Divided by war, united by lessons

Ben Blackwell

Ben Blackwell reports on rebel villagers' efforts to ensure their children are not losing out.

When he is not teaching, Pedro often watches the mud road which leads to the new army camp, a hundred metres outside the Mexican village of Patihuitz, deep within a mountain valley.

Pedro, who is 25, has been elected schoolteacher by his fellow villagers. His skills in reading and writing Spanish, in a village where most speak only the local indigenous language of Tzeltal, were acquired through reading the labels on cans of food and sacks of fertiliser. His arithmetic is a product of his days selling corn in the nearest large town of Ocosingo, some 30 miles away down the tortuous rough roads.

Since the army entered this area in an offensive against the guerrillas of the Zapatista National Liberation army in February 1995, Pedro's village has been divided. Pedro represents the people who support the rebels and have refused all government aid. They were forced to flee in February and spent a month avoiding the army in the mountains. They returned to find nearly all their possessions destroyed or stolen.

They could not sow their crops in time, and what little machinery they had was taken or wrecked by the army. Others in the village who supported the pro-government ARIC peasant federation, were given food, aluminium roof sheets for their houses and fertiliser. Women from the ARIC trekked to the army base to sell bananas, corn tortillas, and to beg for money and clothes.

Now an invisible line divides the community, and even the local church is being used in strict rotation by the two groups.

Pedro's schoolhouse, a mud hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor, is the centre for those who regard themselves as a "community in resistance". The children of the Zapatistas were expelled from the village school, apparently for being disruptive, and the Zapatistas' boycott of government help includes state schoolteachers.

Beside the school is one of the region's civil peace camps. Here two or three observers from Mexican and international organisations and solidarity groups monitor the activities of the soldiers, whose night-time incursions had been a constant source of fear for the villagers.

The peace-camp volunteers, like anyone else who visits the village, are soon invited to help with the teaching. The humble facilities and resources cannot suppress the children's mania to learn on the part of the village's children. At six o'clock every morning, they arrive at the schoolhouse chanting "Class, class!" and pull down their notebooks and pencils from plastic bags stored in the rafters.

Children both here and in the nearby village of El Prado want to know the Spanish names for everything and everybody, and have an uncanny skill in mimicking the English phrases visitors occasionally use. Every adult had a crumpled piece of paper where Spanish, (and soon English) words would be written down.

El Prado is not split like Patihuitz - its 250 people all support the rebels. In the village school a middle-aged banker from Bilbao and his fellow volunteers are teaching an ad hoc curriculum of Spanish, maths, and geography.

The photographs and the EnglishSpanish glossary of our travel guide meanwhile soon drew a crowd in this community where many have never been to the nearest town and never seen a newspaper.

There are, of course, problems with this novel education system. First, there is often little apparent method in the teaching. More seriously, with the peace-camp personnel changing every few weeks or so, there is little hope of following pupils' development or monitoring their progress.

The schoolhouses, however, are a symbol of hope in an area where education has always been substandard or non-existent. Illiteracy in the region is more than 50 per cent, according to the government own figures. This seems an underestimate, at least if Patihuitz and El Prado (which are far from being the most isolated of communities) are anything to go by.

Since the uprising of January 1994, the Mexican government has promised to build new schools, reopen closed ones, pay stipends to cover educational materials, and train new teachers. While the political conflict and the military presence continues, however, government promises are viewed with mistrust and state schoolteachers are unlikely to be allowed to enter the villages. Despite this, the intense desire of the villagers to learn and communicate with the outside world means that the classes are set to continue.

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