Let me introduce you to my friend Sandra.
She turns ten years old in May, is just as cute as can be, and has a bubbly personality and infectious smile. In fact, she reminds me very much of Danning. She latched onto me as soon as we got there today. Where is "there"? A refugee camp called Tzancha (pronounced "san-CHA"), originally created for the victims of the mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan back in 2005. It was supposed to be a temporary location for the refugees, six months maximum. Five years later, they're still there.
Sandra speaks perfect Spanish, extremely scanty English - but she's eager to learn more - and her native language, Tz'utujil ("su-tu-HIL"). One of the many surprises that awaited me in Guatemala was that many of the adults in these areas don't speak Spanish. Rather, they speak Mayan languages. These languages are all different, but it appears they are related; I learned to say "thank you" in Tzutujil you say "mat-i-OSH", while in Kaqchikel, the language of my friend Oscar, they say "MET-i-osh". I have no idea how to spell these words. Thankfully, Sandra's Spanish is excellent, so she and I had no problem talking all day.
It is really amazing when you think about it: here's a ten year old in Guatemala who speaks some ancient (and nearly extinct) Indian language, and an old gringo like me from the US who speaks English, yet we could communicate perfectly using Spanish. I keep thinking of C.S. Lewis's saying: "Ïf you aim for heaven, you will get earth thrown in in the bargain; if you aim for earth, you will get neither." It's the same here: I have no doubt that if I learned Spanish to take part in the rich Hispanic culture, eventually it would get old; because I learned it to minister to Latinos, I get the culture thrown in in the bargain, and get frequent delights. Since I was in Spanish school in Costa Rica, I have never spent so much time in a day speaking Spanish. 2.5 hours in the car each way sitting next a friend of the ministry, Christy, who spoke only Spanish and three hours or so playing with the kids and talking with their parents.
At one point, my young friend proudly led me back and showed me her family's garden: a small plot with strawberries, tomatillos, and other types of plants growing there. There were also chickens running all over. ("Cuál es tu comida [food] favorita?"I asked her. "Pollo"- chicken - she responded.) It's amazing that all these people can live on this amount of food, but I think they also bring limited amounts in from the outside: they were making tortillas, though I saw no corn growing nearby. That was something else I learned: here in Guatemala, they eat tortillas made of corn - not wheat as in Mexico and Costa Rica. They also enjoy that tasty dish made from corn tortillas and cheese or chicharones: the pupusa. I always thought pupusas were a purely Salvadoran specialty.
I spent several hours playing with Sandra and her siblings and cousins. We had so much fun, but it is really sobering to think not only that these kids are growing up in terrible poverty, most have lice and many have scabies. It's heart-breaking to think of it. Thankfully, there are a number of excellent ministries like Servants4Him down here trying to help as much as they can. They support the health of the people in many ways: water filters for clean water, medicines and other health supplies, medical and dental clinics, and various types of health classes. Yesterday, while we worked on the water filter - and I kept the kids busy - Carol Kendall and Christy did a class for the women in the village, teaching them how to keep their families healthy. (One of the suggestions on the instructions they gave them: "Bathe frequently, at least twice a week." That's "frequent" down here.) They needed a translator: one young lady who looked like she was about 14 translated for them from Spanish into Tzutujil.
One final delight: one of them was tapping on a rock with a large bolt, so I started drumming a rhythm with my hands on a bottle of bleach. Sandra went and found a few empty plastic bottles and a bucket, so we started all playing music together. I asked if there were any other instruments around and one of the kids brought over an old plastic xylophone. I played "Jesus Loves Me"and they all joined in: "Jesús me ama, Jesús me ama, Jesús me ama, la Biblia dice así." Several then sang other Sunday school songs for me.
Think of it: an impromptu jam session with kids in a refugee camp singing in our shared secondary language in the hills of Guatemala. Truly, I aimed for heaven and got earth thrown in.