Ode to Reading Rainbow
category: Emilys Guatemala

I am a big fan of books, and have been for as long as I can remember. I’m also lucky enough to never have problems reading in a car, airplane, boat, not even on chicken buses racing down the InterAmericana highway, or bumping their way up and over the Cuchumatanes. I love reading, and I hate being bored. As most of you know from our previous posts, any time we need to travel anywhere, to the state capital, to Xela, and especially all the way to Antigua, we’re signed up for hours upon hours in a chicken bus. I like watching the scenery roll by as much as the next guy, but I’ve seen it all a million times. So I carry a book, and I read and read and read the hours away. It’s a good idea in general to carry a book with you for this job. I can’t count the times that we’ve shown up for meetings with various people who arent’ there, and since we’ve traveled far and waited a long time for these meetings, we don’t want to turn around and go home having accomplished nothing. I read a book to pass the time until said person shows up.

In this job I feel like we are resident aliens–as strange as actual martians to the people we live and work with. Everything we do is a source of curiosity for them. It’s pretty normal to sit at home working on the computer (like I’m doing right now) and have children hanging over the dutch door looking in at what I’m doing on the computer (like they are right now). Computers are very strange things, like television screens, but somehow you as the operator can manipulate what’s happening on the screen. It’s crazy. I understand their fascination with computers–they’re pretty dynamic and interesting looking as well. But I find it just plain disturbing that, while I read a book, there are often equally perplexed stares, from adults and children alike, trying to figure out what I’m doing reading a book. “Es la biblia?” they ask–Is it the Bible, since that’s the only book they’re familiar with. Truth be told, I’ve never taken a copy of the Bible with me on a road trip. I tell them I’m reading historias, about different places and different people. They smile politely, and continue to look perplexed. Once I was reading The Audacity of Hope and Chalio saw my book, because he notices just about everything in our house and about our lives. His eyes were big with excited recognition, “Ba-Rack O-BAMa!” he nearly shouted. Indeed that was the man on the cover.

During training Peace Corps gives us an outline of all the things we’re supposed to do, and they also talk a fair amount about all the things we could do, citing examples from past volunteers. One of the things they mentioned as a possible side project was a small community library. At the time I thought it would be so exciting to leave a village with a library as I finished up my service. I can’t describe how profoundly and postively I was affected by my community library. I didn’t grow up in a family with a huge disposable income, but the great thing about a library is you don’t need money–just your card (and a parent willing to drive you). Call me what you will, but my first solo drive was, on a Friday night, to my local library. My mom and dad read to us almost every night before bed when we were little. They are both avid readers as well. We were read to at school after lunch through the fifth grade. We had a school library in addition to the Logansport Community Library. I read book after book after book, thanks to the library. After college I lived two blocks from the Galesburg Community Library and two blocks from the Knox College Library, where I frequented both. Any time I want to know anything I turn first to the internet, and if it’s something I want to learn more about, I find book recommendations, and then make a trip to the library. The library is the basis of how I was taught to learn, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, how to be a life long learner.

In Guatemala there are precious few libraries. To be sure, there are no libraries available to the kids we live and work with. Why is that, might you ask? Until this year the government hadn’t used a computer database to register births and keep track of its 13 million citizens. Why would they have libraries with a simple database to keep track of books? More to the point, the illiteracy rate in Guatemala is nearly 50%, and about 40% of the population speaks a Mayan dialect as a first language. Most Mayan dialects were scantily recorded in written form prior to the civil conflict that ended with the Peace Accords in 1996. Since then, Guatemalans and foreigners alike have been working to record Mayan languages. Still, there are very few books written in these languages outside of text books for schools and, of course, the Bible. The books that are available are usually cost prohibitive, around $20 apiece (that’s about a week’s wages), not quetzales but DOLLARS, because the books are imported. As a volunteer I can’t afford new books either, but PCVs over the years have developed a sizeable library/exchange based at the training center where I load up every trip, and trade with other volunteers in the meantime. Also, lending as a concept doesn’t yet work well here. People tend to take what is lent to them and then not return it since there is no real incentive to do so. This is a bane to library projects, as you might imagine.

