Scott's Entry #11

"The Power Of Words"

*  We surprisingly met the vice president of Guatemala a couple of weeks ago while kayaking on the Rio Dulce.  When we commented how cute his grandkids were, his son spoke up, gestured toward his wife and said, “I have a nice factory, eh?”

*  Gabby and I observed a recent meeting at a church near the south coast of Guatemala.  The meeting was to discuss the creation of a women’s leadership group in the church.  The meeting started with five men discussing women's issues.  At the end of the meeting, a woman was invited to share her opinion.  Unfortunately, she felt a bit too intimidated to say much.

*  I was a fly on the wall at a women’s Bible study led by a male pastor.  During the meeting, the pastor presented a true/false quiz.  The pastor would read a statement aloud and the women were expected to raise their hands to answer either true or false.  Most of the women raised their hands to answer “true” for everything!  It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th question (all of the previous were “false”) that they realized that every word coming from the man’s mouth wasn’t necessarily true.

The "Women's Leadership" Meeting

*  The supervisor of one of our fellow volunteers has completed her work at the seminary in Guatemala.  Though she is legally allowed to be a pastor in Guatemala, and the church permits it, her husband won’t allow her to take on that job because “it’s just not Biblical.”  When asked if he was offended that female pastors from the U.S. come and preach, his response was, “well, the culture is different there.”

As you can see, life is hard for women in Guatemala.  The culture is machismo.  When I tell people that my wife travels a lot for her job, while I live with our host family and wash our laundry by hand when she is away, they look at me as if my ears are melting.  I am not here to criticize. I am fully aware that the U.S has gender equality issues of its own.  Heck, the National Presbyterian Church in the states pondered the “women as pastors” question for fifty years before allowing it.  The church in Guatemala only took four years to come to the same decision. 

However, the culture here is lagging behind the decision.  Most women, like our host mother Graciela, wake up at 5am to begin a day of cooking and cleaning that makes a “Soccer Mom’s” life look like a cake walk.  When it comes time to help with domestic chores, the only daughter in the family, Yadira, makes tamales, washes dishes, scrubs laundry, sweeps the house, and serves food.  It’s not wrong, it’s just different.  However, when we hear Yadira talk about how much she wants to be a teacher, it’s a bittersweet conversation.  If she marries a traditional Guatemalan man, the bulk of her teaching duties will be showing her daughters how to cook and clean.  You won’t find a translation for DINK (Double Income – No Kids) in the language here.  It just ain’t happening. The saddest part is that you can see the desire in the faces of the women here.  They're not asking for much.  They just want the same opportunities that the men have.  Interestingly enough, I had an opportunity to be indirectly involved in their struggle.

I was discussing my teaching schedule with my supervisor when he said, “Well, if you can’t teach at night (it’s dangerous for tall, pasty, red-headed gringos to walk around after dark with a guitar and a Snickers), then you’ll probably be teaching on the weekends.  Most of the men work during the day Monday through Saturday.”  I responded by saying “My schedule is very open during the week.  Perhaps I could teach classes during the week as well?”  

I saw the wheels turning in his head.  He was obviously remembering that he had told this stupid gringo that men couldn’t attend classes during weekdays.  But, I also saw a flash of light when he realized that this would keep the gringo out of his hair during the week as well. 

He said, “Sure, what would you like to teach?”

ME:  “I don’t know.  What is needed?”

SUPERVISOR:  “Well, our youth need classes in self esteem.  They would also like to learn English.”

ME: “Hmmmm.  That sounds good.  So you think youth would be able to come to classes during the week?”

SUPERVISOR:  “The younger ones, yes.  The older ones are probably working.”

ME: “Who else might be able to come to classes during the day?  Who else has a flexible schedule and isn’t working at an hourly job?”

SUPERVISOR: “Probably the women.  I would guess they might be able to come as well.”

ME: “Great, how about I create a class for the youth, and one class for the women?”

SUPERVISOR:  “Sure.  Go ahead.”

I was excited about this prospect, but a little nervous as well.  It took a while for me to get in touch with the right people and find out what the women needed.  I talked to the president of the women’s organization for our group of 25 churches.  She invited me to come to a meeting to chat with the committee members about their needs.  I happily agreed to stop by.

I was a little worried that they might think of me as just another man who was meddling in their business.  I started recalling “man hater” movies like “Waiting To Exhale” and “Thelma and Louise.”  I had visions of these tiny women in traditional clothing mobbing me and taking out all of their frustrations on the now-very-skinny-and-quite-defenseless Scott Dannemiller.  However, when I arrived, I was greeted warmly.  When I asked them what subjects they were interested in, they all wanted to hear more about the Bible (1/2 couldn’t read) and wanted to learn more songs.  We selected a date and I began planning.

I got in contact with another volunteer here, Ellen Dozier, who works solely with women’s groups.  She had some great ideas on using Bible passages and songs as a way to teach empowerment and self-esteem.  I was eager to steal all of her best course outlines.  Luckily, she didn't have a problem with my plagiarism.  

Since these women don't hear much about strong feminine figures in the Bible, I chose to start with the theme of "Women Who Struggle Against Death and Fight For Life."  The basis of the class would be how simple midwives from the book of Exodus were responsible for Moses' survival, as well as the survival of scores of Jewish boys.  (And no... I don't have this story memorized.  If it hadn't been for Disney's movie "The Prince Of Egypt", I would have been clueless to the subject.)

On the day of the class, I met a couple of women at a church in Quetzaltenango, and we made our way to the small town of Almolonga.  There, we met up with 20 more indigenous women dressed in their traditional "huipiles" and "cortes", sitting quietly and patiently in straight rows.  When I walked into the room, they all said, "Buenos Dias" and waited for me to begin.

