Thursday, March 8, 2012
Thursday, March 10, 2011
The classrooms are rudimentary. The walls are made of earthen bricks stacked between mortar. The windows are nothing more than vacancies where the blocks were not placed to allow a meager amount of light into the classroom. For the pre-school, and kindergarten classes, the four walls make a box, about the size of a small dorm room (five yards by six yards), and 50-plus students pile in and sit shoulder to shoulder on wooden benches. Notebooks in lap, a lefty knocks elbows with a righty as they dutifully copy their lessons from the chalkboard. First through sixth grades share one long room; a chalkboard amid rows of benches, partitions one class from another. The difference is striking from that of an elementary school that I recently visited in the US. There I was in a climate-controlled classroom where each student had his or her own desk, books, and supplies.
I am invited here by Ambrose, the principal and founder of Eric Zinnah School, founded in 1998. He brags that he wanted to give the children a place to study despite the conflicts that plagued Liberia throughout the 1990's and early 2000's. The school's motto is: The children will see the light. His invitation isn't purely altruistic, as few invitations in Liberia are. As one of the poorest countries in the world, most live in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day) and are still working to rebuild their livelihoods after civil strife has wrecked infrastructure and stolen economic opportunities. Most enticing offers will eventually reveal a hidden agenda. Ambrose's invitation to visit his school is no exception. He wants me to link my world with his; he wants a sponsor. Eric Zinnah is not a government school nor funded by a religious institution. It is funded by significant yet paltry fees from caring parents that want to see their kids receive a solid education.
With an optimistic look in his eyes, Ambrose shows me an area where he hopes to build an auditorium. I make no promises about sponsors; however, I tell him that I will share the story of his school.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Monday, April 13, 2009
Friday, March 20, 2009
I watch the rain. Tiny drops fall from the sky. Each drop as insignificant as a single grain of sand collected here on the river bank. One minuscule drop may not change one’s actions, environment, but many can move mountains, literally. Together, they possess an unimaginable strength.
For the next three and a half days, we will follow a small stream from its headwaters nearly a mile high to the mouth that feeds the Caribbean. For thousands of years, united drops of water have patiently carved its route from the chilly Quebrada Hacha to the warm seas. As we walk, drop by drop, the rain slowly soaks through our clothes. If we’re not wet from the rain, we’re soaked from the numerous river crossings. Right now, the rain, constant, but not staggering, was just two weeks ago an unstoppable force. Steep slopes on all sides show signs of landslides, simply too much water weighing down the soil and gravity winning.
Rain and landslides are natural processes. However, they are a threat when people make residence where these forces of nature frequently occur. The Ngäbes, a traditionally nomadic people of western Panama, have been forced to settle here in the mountain valleys and along the waterways of the water soaked Caribbean slope. Circular houses, made of sticks and cylindrical thatched roofs, are clustered along the streams and rivers forming small villages far from civilization.
Weekly, a truckload of supplies is dropped off at the end of the road. Sugar, rice, salt, among other things, have already made the three hour trek along a dirt and gravel path from the nearest highway, but the journey has just begun. Men, women, and children must do the rest of the work. Although Ngäbes, on average smaller in stature, may not seem adept to transport this quantity of cargo, they show up in throngs to carry the supplies. All capable do what they can. Using chacaras, a woven bag with a large strap, they haul the supplies through mud, across rivers, up hills, and down boulders. The path is there, but it’s not a trail. Horses can’t make this trek. With the strap of the chacara around the forehead and the cargo against the back, they lean forward and trudge toward their destination.
As we hike, we are accompanied by the locals, each one weighed down with merchandise for their tiny, local tiendas. A woman carries a chacara full of ground coffee and on top of the coffee sits a young baby. With the woman, a boy, about 13 or 14 years old, carries over one hundred pounds of rice. I tell him it’s my turn and we trade cargo, my pack for his chacara. I try lifting it. I raise the rice a few feet off the ground and say, “Que va. No way.” We trade back immediately. I couldn’t imagine carrying such weight for a few minutes on flat ground nevertheless hours or days through mud and mountains.
We arrive to a small village several hours from the end of the road. Here a kid sitting in the rain says to me, “El río crecío mucho. The river grew a lot.” It’s evident that the waters rose dangerously close to the base of nearby houses. I look behind me and a landslide has filled the school with mud and destroyed its structure. The destruction is even more unmistakable as we continue our journey. We look for a way to cross the river, but the bridge has been carried away. Hand in hand, we ford the river. Today it’s able to be crossed, but after an aguacero or heavy rain, the swollen, bridgeless river would be an impassible impediment.
We pass through small communities strung along the river like beads on a string. Every couple of hours a cluster of houses and a school appears and shortly thereafter disappears behind us. Each school is made of cement blocks and a zinc roof. I’m convinced the materials were delivered by helicopter, but after asking the locals they respond, “Al hombro. On the shoulder.” Once again, the Ngäbes’ strength is demonstrated by their ability to work together, carrying cement, zinc sheets, desks, etc. for the betterment of the community.
