Vote for the Escuela Agricola!

Great news! The Escuela Agricola de San Francisco made it to the finals of the BBC World Challenge–a top social innovation competition! Now you get to vote to help them win!

All the projects featured in the World Challenge this year are fabulous ideas driven by remarkable people. If I wasn’t so shamelessly biased, it would be hard to choose. Seriously though, here’s why I think EASF should win:

The self-sustaining school movement is all about empowerment–treating the poor with dignity and providing them with the only thing they really lack; opportunity to apply their intelligence and their energy to gain skills to change their lives and the lives of their families and communities. EASF is doing that. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen shy, nearly silent farm boys grow into agribusiness mentors giving presentations in the capitol. I’ve seen girls whose friends have all been pregnant before age 16 finish school and go on to study nursing, planning to open a clinic in their home-town then settle down to raise a healthy family.

But EASF doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the best thing about this idea is that it’s so scalable; projects are already underway to build up half a dozen more self-sustaining entrepreneurial schools and the organization has committed to 50 schools in 50 different countries by 2018, with each of those core schools serving as a replication hub to spread the liberating power of literacy, and vocational/entrepreneurial training further and further into the strongholds of poverty around the world.

San Francisco has proven that it can be done–and now organizations and communities around the world have a strong model to follow and willing mentors to help them succeed.

Here’s the link to vote.


Started classes on Tuesday. Yep. I’m still a freak. I love them. I’m intrigued by new new classmates, excited by new opportunities and energized by the feeling of intellectual synergy that permeates campus the first week of classes. I am glad to be here.

But every now and then something [a freshman speckled with tiny moles on his face like Araujo, the sliced lime sticker on the back of someone’s shiny new macbook, the smell of chalk] will trip my hypersensitive synapses and I feel my heart reaching, grasping, squeezing through my ribs for….what? For Paraguay? For my students, my friends? For this whole idea and what it could be…

It hurts a little.

Country Mouse

I’ve been in Asuncion since Thursday morning, the longest period of time I’ve spent away from the school since I got here.

Despedidas for three of the city interns this weekend, [suerte Sarita, Florian, and Andrew!] a sunny afternoon steeped in terere and stimulating [English] conversation, and a much-needed laugh at Andrew’s blog reminded me once again how un-characteristic my experience here has been.

It’s hard to say definitively that it’s a country-city divide, given the other significant differences between me and the other interns, [most notably my incompetence with the language and the fact that I don’t drink] but it seems to me a reasonable approximation of the difference I feel from Paraguayans in general.

I live in the Chaco.

It’s a bone-rattling, deathly boring 12-hour bus ride from the middle of nowhere, but I’ve never felt more isolated by a mere 25-mile stretch of relatively well-maintained highway. Coming to the city is a bit disorienting for me. I’ve never been one to shy away from new experiences, and I’ve certainly not devolved into some timid, frenetic home-body, but I feel strange in Asuncion. The noise is distracting, the air is oppressive, and the social structures blurred and unfamiliar.

In my little world, two-thirds of the adults can’t even read, let alone discuss poetry. In my little world people take a photo when they have a 100mil guarani bill, while the smallest withdrawal denomination at an ATM in the city is 1 million. In my little world, and in laughing spite of the Internet, nobody has any idea there were riots surrounding the recall election in Bolivia, not even the Bolivians.

As in any country, the rich and poor of Paraguay live locked in an utter empathetic impasse. And this country mouse isn’t sure what to do about it.

Vive Paraguay!

I was there.

Yesterday, Paraguay inaugurated its first democratically-elected president in more than 60 years. The political vestiges of a characteristically corrupt and brutal South American dictatorship literally [if only symbolically] handed over the keys to this characteristically corrupt and impoverished South American country to a 57 year-old ex-bishop wearing sandals and a homespun shirt.

Lugo’s first speech as president was inspiring, powerful at times. One line I will likely never forget; “I refuse to live in a world where some do not sleep because they are afraid, and others do not sleep because they are hungry.”

But Paraguayans are at times heartbreakingly pragmatic. And it’s difficult for even the young to believe he can or will do it. I’ve been here long enough not to have expected euphoria, but I was surprised by how tired, how ambivalent [in the most literal sense of the word] the crowd of 50,000 felt. It’s like all of Paraguay is trying to decide whether it dares to hope.

They cheered Chaves and Morales. They chanted for renegotiation of the Itaipu dam. The socialists sang some very catchy tunes. But the one time all morning that the kind of tangible wave of energy I so craved actually swept over that crowd was at the end of the ridiculously pompous national anthem when everyone, really everyone shouted, “Vive Paraguay!”

