2002 Kristen Ford: Report # 4 : ‘Escuela Rotaria Story’

Kristen Ford
Planet Drum Volunteer

[Soon after arriving in Bahia, Kristen returned from Fanca glowing with amazement and delight. After she told me what happened, I suggested she write up her experience for the website. Here it is….Judy Goldhaft]. 

This story begins with an invitation by the Director of the Escuela Rotaria (Rotary School) in Fanca to work with the natural sciences teacher in her class. The specific goal- to create abundant garden beds in front of the school. The assignment is reasonable enough. In the U.S. I have a lot of experience working with classes to set up garden spaces in schools. I have never gardened in the tropics, but at leastI have a working knowledge of steps to take and questions to ask. 

As I walk to the small school on a dusty side road in Fanca, my stomach starts to turn in knots. The school noises seem different here from the school noises I am used to in the U.S. When I walk through a school in the U.S., the kids are generally in their desks and the place is usually fairly quiet. You only hear that din of noisy students when you pass the cafeteria at lunchtime or the playground at recess. When you walk by the Escuela Rotaria, you hear this noisy din all the time. Kids in their classroom are in their seats at their own discretion. Half the time they are initiating their own activities in one corner of the room. 

I try to remain open minded about cultural differences that I may encounter here, but inside I can’t help but marvel at the chaos! With head held high and a deep breath, I march into the classroom to help out wherever I can. With my less than advanced Spanish speaking skills I venture to find out exactly what they want me to do. Luckily, the kids are on the ball. They run out of their classroom in a swarm as soon as they see me and set to collecting pieces of caña (bamboo) from a storage space. A boy offers to run home as he notes the need for a machete. “Ask the teacher,” I say to him as he darts off down the street without another word. 

The rest of the kids begin assigning themselves to a variety of tasks. Some begin to clear away rocks, while others brush away the potato chip bags, popsicles sticks and plastic bottles that had acculmulated on our proposed garden site. The boy runs back from his house, rusty machete perched over his shoulder and sets about shaping the pieces of caña. I think to myself that this project is going to be a disaster. And somebody’s going to get hurt! 

The chaos continues as a girl drags an enormous post hole digger from a back room. She begins digging large holes in no apparent pattern. Others begin hammering caña into the ground. I am at a loss to find a strategy behind their actions. To me, the kids have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. I want to offer my sense of order, but I can’t seem to find the words in Spanish. And their teacher isn’t questioning a thing! 

The chaos multiplies as large tree branches are clumsily hauled out of the school by a handful of kids. How poorly organized I think to myself. I struggle to bring a method to the madness. I search for any kid who seems to be doing things the way that I would be used to. I don’t find any. I try offering a little of my own organization to the folks “in charge” of the pieces of caña. They politely listen and keep on with their work. The kids certainly are focused. 

I finally resign myself to sit down with the teacher and watch the kids with her. Well, I guess they just let things be chaotic here, no sense in trying to control them. Sitting on a rock in the heat of the late morning sun, I have no idea that I am about to witness an act of magic. In a moment the fence materials take on a form through the actions of the children with a life all its own. Before my eyes, a perfectly constructed fence takes shape in an instant. 

What had seemed to be mindless games was actually a sophisticated pattern language, shared by all of the kids in the class. To me it had seemed that the kids knew nothing about cooperatively organizing a project. In fact, they knew how to cooperate in such a sophisticated manner that it was virtually transparent. Who knew that a bunch of unruly ten year old kids could construct a beautiful and functional fence? I have been humbled. 

Intellectually I had been careful to avoid the arrogance and presumption of so many Americans who work in “developing” countries, though I couldn’t help but feel culturally superior as the class progressed. I was so sure that I was coming from the side of organization and order and that the kids had no idea what they were doing. I couldn’t have been more confused. 

The language to construct a fence is culturally ingrained in these children. Their experiential levels of knowledge are so fine-tuned. They can communicate with each other to organize its construction on such an advanced level that I couldn’t begin to understand. No one, not even the people who live in Bahia live the people who live in this community much credit. How do I let these kids know just how creative they are? How do I let them know that they know how to create something that is filled with such life? I am at a loss to find an answer to these questions. Instead I will bask in the awe that I have for these children and share my story of true humility and awakened respect. 

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