curiousgeorge2.jpgAnyway, I thought I’d keep the library project in the back of my mind, just in case it seemed to be something the leaders were interested in. Much time has passed: we can’t get any of our current projects to produce results; and I’d nearly forgotten about the library, but something happened the other day that made me wish, again, that we could do a library project. While my mother in law was visiting she brought us an extra copy of Jorge el Curiouso. She’d bought books for the kids in Fletch’s host family near Antigua, but we’d bought one of the kids that book for Christmas last year, so we left this new copy on our shelf here. And I didn’t think much about it for a long time. Last week the weather turned cold and rainy for a few days in a row. We had the fire going and were generally staying in doors. Kids came by, as they always do, to see what we were doing, and probably with the hope that we’d let them come in and sit by our fire. Yojana, a timid but very nice and polite 12 year old neighbor girl came in and watched me reading. She asked me some questions about what I was reading, and suddenly I remembered the book. I asked her if she wanted to read too (she does go to school here, so I hoped she could make some sense out of a book for young beginning readers). She smiled and said she would like to read a book, so I handed it over and went back to reading my book. I heard her whispering, sounding out the words as she went along, eyes bright looking at the mostly primary color illustrations of Curious George, that funny little monkey that always gets into trouble, and the man with the big yellow hat that constantly gets him out of his messes. I was so moved, and awe-struck by this thing I love and take for granted on a daily basis, books and reading. Johanna left, and a little while later a troop of muddy, damp little boys showed up at the door, six of them to be exact. I asked them if they wanted to come in and read a book with me. As Fletch would tell you, the kids don’t take off their shoes when invited to our house, rather they now jump directly out of their shoes and into our house as quickly as possible. We seated them around the fire, and I started the first public reading of Jorge el Curioso. These usually rowdy guys, known to pinch and poke and elbow their way through visits to our house, sat completely mesmerized through the whole story. Occassionally Chaly would make an observation, such as, “That boat looks like the Titanic!” And he was correct, the big boat that carried Curious George from his home continent to the home continent of the man with big yellow hat did look a lot like a cartoon drawing of the Titanic. I asked Chaly how he knew about the Titanic, “I watch TV” he said smiling. Of course. I was pretty happy by the end of our impromptu reading, and had a couple of bananas that were overly ripe for my eating (which I usually turn into banana bread) so I asked them if they wanted a snack. That’s a very silly question, really. They split 3 bananas between them, happily eating and talking about the book.  

curiousgeorge1.jpgSince then we’ve had kids come back and ask for me to read it aloud, and older kids who’ve asked to come in and read to themselves. It’s a pretty popular book around town. Delvin and Michelle are best buddy cousins, grandkids of Nas Palas. Delvin is older by a year, but Michelle is bossier. They came in one day to hear the book, and Michelle (probably because she is younger) got bored and said, “I’m going, let’s go Delly.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the illustrations as he sighed, “Maj” –I don’t want to. He stayed until the story was done. But we only have one book. I’d say, “Hey, anyone who wants to, send us your favorite book in Spanish. Do it! I’ll start doing a weekly reading and maybe we could leave the books in a corner of the computer center,” but that would end up costing us a fortune with the new import taxes on packages. 🙁 Regardless, we’ve decided that we are bringing Spanish books back when we visit the states for Thanksgiving. The kids might loose interest once they’ve memorized all of Curious George, and I don’t want anyone to lose interest in books. And I also spotted a flaw in waiting until the leaders asked for books–they don’t know the importance of them either. Computers are big, expensive, flashy–they have a perceived value in addition to a real value. Everyone talks about everything you can do with a computer, but books haven’t been publicized to these folks in the same way.  