I’m actually not sure what the phrase means. Having only ever heard it shouted, I don’t know how it’s spelled and therefore can’t reverse-engineer the conjugation. If it’s indicative, it’s an exclamation; “Paraguay lives!” If it’s imperative, it’s a command, a challenge; “Live, Paraguay!”

Yesterday, in the centro, it felt like both.

En Memorium…

So, Latin American cemeteries are way cooler than ours in the states.

These photos [which I kaiphed from Rebecca’s blog because we never managed to get them onto my computer…] are documentation of one of those serendipitous side excursions that end up being some of the most memorable moments of most trips. This one was with Becca, Kim’s cousin, and the only other LDS intern, on the way to the temple last weekend. I’ll admit to having a bit of objective-tunnel-vision at the time [I just wanted to find the temple] so I am glad Becca noticed it and suggested we explore—not that I would have recognized it as a cemetery anyway. It was literally like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Apparently, in most Latin American cities people are buried in these strangely beautiful above-ground mausoleums. They’re constructed with a sort of basement with built-in shelving for anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred caskets underneath [learned that from the construction crew that was renovating one of them—with all the caskets just kindof stacked around while they worked—didn’t feel right to just snap a photo, though I almost wish I had]. On top of that is a room with more shelves [for more recently deceased members of the family] and usually a sort of central shrine area with brightly colored silk flowers [often caked with cobwebs and dust] and family treasures [everything from antique bibles and pearl rosaries to Rugrats dolls, matchbox cars, empty beer bottles and futbol jerseys.]

The further in we wandered, the more interesting it became…

Yep, pretty sure that’s a human jaw bone.

Like I said, strangely beautiful. I actually think it would be fascinating to commission a book called “En Memorium” that’s just images of tombs, shrines, cemeteries and burial grounds from all over the world. Unexpected, intriguing, and profoundly human.

Let the Games Begin!

Thank goodness for corporate types with money to throw around! The PWC folks are helping me make a first [slightly less complicated] attempt at freeing the puppets. [not cutting the strings per se, just giving them a chance to move themselves a little]

Apparently, the PWC teams from the past [this is the third to come and work with FP] created something called the “Ulysses Cup”—a soccer tournament complete with entry fees, food vendors and prize money. As seems common around here, the first year it was just for students, the second year they included staff and teams from the foundation central office, and last year [when there wasn’t a Ulysses team here at all] the tournament was no longer open to students. LAME.

Y por eso, this year’s team wanted to start a new tradition; something fun, something entrepreneurial, something exciting, something for the students, by the students. So, over a truly delicious dinner [working with them has ruined me in terms of the school food. sad day.] we came up with a plan:

Teams of students work together to develop a plan for an income-generating party. The teams write up a proposal and make an oral presentation, complete with PowerPoint, to a panel of judges [not school administrators or staff] who choose which party plan will be executed. [Citeria include: creativity, potential for profit, thoroughness of plan/risk management, and of course the professionalism of their presentation] PWC provides the budget [1,000,000 Gs : I know, it sounds huge, and it is, but just for perspective, it’s only about $250] and the whole student body works together to execute the plan. The first 1,000,000 Gs they earn from the party becomes the prize money for the winning team. The rest [and the students I pilot tested the idea on were pretty confident they could make about 3,000,000 Gs] goes to purchasing something for the student body; sport equipment, a stereo, software etc.

[My dogged American individualism got challenged again here. We had originally decided that the profit above and beyond the prize money would be divided equally among the rest of the students. Even if it was just 10,000 Gs, that’s more than most of them ever have in pocket at any given time. But with every student I ran it by, the response was the same: “Why would you split it up? We would much rather use it together for something we all want.” I guess I am not certain what the response would have been in an American High School, but I have my guesses.]

Anyway, we announced it last night—and with the exception of the headmistress’s remarkable talent for turning absolutely anything into a lecture [the word in Spanish is “sermon,” and she probably spent a good 20 minutes sermonizing about the evils of celebrating birthdays without including the whole student body, etc.] – it went pretty well. I think it’s sadly indicative that even though they gasped quite satisfyingly at the budget and the prize, they seem wary of getting too excited. Like they can’t quite picture it going the way I said it would.

But, it feels like progress, and I’m determined to do all I can to get the puppeteers to hold still long enough to see these puppets dance.

