04 April 2004

El Sal - week 5 of 5

My last update was the final report from El Salvador. There was another week but it didn’t work out for me to send the update from there so this update comes to you from Iowa.

The final days of my adult classes went very well. I let the classes decide what they most wanted out of the final few days. Some wanted more, new vocabulary; some wanted to focus on dialog and conversation; some wanted to just talk about culture and life in general in the U.S.

The one question that I made a point to ask all my classes was: Why do you want to learn English?

For those of us who learned English as our native language, we may not often think about it, but English is a very difficult language to learn for many people. While there are many, many ‘rules’ that cover grammar and spelling, there are often almost as many exceptions to the rules as there are examples of the rule. The biggest complaint my students had about English was the apparent lack of correlation between spelling and pronunciation… Spanish is a very phonetic language so in fairly short order, even if you run across a word you’ve never seen before, you can be about 99% sure of pronouncing it correctly. Try that in English. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 ways to spell the “f” sound …vowels tend to be even more variable.

But back to why they’re learning English…

Unlike the Spanish students here that I asked, college was not a factor. Very, very few of the El Salvadoran students will have the opportunity to go on to higher education. Things have improved drastically in recent years: The adult literacy rate for the cantones is now approaching 50% (nationwide, it’s more like 75%). The percent of the national population that completes primary school is about 80%. The percent that completes secondary school drops to 26%. By the time you look at the next level of education, it drops to 8%. (http://www.library.uu.nl/wesp/populstat/Americas/elsalvag.htm)

A few were simply interested in and enjoyed learning languages.

But most consider it a necessity for a better life. With almost 50% of the population living in poverty, double-digit unemployment rates and staggering underemployment rates, the only hope many people have of having a better life is to go somewhere else…which generally means the United States. Some estimate (http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0319/p07s02-woam.html) that more than a quarter of El Salvador’s population of 6 million people live and work in the U.S. to send money to family back in El Salvador. These family remittances constitute the number one source of income for the country. There are very few families who don’t have at least one family member living somewhere else, trying to make money to help the people back home. Sometimes it’s a parent leaving home and children in the care of other relatives…sometimes it’s a son or daughter.

What is common in all these situations is that, regardless of the sometimes arduous journey, the lack of legal status (in the case of illegal immigrants) and the fracturing of their families, they do it because they don’t see any other way. And U.S. meddling in the recent El Salvador presidential election (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26020-2004Mar26.html) doesn’t help.

But that’s a soapbox unto itself… The short story is that my adult class students were extremely eager, almost desperate, to learn English. And their enthusiasm certainly made my job easier and more enjoyable.

My last class of the last day went so far as to arrange a surprise party for me on the final day. They managed to get me out of the classroom just before class and when I returned, it was to find a huge cake on the table. The students had hidden under the table and jumped out when I arrived, throwing handfuls of confetti and yelling “Surprise!” The whole room (and my hair and inside my open-neck shirt) ended up with a coating of glittery confetti.

With that last hurrah, I spent my remaining days in El Salvador in other venues.

The next day was devoted mostly to the wedding festivities for Miguel and Estella. Miguel is a directiva leader for the canton of San Francisco (Westminster’s sister canton) so I was really excited to be part of his wedding celebration.

The wedding started around 9:00am at the Catholic church in Berlin. The entire wedding party and guest list then traveled to Miguel’s parents’ house in San Francisco by the truck and pickup load. They served lunch to everyone, took pictures and celebrated the afternoon away with family, conversation, music and camaraderie.

We didn’t stay until the end, though. Bob and Erin and I needed to head to San Salvador (a 2-hour trip) for the weekend. Erin and I had an appointment with some kayaks and Jiquilisco Bay on Sunday and Bob had errands and appointments there himself.

The kayak trip was awesome! Most of the trip was paddling through a mangrove swamp. The channel started out fairly wide but, as we wound our way through the mangroves, it gradually narrowed until it was impossible to paddle and we had to pull ourselves through by grabbing the mangrove roots. Not for the claustrophobic but a fantastic experience!

On Monday, Bob continued his errands and we all did some shopping at an artisan market then stopped at Ilobosco (an artisan community that concentrates on pottery) on the way back for some really great items.

My final couple of days were a whirlwind of visiting projects and friends, saying goodbye and packing. Erin and I took the local bus to neighboring communities to see people we knew there and the projects they’re working on. The Parish Team and my Group 1 and 2 adult classes had a going-away dinner for me on Wednesday. Then, Thursday morning it was up and on the road by 5am to catch my flight home.

Whew! It was a jam-packed month and I still really can’t believe it’s all over.