I keep thinking of one of my favorite PBS programs as a kid, Reading Rainbow, with LaVar Burton (Star Trek). My big brother, also a fan, sent me an NPR news obituary for the show in August. Why, if it was the third longest running show in PBS history next to Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, could it no longer find enough funding to continue? Because PBS tries to direct its programs and their content to the educational needs of its viewers, and their research shows that nowadays in the US the viewers don’t need to know why to read books, but rather, the audience needs first to know how to read a book. So instead of Reading Rainbow they should develop a show that teaches basic phonics and reading skills. This struck me as terribly sad. What are we doing wrong in the US education system, that kids aren’t learning how to read in class? Undoubtedly there’s no simple answer to this question, but I think it’s an important question precisely because it’s difficult to answer. If PBS is going to design a fun, interactive how to read program, they’ve got their work cut out of them. But I think we should ask what should we be doing to improve education so that kids are ready for programs like Reading Rainbow. And then we should DO those things.

I don’t think, contrary to what some folks probably think I think, that television is pure evil. Lots of great things come of television. I believe stations like PBS have proven over and over it is a power that can be used for good. However, there’s so much crap on television. Commercials tell you everything– what you should wear, what you should eat, what kind of tampons you should be wearing (which is something you’ll need to know if you didn’t listen to the commercials about the birth control that will only give you your period every three months), where you should go on vacation, what kind of erectile dysfunction medication you should be on to better enjoy that vacation (but let’s hope your female partner got the right pack of pills so that vacation doesn’t end up producing a kid). Seriously, it’s a total bombardment of the brain. There are packs of people that go to school to study marketing and psychology and later the psychology of marketing, and the more kids sit in front of television the more vulnerable they are to all these carefully crafted manipulations that provide them with very limited and select real information. Chalio’s comment about the Titanic made me think again that maybe the television isn’t an all bad thing here. This kid will have a better idea of what happens in the world outside of his village by watching television. But he’s also subject to all the manipulations of television, and I would argue that he’s even more vulnerable than most kids I know in the states because both of his parents are uneducated and have almost as much trouble sorting through the information as he does. Example: commercials flaunt the purchasing of all kind of junk food, and people who have no nutrition education whatsoever, might think it’s great to buy those junk foods and feed them to their kids. That’s what they do here, which wastes large sums of money and and actually robs the kids of opportunities to consume nutritious foods. Maybe you think this is an overly dramatic example, but I swear I’m not exaggerating anything. Kids all over this country suffer from malnutrition that is exacerbated by the consumption of junk food–bags of chips and cheese puffs, suckers and soda–in place of nutrition rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, and even the real potato french fries sold by street vendors. This is a perfect example of advertising manipulation that people here are moved by, and being illiterate gives them no way to defend themselves, to seek and find alternative information. They are dependent on what they hear on television and radio.

Books (and newspapers even) are a great way to learn with fewer advertisements. But more importantly, I believe books foster an imagination that will later be responsible for creative problem solving and thinking–or any lack thereof. We can talk a lot about the poverty suffered by third world countries, but sometimes I feel like monetary poverty isn’t so stark as the intellectual poverty the people here suffer. Their educational system is based on rote memorization, if they even go to school at all. There is no imagination, no creative thinking, no fantasizing. There are no story books, very few moral tales, so many of the things employed to teach our children in the US. The longer I’m here the more I think people should invest almost exclusively in educational projects for development. These kids are naturally curious, just think what books could do for them! Without books they are limited, and not just kids here or kids there, but people everywhere are limited to the extent that their educational research tools are limited. I would refer you now to the public service announcement/youtube video that Fletch posted yesterday, read a book. READ A BOOK! And if you are a reader that uses our blog as a way to understand possible ways of getting involved in development projects, here’s a pro-book project in Guatemala you can look into: Probigua (Pro Bibliotecas Guatemala–for libraries in Guatemala). They’re US headquarters is in Portland, Oregon–maybe I should work for them after Peace Corps? Seriously, try for a minute and imagine your life without books. Mine would have been a different life entirely. I’m so thankful for all the books in my life, and all the people who brought them to me.

Posted by: emily