Update- why education in poor countries is poor

Today the teacher’s union here declared another strike. So far we’ve had a 24 hour strike (I got off), a 48-hour strike (Kinder still had classes) and now starting Monday we’ll have a 72-hour strike of all grade schools and high schools. And if the teachers still don’t get their demands the next step apparently is an indefinite strike. It sounds as if it’s not that uncommon for these things to happen either. My first thought is of the children who only get 20 hours of school a week as it is and don’t need to be missing so many school days. And then I think of the poor parents who most likely leave their kids at home alone because they can’t afford the childcare, and if they do put them in childcare, this is now 6 extra days that they have to pay for.

Then I think of the professors, are they justified in being so angry? It appears that perhaps they are. Like most teachers, their jobs are incredibly important to the formation of the next generation and yet they are under-paid and work in very challenging conditions (class sizes of 45+ and not even enough chairs for all the students). As Tom mentioned in an earlier post, food prices have increased significantly here in the last 5 years from what we gather and the teachers claim they haven’t been given an adequate cost-of-living increase. An increase of 15% was announced about a month ago but that did not satisfy most since apparently everything, including government fees, have increased at least 15% leaving them with the same or less equivalent take-home. In addition, Evo Morales, personally, and his government officials have apparently made countless promises that they have failed to complete. This is particularly ironic because one of Evo’s slogans is “Evo cumple” which means basically that Evo follows through with his word, he’s there for you. Now as you can imagine “Evo no cumple” is heard more frequently. One promise in particular (which surprised me when I heard it) is that for the last two years he has said the government will buy laptops for every single government-paid teacher. I assume this is an initiative to modernize education, improve the teaching, etc. Well two years have passed, and no laptops have arrived. This issue is apparently on ‘the list’ that the teachers are presenting to the government with this most recent strike. I’m not particularly surprised that the teachers haven’t received laptops; they’re even more expensive here because everything is imported. Tom priced out a laptop he wanted and it cost $200 more to buy from Bolivia than to buy from the U.S., not including shipping. Just in general, technology is pricey here, since there is no local option. What surprises me is WHY he would make such a promise, and why they believed him. That’s extremely expensive for the government, the same government that closed our preschool for the month of February because sugar prices were high.

Besides the previous 15% increase, the government’s only response has been to announce that the teachers’ salaries will be discounted for every day that they strike. So both sides are trying to play hardball. I don’t think the teachers will get their laptops, at best they’ll get a pay raise (they probably make about $125/month currently). I think an indefinite strike would be a real shame for the students however.

Day of the Sea

This is one of the funnier idiosyncrasies of Bolivian politics. They just will not let it go that they are land-locked due to a 19th century war with Chile. So every March 23rd, school children across the country make boats out of construction paper and are told it is their national duty to get Bolivia’s sea access back. It does make some sense from an economy and global-shipping standpoint, but you can tell they really take it personally also. Here’s a good story about it. I stayed home sick from the Kinder today but I know our kids were coloring boats and learning about it also.

World Water Day

Today being World Water Day, I’ve been thinking about our water here in Montero and wanted to share my thoughts with you, our lovely blog reader.

First, we usually don’t drink the water from the tap here.  For the (fairly large amount of) water that we drink here, we have one of those blue 5-gallon water dispensers…like the office water cooler, except there is no cooling function :-(   However, for cooking, showers, and laundry we’re using the tap water here.  Usually that seems to work out fine, but a few times (less than 10 since we’ve been here) our water will turn brown and dirty!  That’s no good when you’re trying to boil a pot of spaghetti, and would be worrisome if I were in the shower when it happens.  Luckily this has never lasted more than an hour or two, and then everything is back to normal.  Some of the people here said it was because they had been cleaning build-up out of the water tower, but I’m not sure if I believe that.

Everyone we talked to here says that the tap water is safe for drinking, and I haven’t really seen anything that would make me believe otherwise.  After all we do live in a sizeable city, and they do have water treatment facilities at work.   Since we’ve been down here, and our bodies have gotten more adjusted to everything, we’ve been a bit less careful about only drinking the bottled water.  Now for some stuff, like brushing our teeth, we’ll use the tap water, and it’s been working out fine.

Everything here is different outside of town though.  We haven’t had a lot of direct experiences, but we’ve heard some stories about people in the countryside having to get by with some pretty bad surface water (streams, ponds, etc).  We just talked to a person last weekend who was working in one of the communities to install a well for them, so that they could have a source of water that wasn’t completely contaminated.