Puppets and Puppeteers… or, Deep Thoughts from Home

Count on Ellen [one of my amazing little sisters…I have five of them :)] to come up with this one:

“As I’ve seen in my experience (with our student council and also with “taking stewardship” of the hay fields at home), we are set up in a relatively superficial system of “student leadership” or “being our own boss”–there is ALWAYS someone with higher authority playing a prominent puppeteer. It’s a bad relationship because the kids know it, so they loosen their grip on whatever influence they hold and become lazy–relying on that puppeteer to jerk their arm where it needs to go. And the puppeteer gets so set on the “system” of strings attached that they lose sight of the fact that they are only supposed to hold the limbs of the puppet upright and watch them move themselves. If a puppet becomes less aware of the strings attached to it and more aware of its ability to direct its own movements, it will move more (that just seems natural in my mind–I even picture the puppet growing muscular from use. And as the puppeteer twitches the strings less, they will find that their shoulders ache less from holding the system up and they will be able to enjoy the smoother, freer movements of their show.”

Who knows, the puppets might even come up with a brand new dance that makes the audience go wild and the show will be sold out for weeks!

Living by Bread Alone

For an agricultural school with acres of huerta [vegetable gardens], we sure eat a lot of starch! Just thought this little illustration would be amusing. This is “pan.” They’re little rolls we purchase in the town down the road. [Pretty sure we keep at least 3 bakers in business single-handedly.]

This is how much pan we go through in a single day.

We each have two or three for breakfast [with our cocido con leche], the kids in the campo have two for mid-morning snack [again, with some cocido con leche] and we all get two in the afternoon for merienda [you guessed it, with cocido con leche.] On Sundays, we have the same thing for dinner. They’re made with white flour, kneaded to death with very little yeast, and almost flash-cooked in a huge brick oven. The outsides are hard, but not crispy and the insides chewy, yet somehow insubstantial. They’re also quite dry [hence the omnipresent cocido] but otherwise tasty—thank goodness, as each of us consumes somewhere between 4 and 8 of them a day!

Too Mad to Think of a Clever Title…

Today was parent-teacher conferences. At least as close as we get to parent-teacher conferences here. Started out with a big meeting in the church where we did things like show them the new silverware we finally got around to buying last week [the kids were sharing broken spoons before—not a big deal, really, we share everything around here, but still] and talk about the progress of a couple of alumni and the programs we’ve been involved in. A couple of parents raised some concerns; “my son was sick and missed an exam and is therefore failing a class” to which the response was “Nilsa and Roberto and Juana were all sicker than your son and they’re still at the top of their classes.” And “I live 9 hours away and can’t just visit every month to check on my son, but when I call to see how he’s doing, no one returns my calls.” To which the response was basically “keep calling.” [In fairness, Celsa gave out her cell number to the whole group, but even I can guess the rate at which such phone calls are generally returned]

The biggest frustration, though, came with the “research” the director of the school was so excited about conducting. [He wasn’t here, by the way, apparently he’s doing some consulting for another school in Nicaragua.] I was all excited when they started handing out surveys to the parents…asking what changes [positive and negative] they had observed in their student, whether the school had fulfilled their expectations, how they would rank areas of improvement, what concerns they had about their student in particular, etc.

Anyway, I was all excited until I started looking around and realized that fully two thirds of them COULDN’T READ IT! Aigh! Even the ones who could read it couldn’t understand the university-level research language it was written in. I think it’s fair to say I was bitterly disappointed. What are we saying when we set up a system to only accept feedback from people outside the sector we’re supposedly set up to serve!? There’s just something very wrong here.

Pizza a la Paraguay

They love it here…though the first time we had it, I didn’t even recognize what it was supposed to be [nor could I understand the word with the accent.] Here, it’s usually got fluffy crust an inch and a half thick, a sauce that’s one part fresh tomatoes, one part onion, a bit of oregano, and heaps of fresh parsley, and a sprinkling of queso paraguayo, which bears little resemblance to mozzerela beyond the color. It’s quite good [just doesn’t really say “pizza” to me] and we have it relatively often. In fact, the second-year students routinely make batches of it in the brick oven behind the cocina which they sell by the piece to the rest of the student body.

This is the pizza Marcello, Araujo and I had for lunch when we went into the city to buy my digital recorder and get me a cell phone [which by they way hasn’t proven nearly as useful in terms of keeping me in touch with the Fundacion as I thought it would, but has saved me the awkwardness of having the futbol players send me text messages through students] And yep, those are green olives.