supplied the cement was no longer there; the people delivering the blocks seemed to be lost for the first couple hours; and the caravan of trucks could only barely maneuver in and out of the narrow dirt roads of the village.

Each of these expenditures of muscle and money made me think about the meaning and value we might take from coordinating our efforts for a task that each of us benefits from differently. Or as the sociologist in me would put it, the day reminded me how the material division of labour is infused with a moral spirit of solidarity that each of us experiences in our own way.

No comments:

Post a Comment