From a broader perspective, I think we might be starting to turn the corner on clean water access.  Ten years ago, this was a huge issue that wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Now there have been tens or even hundreds of thousands of wells drilled in all sorts of communities around the world.  That combined with the fact that 2010 saw the point where we went from more people living in the country to more people living in urban environments, where is is at least feasible to setup clean water distribution systems if they aren’t there already, means that if we keep pressing this is a problem that we might get close to solving in the next several years.  There’s still a ton to do, but I think there’s at last reason to be positive about the situation.

Tales of a Kinder Computer Teacher

Imminent disk failure….dead batteries….spiders living on motherboards. These are the daily struggles I encounter in trying to keep my 29 computers up and running. Most days only about 25 are functioning for whatever reason. I just hope as many are up as possible on Wednesdays when I have my two classes of 36 students come in.

The theme song of my lab is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” as I have a growing cemetery of dead monitors, motherboards, keyboards, CD drives, everything. Luckily since I’m working for free and we received so many donations for the Institute’s computer lab, Madre Clara was able to scrape some money together from my salary and the donations to buy six new computers. Those computers are a god-send but even still sometimes I have problems with them.

Since I’ve discovered that one of my most valuable skills here is my computer knowledge, I attempt to provide my own tech support in the lab, although I lean heavily on Tom. Interestingly, this is my first time ever using Windows 98 (as I switched from Macs to Windows with Windows XP) and I’m stretching my brain trying to remember what to do with floppy disks and their ridiculous formatting issues.

As far as the teaching, I have rapidly improved in that area. Kindergartners like to repeat things and like receiving incentives to participate. My main lesson plans have been: name the four parts of the computer, which finger do we click with, and no food in the computer lab. If they remember these things from one week to the next, they receive stickers for giving the right answers in class. I’m also trying to teach a little English as well. All I’ve tried so far is “Hello Miss Laura” and “My name is.” They don’t remember it from week to week though. Once a week is just not enough for a new language. Interestingly, since they do only see me once a week, I could practically do the same lesson plan for four weeks in a row and they might not really notice. For my own sake, I mix it up though.

With the pre-kinder students I’m still working on basic mouse skills but some of my Kinder students already can double-click and move the mouse well. For them, I’m moving on to the dragging with the mouse this week but every week is a review of how to hold the mouse and how to click. In retrospect I should have spent more time on holding the mouse and moving it but I forgot that that was something learned! It feels so second nature to me I forgot there was a time when I didn’t know how to do it.

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I start class projecting things on the front board (also a god-send to have a teacher’s computer and a projector) and reviewing vocabulary and then I show them how to play a game and give them the chance to do it on their own. The first part of the class I’m constantly fighting with them to pay attention to me and not be pounding on buttons on their computers. The second part of the class I can’t keep them in their seats and there’s constantly a group following me around asking for help “Profesora Laura no puedo, Profesora Laura no puedo.” Usually it takes me 20-30 minutes just to get around to each child and remind them how to click and then the period’s over. Any time that students aren’t in the lab, I’m installing new games or trying to trouble-shoot whichever computer wouldn’t turn on that day. And that’s a little window into my life from 2-6 pm every Monday-Thursday until November!

Lent in Bolivia

On Ash Wednesday when Tom reminded me that it was a day of fasting, indignation and disappointment rushed into my mind as I thought, “wait I still have to do that here?”   Possibly because I’ve felt like I’ve been fasting and sacrificing for the past 6 months, I subconsciously thought that lenten fasting wouldn’t apply to me.  Isn’t everyday Lent here compared to home?

But this thought process just forced me to take a step back and count all my blessings here.  I need to get out of the mindset of listing what I miss from the U.S. and instead appreciate all the amazing things I get to experience here that are only temporary.   So for Lent Tom and I have both resolved to use more of our time for the greater glory of God and less time dwelling in personal comfort.  To this end I have given up watching American TV shows which I like to watch to “forget” I’m in Bolivia, and instead I am doing more reflection, prayer and blog-writing.

