Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 3, 2004
Poverty exists in all languages
Spanish-speaking South Americans hear stories of Alberta's poor
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
As I write these lines, through my open window I'm hearing roosters crow all day long, dogs barking, young men playing soccer across the street and the constant hum of heavy traffic a few blocks away. I happen to be in Guatemala City in Central America, an urban agglomeration of some 2.5 million people and my home till the end of May.
Although born and raised in northern Alberta and having lived there most of my life, I've never looked forward to winter. Summer for me has always been way too short. I feel that I was genetically pre-ordained to live in milder climes. Is it any surprise that after putting up with the cold all these years that I find myself in a place where winter means 15 to 20 degrees Celsius at night and 25 degrees during the day?
Antigua visitI spend my weekdays in Antigua, some 40 kms from the capital. Antigua is the former capital destroyed by violent earthquakes in the 1600s. Many impressive ruins dot the city of 40,000 people. After having been renovated, enormous churches centuries old still maintain the mission that early missionaries built them for.
Part of a Franciscan convent is still standing. It used to hold over 800 friars. Other congregations of men and women were well established when disaster struck. Many of them have rebuilt and still continue their mission there.
One of several Central American countries, Guatemala would fit in Alberta six times. It is a teeming country, crowded with a population of some 12 million people who have known poverty and persecution throughout a painful history.
As recently as 20 years ago, a heartless and cruel regime presided over the killing of tens of thousands of its citizens, the poorest of the poor, mostly indigenous people.
It seems that a more just and compassionate regime has been elected recently and hope is in the air that a corner has been turned and that a more promising future has arrived at last for a population that deserved much better than what it has suffered for way too long.
Antigua is well known today for its schools of the Spanish language, some 60 of them I'm told. People from all continents congregate there to study. I'm engaged in such a language program. The success of this school is based on the fact that it provides students with competent teachers. The ratio of students per professor is one!
Every morning for the past weeks I spent four hours studying Spanish with Selvyn, my professor who is a mere 45 years younger than his student. Like many people here, he's also indigenous. He knows Spanish well and he knows how to teach it. I wondered about the saying: "Can one teach an old horse new tricks." After several days of this exercise, I'm becoming confident that my prof might just pull it off.
On Friday, my fifth day, the program was somewhat different. All students were invited to show up at 8 a.m. as usual and be prepared to join their professor for a 60-minute bus ride into the country to visit an indigenous village named St. Andres. During the ride we were asked to be prepared to share a personal story in Spanish for 30 minutes with our individual professor.
Spanish hearts"They must be joking," I thought. "How can anyone be expected to give a half hour talk after only 16 hours of study of a new language? What are they thinking about?" But then I realized that they had put before us a very stretching challenge and I kind of liked that approach. So I got to work.
For my presentation I recalled the lifestyle that was ours when I grew up in the '40s in Donnelly, a small village of some 250 people in Alberta's Peace River country. We had a small house with only two bedrooms upstairs and an open area downstairs where my two older brothers shared the couch and my younger brother and I shared a sleeping bag on the floor.
My parents occupied one room upstairs and the girls slept in the other room. We had no running water nor had we any electricity. Water was brought in from a pond by the bucket in the summer and in the winter we gathered snow in a barrel.
We had a cow that gave us more milk than we needed so I ended up delivering a few quarts of milk to different homes in the village every evening. It was always a test to overcome my fear of hungry wolves as I had to walk through some dark bush to accomplish my mission, especially in the wintertime. The eventual coming of street lights allayed some of my fears.
I don't know how my story in a far-from-perfect Spanish impressed my young professor who has never seen snow or ice in his life. Perhaps he realized that cultures of poverty as the one he's known all his life have been shared by other peoples who with time and hard work have been able to turn a corner.
I believe there is hope for this hard working and fine young man as well as for his people. I hope that they can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He and his long-suffering and courageous people deserve the best.
I cannot help but be reminded of the Lubicon people in northern Alberta who still labour for a renewed way of life as they continue their battle for justice and better days ahead. Our duty as decent people is to support their efforts and help them by all means possible to obtain justice and a future for their children.
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