Farewell school!


Carmen with her family during her prom night

For Carmen it was probably the most special night of this year. I used to see her everyday at school, wearing her sport trousers and pink pullover with Mickey Mouse. She was always a bit scattered minded, seemed to live in her own world, so different from the school reality. But this night I almost didn’t recognize. Her hair was all curly; she was wearing a glimmering violet dress, silver shoes and make-up. She looked just like a princess Barbie-doll. She was smiling and her eyes were shining from excitement. No wonder, it was her prom night.

In Peru, the school graduation is a big event. Seems almost too big, taking into account the fact that it’s just a primary school and the kids are only 12 years old. The girls come all dressed up, in their Barbie-doll dresses and shiny shoes. The boys look like little gentlemen, in their white shirts and ties. (Imagine how much effort it is for the family: to buy their daughter a dress, shoes, take her to the hairdresser…  While sometimes they cannot even afford school books).

The prom night of the Manthoc school in Cajamarca

The prom night in my primary school in Cajamarca

And the party starts.. There are speeches, dinner and dancing. Each kid gets their own graduation cake and a graduation souvenir. And dance and play happily almost until the morning, while their parents get drunk celebrating the graduation of their children..

That’s how it looks like in the city. A day before I was invited to the graduation of the high school of Catache, where I was giving science workshops. There were not Barbie dresses, curls and no dancing until the morning. Everything was very modest, very quite..


Graduation of the high school in Catache

I would like to see what happens to those kids in a couple of years.. All of my students from the school of Manthoc are going to continue their studies in the high school. But how many will finish? Will any of them make it to the university?

From the students of Catache two guys are going to study auto mechanics in the nearby technological institute. One will maybe go to live with his sister and study in Trujillo, one of the largest cities of Peru. The only girl that graduated this year will not continue to study. She’s going to stay at home, they say that high school is more than enough for a woman.


Science comes to Catache


Students in Catache learn also traditional Andean crafts

Ten pairs of frightened eyes are staring at me. There is total silence in the classroom. I ask: ‘Why is air important? Why do we need air?’. No answer, just silence. The scared eyes are still watching me. Finally a shy voice, so low that almost impossible to hear, says: ‘We need air to breath’. It was the first day of my workshops in Catache.

In the city the kids are loud and selfconfident, making the work of the teacher as hard as possible. In the campo the problem is different: the kids are so scared they hardly ever speak. They need time to adjust, to get used to new people. A friend of mine, Anne Bernhardt, who spent almost a year as a teacher in Catache was telling me that for the first week the kids didn’t say a word, they were just looking at her from behind of their blankets. My experience was not so extreme, but I didn’t achieve much more than a whisper.


Together with Profesora Ana of Catache

Although difficult, it was still one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in Peru so far. The highschool of Catache is tiny, there are not more than 30 kids attending it. Some of them come from far away and need 2 hours of climbing the hill every day! The school is lucky to have two wonderful teachers: Profesora Ana y Profesor Carlos, who follow their mission in Catache already for 5 years. They’ve been living with the campesinos, sharing their everyday life and problems, trying to improve the life of the community. With their arrival the campesinos started to take more care about environment and the education of their children. Profesores Ana and Carlos are truly inspiring people and I admire their work.

But not all the teachers are so good – many of those that come lack imagination, initiative and new ideas. It’s understandable – who dreams about being a teacher in the middle of nowhere for 200€ per month (if you have family it is not enough to survive!)? I give you an example: the science teacher has a school microscope at her disposal and she says she does not know how to use it! Just think how many great science lessons you can make with a microscope, and it just sits on the shelf and collects dust… The students learn about magnetism without seeing a magnet, about electricity without ever touching a cable..

P1340090I wanted to change it, at least for a while. Show those kids that science can be fun. And we really had fun! At the beginning shy, with time they started to do the experiments with more self-confidence. And all of them were fascinated by the microscope. So fascinated, that they started to kill small flies and insects around the classroom to see how they look like under the microscope! I tell you, it is a wonderful feeling to look at the kids and teenagers amazed by the world of science!

Finally – the village wants to hire me as a teacher for next year. What do you think? Should I accept the offer? 😉

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Niños y arte

Last Friday my school looked different than usual. A clown with a red nose was walking on the patio, surrounded by a crowd of happy children. Little kids from the first grade were dancing. Instead of everyday cloths there were colorful skirts and funny hats. And instead of bored faces waiting for the school bell to ring, there was laughter and singing.