This evening I had company while I was reading my Lenten reflection.  As I read aloud, Isaias lay on the floor next to my computer smiling contentedly and showing off his 1 year old teeth.  He’s living with the Sisters right now to get some extra attention that he can’t receive at the Hogar.  Isaias came to the Sisters as an infant when his mother died of brain cancer.  She was already sick when she became pregnant and the father immediately renounced the sick woman and the baby.  Isaias had a rough start from conception and was never properly nourished.   During a surgical attempt to remove her tumor, the mother died when Isaias was only a few months old.   Alone and anemic, Isaias arrived at the Hogar and despite attempts to fatten him up he’s still a little skinny and developmentally behind for his age.  Particularly, he’s having a lot of trouble crawling and walking, so the Sisters brought him to the convent to feed him well and provide him more one-on-one locomotion practice.   This is how Isaias ended up on my floor tonight.  He had been crying in the office of the Guarderia with Madre Inez so I took him back to our house to play until she was done working.  The lenten reflection I was reading was motivational and suggested ways we could take up our cross and follow Jesus: spend 5-10 minutes in prayer, reach out to someone each day, find something each day to be grateful for.   Looking down at Isaias I realized I had taken up my cross that day without even knowing it.  I had never felt such a strong conviction before that I was serving Christ with my whole heart.  It was one of those fleeting moments in life when you can say with absolute certainty, “yes, this is where I’m meant to be.”

Isaias with milk mustache : )


We’re a little behind here, but Carnaval in Bolivia was amazing and such a fun experience.

We started on Friday with a corso (march through the streets with a band) and a big water fight at the Kinder.

The kids were dressed up in various Halloween-type costumes with the key components being bright colors, masks, water guns and whistles!

Then Friday night we went to Montero’s corso which despite starting at 10pm and ending at 2am was a family-friendly event.  It involved floats and dancing groups.  Each float had it’s own “queen.”

Below is the official Montero queen, so her float was the nicest.

Saturday morning we went to Santa Cruz for a get-together of hogars in the area and each group put on a dance.  Then Saturday afternoon I organized another water fight with my youth group, Infancia Missionera.  (drenching #2)  With the older youth group (Seguidores de Cristo) I help give a talk on chastity and why you should wait until marriage to have sex.  Apparently some who out-grow water balloons celebrate Carnaval with promiscuity and condoms are given out on the streets of Santa Cruz.  We didn’t experience anything like that though.

On Sunday Carnaval REALLY started, Friday and Saturday were just a warm up.  We mostly spent Sunday resting and staying dry until Sunday night when we went to the Carnaval party at the Hogar.   At the Hogar each “house” of girls (they are sorted by age into bedrooms, each with 15-20 girls) crowned a queen and prepared costumes and a dance.  At the last minute I was asked to step up to the judge’s table and help judge who had the best queen, best choreagraphy, and best costumes.  The queen’s outfits were REALLY impressive since they were all home-made with craft supplies.  First, each house paraded with their queen and danced.  This part involved quite a bit of sprayed foam (apparently a crucial part of a Carnaval parade) and some very loud music.

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After the parade was all-out dancing time until the food was ready.  We all sat back down, queens were awarded their respective prizes and dinner was served.  We had rice with green beans and tomatoes, bbq-d meat and sausage (under-cooked), boiled bananas and yucca.  It was very tasty, almost worth the diarrhea we both had the next day!  After the food was more dancing and the last of the foam was sprayed as the queens’ outfits slowly unraveled and the parts were carried away as prizes by the younger girls.   The dancing and loud music continued for quite a while but we excused ourselves a little before 11 pm to head back with some of the Sisters.

Monday was WATER day at the Hogar!  After lunch and all the chores and clothes-washing were finished for the day (all the girls 6 and over wash all their clothes themselves by hand) it was a water free for all!  (Normally in Bolivian culture it is considered unhealthy to get yourself wet and children are always chastized for it, so this is a really exciting thing for them.)  We showed up armed with 200 water balloons and a mini-water gun while the Sisters handed out another 600 water balloons to the girls and various buckets were acquired.   We started just bombarding each other inside the Hogar until one of the workers opened the front gates and let the girls go stand by the street.  It’s a pretty busy street so there were lots of opportunities to throw water balloons at motorcycles and dump buckets of mud on cars.   This is where I started becoming a little more shocked by Carnaval.  There were bands of people walking around the streets with water guns full of paint and other ammunition like mud and foam.  Also Montero is largely a city of motorcycles and everyone who passed on a motorcycle was either carrying a water gun themselves or had someone on the back as the “gunner.”  And this is where things started getting “feo” or ugly.  The girls got sprayed with paint quite a few times, engaged in a war with a passing group of boys (which I’m proud to say they won), and at least one truck that passed had a man on back dumping used car oil on people.  So when the Madre got wind of this she barged out and yelled at everyone to get back inside.  In addition girls were sent out to scrub the paint off the walls.   Though now painted and smelling of oil the girls couldn’t have been happier.  Our god-daughter Carmen got oiled so after she changed her clothes I helped her try to shampoo it out.  The smell didn’t really come out though.  Despite that we were shocked and concerned about some of these practices, we didn’t feel we had the authority or the place to tell the girls to stop.  We avoided the paint however and escaped only drenched in water. (drenching #3)