Finally, the terrain has flattened and the river has widened. We have walked three days from one transport to the next. Early on the fourth day, we take a boat ride down the Río Cricamola and enter the Caribbean. The picturesque skies of the Caribbean are hidden behind clouds and rain. Waves spill over the gunwales, forcing us to take it slow and easy to port. We arrive, albeit cold and wet.
Rain teaches us that alone one is often weak, but joined together in a common task, the whole possess an unimaginable strength. The Ngäbes have learned from the rain.
Monday, February 23, 2009
We greet people shouting “ñon toro deka” or “dre kukwe” or “¿entonces?” in the friendliest of tones. Some respond to us with a smirk of a smile, others run into the bushes (hmmm interesting). Every other house, we sit with the people sharing stories, laughing, engorging on copious amount of local coffee. We explain our work to them and ask them what they produce. Most of people produce coffee and yucca for their main diet. Some have to walk days to get rice and other implements for their household. According to most people rice doesn't grow in this part of the world for one reason or other. Well, it grows, but they get empty spikelets. Kent and I ponder on some conditions that might cause this destitute of rice that people love so much. In some areas, we promise to return with answers and move on.
We visit our friends that were expecting us with their photos taken couple of months ago. Joyful of our arrival, they were a little worried that we wouldn't return. As we hand over their photos, they look with amazement and embarrassment. Some of these people have never seen photos of themselves before and I was wondering what it was going through their head. I remember the first time I saw my photo in Nepal. I was awed and kind of embarrassed how serious I looked next to my grandmother. Ever since then I have decided to smile for all the photos of me. I wonder if these people will think the same...
We drift on with the wind towards my village, occaisionaly stopping to chat with the people. Most people ask us what our mission is in suspicion that we might be miners looking for gold or other natural resources. We explain to them what we do and name people in my town, alas they are quick to be friendly again since most people around here are related to each other. Back in the day outsiders used to prance around this areas looking for possible mining sites. These people are naturally afraid of loosing their land and thus are skeptic.
With torching sun above us and hungry stomach, we concentrate on getting home. We visit some people I know and they offer us with coffee with copious amount of sugar to help us through the next hill before arriving at Kalli's house, where a live chicken awaits my razer-edged machete.
Alas we arrive at Kalli's. She greets us with beef jerky sent to her from United States of America. God Bless America!! A blessing to my mouth. I can no longer fend off this hunger and so I sharpen my machete as Kent runs after the wild chicken as it runs into the bush. It knows this machete is about to go through it's neck. Alas Kent finds the chicken and he hypnotizes it before we decapitate it and take it down to the creek to eviscerate it.
We walk. The green grass, dominating the scene, rustles in the refreshing breeze. The rest of the picture is painted by the blue sky. The sun is fierce, but helps to dry the colorado soils that were plagued by heavy runs just a week before. Perhaps a once tree-filled land, it's now an open savanna, save the trees bordering the streams and rivers. In the openness I feel free. Free of compass. Free of map. Free of guide. Although we are unfamiliar with the terrain, we look to a distant peak and say, "let's go there."
As we amble down the caminito or little path, a man walking down the same trail passes us. I ask him where he is going and he replies, "Voy lejos. I'm going far." Although far is a relative term, many people live six, nine, twelve hours from the nearest road with vehicle access. He continues to walk ahead. He carries nothing more than a seemingly empty little, black backpack. With the sudden realization of all my cargo, I feel less free. I think of Socrates' quote, "How many things I can do without."
After hours of walking, our path disappears into a river. We search the opposite bank and a rocky footpath ascends from the water's edge into the trees. Crossing the waterway, we lift our gear over our heads. The water comes up to my waist. The current, although not overwhelming, is swift enough to steal our cargo should one of us fall and drop it. We continue on a short ways to a nearby house. The family welcomes us to sit down for a cup of coffee. Although I dislike the taste of coffee, I slowly sip it, recognizing it as a humble gift and invitation to chat. As we converse, I ask them about their crops. To my untrained eye, the soil looks like clay and unforgiving to subsistence farming. They proudly talk about their yucca and guandú plots. Yucca, a starchy root, is a staple food and necessary source of carbohydrates and vitamin B. Guandú, a bean from a tree, is a tasty source of protein. Supplemented by oranges, plantains, and an occasional chicken their diet is simple, only covering some of the basic dietary needs. We thank them for the coffee and they send us on our way with a dozen oranges.
In order to make it to our intended camping site before nightfall, that hill off in the distance, we must continue hiking. Trodding on, my mind begins to envy the inhabitants of this vast countryside. They live free of the social pressures found in the cities, where family and food never seem to be enough and simplicity is lost in the honk of taxis or the multitude of cell phones a youth keeps at his disposal.