As I was getting my things together, I had the women use some construction paper, tape, markers, stickers, etc. to make crowns, rivers, baskets, tools and babies (I made sure to specify that they didn't need to make REAL babies on the spot). Since my Spanish still isn't quite up to snuff and my Quiché is even worse (see bloopers page #14), I had decided that it would be best for the women to use props and act out the readings, rather than just listen to my horrible grammar.

The Quiché Women
Waiting For Class To Start

Making Their Props

While the women made their props, a few men actually came into the room and sat down.  I think they just wanted to see what I had to say, since I am definitely a novelty in this area.  One of the men was the pastor of the church.  I wasn't too worried about his acceptance of the message, as I had heard him speak once before, and he seemed very supportive of women's expanded role in the church.

When it came time to begin, I read through the Bible verse once.  I used pictures and props to illustrate the story, since many of the women couldn't read, and half didn't speak Spanish.  I made sure to be as animated as possible to make up for my mispronunciation.  They seemed to appreciate the over-the-top Jim Carrey-style delivery.

Afterward, I asked the women to act out the story using the props that they had made.  I gave them 10 minutes to plan.  The result?  Silence... for at least a minute.  I repeated the instructions.  The class was falling to ruins before my very eyes.  I only knew enough Spanish words to keep the class going for another 10 minutes or so.  I was starting to panic. 

Rebecca Takes Charge

Finally, one of the younger women (and head of their education committee) stood up and said, "OK... let's get started!"  She double-checked that the women all understood the story (which they did).  Next, she made sure that everyone had a part to play.  Roles were assigned.  I was hoping that one of the women would play the role of the pharaoh, but some stereotypes don't die so quickly.  They had the pastor play the part.

After 10 minutes, they had their plan ironed out.  They were IN CHARGE!  The women all left the room and went out front.  They marched back in as the Isrealites marching to Egypt.  They depicted the Isrealites working under the oppression of the Pharaoh.  They acted as midwives, saving the baby boys that Pharaoh had condemned to death.  They played the role of Moses' mother, the princess, and the princess' helpers. 

They even took one woman's baby and threw it into a huge tub to play the role of Moses in the basket, floating by the river.  They really got into it, and acted out the roles for 30 minutes.  It was a blast to watch.  Through the process, they went from being slaves in Egypt to heroines of history.

"Isrealites Entering Egypt"


"Isrealites Oppressed"
(though you can't tell by the
smiles on their faces)

Midwives Saving Lives
(And Moses To The Right)

Once they had acted out the story, we regrouped for some discussion.  I wasn't sure how this part was going to work.  I hadn't planned on the men being in the room, so I thought hat their presence might affect how some of the women responded. I started with some tame questions.

"What did the pharaoh do?"

"Why did the pharaoh do that?"

"How did the women react?"

"Did their actions have a positive result?"

The women answered each of these questions without much hesitation.  They enjoyed talking about the story that they had just acted out.  Next, it came time to get to the heart of the story.  I started off by saying that the Bible is a really cool book, because even though the stories are REALLY OLD, they still have significance in our lives today.  The women had already told me how they liked the story because it showed strong women who fought against death - preserving life.  So I asked...

"Do you know any women in your villages that struggle against death and preserve life?  Are there situations in your life that seem unfair, which force you to make tough decisions?"

Again, silence.

Then Rebecca began to talk about how difficult life is for women in Guatemala.  They work all day to provide for their families.  They keep their husbands healthy and happy.  They have very little resources to work with.  They cut fire wood, they carry their babies for miles on their backs, they don't have access to education.  It's an uphill battle all the way.  After she had said all of this, she repeated it all in Quiché. 

The other women listened intently.  Then, a tiny old woman spoke up in a cartoon-ish voice.  Rebecca translated her comment from Quiché  into Spanish.

Our lives are hard, she said.  When I was young, I couldn't sit beside the men in church.  I wasn't allowed to attend Sunday school, either.  Only the boys were allowed.  I hardly have any education.  From an early age, there was no time for school for me.  I had to help run my family's house. I married young and had 6 children.  They were only in school from 8am to noon. The rest of the time, I was responsible for them.  I am constantly tired.  When my husband comes home from work, he gets to relax.  Me?  I have to work from sunup to sundown.  I never have a break.  I cut wood, I cook, I clean, I go to the market, I wash laundry by hand.  At times, I sell vegetables in the market for extra money.  My entire life is a struggle.

However, like the women in the passage, there is a good outcome.  My extra work ensures that my daughter doesn't have to follow the same path I did.  I work at home and in the market so she can attend school.  She will soon graduate from secondary school, and we hope to send her to college.  She wants to be a teacher... or better yet... a pastor.  There is hope. It is through my struggle that things get better.  My daughters will have a better life than I did, and I am grateful for it.

The stories continued.  The women talked about how, because of their efforts, their children will inherit a better situation.  They told stories of women who had graduated seminary and are now pastors.  They told stories of friends who had lost their husbands, but still found a way to keep their lives afloat and their children improving.  All of this was said in front of the men, who sat silent.  There wasn't any argument.

Afterward, Rebecca said a prayer of thanks.  She thanked God for the Bible, and for stories that allowed each of them to get into the shoes of great women in history.  She thanked God for strength, and the opportunity to share struggles and joys with fellow women.

Silently, I prayed to God to give me the courage and patience of these women, who were able to talk openly in the presence of everyone, even though it meant confronting age-old traditions.  Even though I was there to teach, I learned more than anyone else.