Tuesday (also a holiday from work and school because I guess it’s just useless trying to get people to stop partying) we stayed home and got caught up on laundry and sleep and got some work done for the upcoming week.  Tuesday evening we had the Hogar volunteers over for our weekly community dinner, and they got bombarded by water balloons on the 1-block walk over.  Other than that our Carnaval ended peacefully.

God-daughter’s Birthday

Last Saturday, our god-daughter from the hogar, Maria del Carmen (usually just goes by Carmen as everyone is a Maria around here), turned 7 (we think, she wasn’t sure).  To celebrate we took her out for ice cream to a spot in town, and told her to pick two friends that she wanted to bring with her.  We met them around dinner time and took a taxi to the main plaza.  Luckily for us things weren’t too crazy (it was Carnival weekend after all), we did get sprayed with a bit of foam inside the taxi as we were driving down one of the side streets though, but we arrived at the restaurant without incident.

Once we grabbed a table and sat down, we had to decide what to order.  None of us had eaten, so we decided to get a bit of food for an appetizer before our main course of ice cream.  We settled on a plate of salchi-papas (which is french fries with pieces of hotdog cut up over it) and a couple plates of plain fries.  While we were waiting for the food to come, we told the girls they could go play in the play area.  The play area was a typical child-proofed contraption, like you’ll find in the kids area at McDonalds.  However the girls were a bit afraid of it and didn’t really want to go, as they’d never been to anything like that before.  It took a bit of convincing to get them in, but about ten seconds after they entered it that was all forgotten and they were running around having a great time.

It took a while for the fries to arrive, and they seemed to have tired themselves out by then, or they were just excited and didn’t want to miss the food…I’m not sure.   When they got their plates of fries, they thought it was a great treat, but it was a common example of the eyes being bigger than the stomach, and none of them could finish so Laura and I had to help out ;-)   Three of the most exciting parts for them were the ketchup, mayonnaise and napkins.  They weren’t familiar with any of them and didn’t know how to use the squirt bottles to get the condiments out.  They also didn’t know what a napkin was used for (there aren’t any at the Hogar).  After we caught one girl using her shirt to clean up a spill on the table we had a discussion about how to use a napkin.  By the end of the night we had gone though all the napkins at the table!  Possibly more out of novelty than need.

Ordering ice cream was also a bit of a trick.  They were all super excited for ice cream, but none of them had any idea what form it should take.  They weren’t familiar with concepts such as a “sundae” or any of the fancier ice cream creations that were available. And ordering was further complicated by the fact that any time chocolate ice cream was mentioned they all shouted “Chocolate! Chocolate!”  In the end we just ordered the first three things on the menu for them, so they could try a couple different ones.

When the ice cream came, it was another instance of the eyes being bigger than the stomach.  Once again Laura and I had to make the great sacrifice and help them out with theirs ;-)

But finally all the cups of ice cream were cleaned out.

Once we were finished with the ice cream, it was time to open the presents.  The main present Laura and I got her was a barbie-like doll along with some stickers, seen immediately after opening here:

The doll was somewhat of an adventure.  Laura had figured out a couple months ago that Carmen would be interested in having a doll for her birthday (like any 7yr old girl).  Laura then came up with a grand plan of finding a culturally sensitive doll, that actually depicts someone with dark skin and hair (unlike the tall, white, blond dolls that are most common here).  The idea was to build up good self image, and counter the idea around here that having light skin and hair was the best.  Unfortunately when Laura discreetly asked Carmen what she would like in a doll it was clear that she really wanted one with light skin/hair…thus it became a decision of giving her what she wanted vs. going with the ideals.  Since it was her birthday, we decided to go with what she was wanting (but did go with a brunette instead of a blond)….and she seemed to like it.

After the presents, we took the girls back to the hogar in a taxi and that was the night.  Lots of fun for all!