Among all the lasting experiences I obtained during my stay in Central America as external communication intern at IBIS’ Regional Office in Guatemala, it was probably the encounter with Jember that impressed me most.
It was towards the end of my four-month stay in the region that I was going to accompany IBIS’ regional communication assessor on a one-week trip to Guatemala’s Caribbean Atlantic Coast. We were to evaluate the results of IBIS’ cooperation with Ak’Tenamit, a local organization providing integrated bilingual and multicultural education in the middle of the jungle.
After having taken a million pictures, or, in other words, having participated in an indigenous women’s conference in Nicaragua, held communication workshops in rural Guatemala and Honduras, assisted a regional meeting on climate change in El Salvador and revised countless reports on projects IBIS pursues in cooperation with its counterparts throughout the region, I was looking forward to a week of jungle-peace.
Living in Guatemala City was rather distressful, and despite the fact that I used to live in South America and had visited a great deal of places all over the subcontinent, I was not quite prepared for the anxiety of living in this particular city.
The constant presence of firearms and violence around me let me long for the quiet forest, where one could walk around freely, the only hostility being the intense mosquito attacks.
We arrived at the education site by boat. At first sight, the place we were set off looked like any other place along the shores of the river Tatin (and most of eastern Guatemalan lowlands, for that matter): endless green, impenetrable jungle.
Taking a few steps into the thicket of mangroves and climbing plants though, to our surprise we suddenly faced a stunningly organized, well-maintained and pretty schooling village, with everything from library, classroom huts and kitchen to a football court, sacred sites for the shaman ceremonies, vegetable cultivation, the sleeping bungalows and a computer room.
We were shown around by some of the students, and curious little faces stared at us from all sides. When learning that we worked for IBIS, the students started applauding. A little shocked, I did not quite know how to react being confronted with so much gratitude without really knowing what was going on.
Then I found out: “Thanks to IBIS, all of us girls sleep on mattresses now instead of in the hammocks we used to. It’s such an improvement,” explained Karen, a 17-year old student from the Petén region. That the “detail” of a few dozen mattresses could make such a difference in the lives of these students profoundly impressed me.
The following days I spend talking to students, getting to know their daily life, and photographing everything. I learned that the school hosted students from six regions of the country, members of seven different ethnic groups. When questioning a group of boys from the capital on the difficulty of boarding school life and living far away from their families and friends, I noticed a little guy looking at me, too shy to participate, yet deeply fascinated.
He reluctantly came closer when I asked him to, and while he approached I saw he wasn’t actually looking at me, but at the cameras I carried around my neck. “What’s your name?” I asked him. Only after repeating my question the third time, he almost whispered “Jember”. “So, Jember, do you like living in the jungle?” I kept bothering him. “No,” he replied instantly, “there are too many mosquitoes”.
To break the ice I told the children that I, too, missed my family that lived far away in Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean they so well knew.
I drew a map on a piece of paper to illustrate the distance from Guatemala to Northern Europe and show them how I had arrived at their school, when all of the sudden Jember took the pen, drew a few lines northeast of Scandinavia and said “and that’s where Russia lies, right?” Stupefied, I looked at the map. “Yes, that’s right,” I acknowledged. And then he started: after South America he drew North America, Africa, Saudi-Arabia and the remaining Europe at their corresponding places on the paper.
He liked geography, the 11 year-old kid that had never travelled further then from Guatemala City to his school in the jungle province of Izabal, explained smirking.
I asked the boys whether I could take some pictures of them. While I had them posing for me, Jember never stopped observing the camera. So when they asked for a picture with me on it, too, I suggested Jember should try to take it. Not with the “big” Nikon mirror reflex I had used, but with my personal fully automatic camera that I always carried along as well.
Full of awe he took the little Panasonic and had me explain how to use it. The picture he took was fabulous, and he was so proud. I asked him whether he had tried taking pictures before. It was the first time he had ever held a digital camera.
The remaining days he followed me like a shadow. I taught him a few things he should consider when taking pictures, but he handled the camera naturally. Barely ever confronted with the abstract concept of Arts, Jember proved to have an eye for composition and aesthetics; his lack of experience with “high-tech” instruments such as digital cameras he compensated with interest and dedication.
I wished I could have left this exceptional student his camera.
I don’t know for which one of us two it was more difficult to say goodbye. That he should continue practicing taking pictures whenever he had the chance until I came back to inspect the results, I insisted, knowing just how difficult it would be for him to ever get the chance to hold a camera in his small hands again. It was a sad, tough goodbye.
I sincerely hope to not let this little, hearty and talented friend down, and be able to see him again one day. He taught me the most valuable lesson in admiration.
Alice Krozer var kommunikationspraktikant i Guatemala By, Guatemala (Country Office) i foråret 2009
Foto: Alice Krozer