This week our school celebrates its anniversary and Friday was the ‘artistic day’. Each class prepared a special program: there was music, dancing, pantomime, theater and singing. It reminded me a bit of the school celebrations we used to have years ago when I was a child: kids dressed black and white, telling poems or singing. Only in my school it was always put in the frame, well organized and therefore washed out of any spontaneity.  Here in Peru, it was pure life and joy.

The smallest kids from the first grades were dancing, wearing their sweet funny hats. Although completely without choreography they put in their act so much energy and expression! Only kids can dance like this – without thinking and without any shame!

The little guys from the second grade presented ‘daile de los viejitos‘ (dance of the elderly), a traditional peruvian song. The boys with their plastic glasses and white beards looked really funny!

There were also theater, pantomime and a comic act.

And finally, the oldest girls and boys presented traditional Peruvian dances. Their colorful dresses and passion were making up for any lacks in the choreography!

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Things that teachers do

Let me introduce you to my class. I didn’t write about it so far, but since the beginning of October I’ve been officially assigned (as a teacher’s assistant) to just one grade. I have my 26 kids that I can love and hate, scream at, motivate, educate, and do all the things that the teachers do.

My class is a mixture of the 5th and 6th grade of the primary school, the oldest ones. And the most difficult ones. Some of them took more time than usual to get to this level, because of their work, and so the kids in the class are between 12 and 17 years old. Basically, it’s an explosive mixture of teenagers, at their most difficult age. They dream awake in the class, fight, rebel against the whole world, fall in love, have boyfriends or girlfriends, surely some of them have already their first sex experience behind them.

How do I manage to control them? Basically, I don’t. I suck at being their teacher. I stayed alone with them for a week, teaching everything that comes – starting with mathematics and science, finishing with sports, Spanish grammar and Peruvian ancient history! And they danced over my head. They ignored what I said. They didn’t follow the orders. They drove me mad.

But I cheer myself up with thinking that anybody would suck at it. One of the teachers at school told me: “If you manage to work with those kids, any other school will be a piece of cake”. Another admited: “First year I was working in this school the kids made me cry”. So how can a gringa from Europe, even with the best intentions, do better than the experienced Peruvian teachers? The good intentions are not enough, if the experience and the pedagogical intuition is missing.

I don’t think there is anybody in my class who has a healthy family. Maybe a few. I talked to the school psychologist and heard the stories of extreme poverty, divorced families, husbands cheating on their wives in front of the children, fathers being alcoholics, parents beating their kids, mothers ignoring their sons, brothers being criminals, horrible stories never ending. What I deal with in the class is just a consequence of how these kids grow up. How can they learn to respect me if nobody in the real life respects them?

But at the end they are not evil, they are just kids.. They feel sorrow and can apologize. And I know that deep deep inside, all of them, even the most annoying ones, have their beautiful core. At certain moments I see how their eyes lighten up, how they get inspired and excited. At this moment the beauty inside them tries to get through this hard shell they have grown outside.

I also know that some of them really wait for me to come. They wait impatiently for the Monday class of experiments. Every day they give me a hug and look happy to see me. One of the guys even told me he wants to become a scientist. And since I arrived he wants it even more. So every day I come back. Sometime demotivated and exhausted but I come back. To my school of patience and humility.

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Campania odontológica

Did you also fear dentists when you were kids? Well, I did… I hated the smell of the room, sound of the machine and the view of the dentist’s hands so close to my face. It seems that this fear is something that kids share all over whole world.

Recently a medical association  in Cajamarca organized campania odontológica – a dentist campaign for children. So we took all the kids from school to have their teeth checked up, for some it was probably going to be their first dental check-up in life. At least the plan was to take all the kids, but only less than a half showed up. How did it look like? You probably imagine a queue of kids waiting in front of a dentist room – at least that was what I was expecting, but it was nothing like this. Instead, two large black tents were standing in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic (there were indeed tracks that needed to take another route beacuse of our tents!). In the tents young doctors were waiting to perform the check-ups and show the kids how to brush their teeth.

On the other side of the area, in two black tents more, the hairdressers were waiting, ready to go with their scissors (I still don’t understand what cutting hair has to do with dentists!). And if somebody did not want to have their hair cut, they could get a professional headdress! So later, all the girls were running around, their hair ready for the ballroom! Ironically however, there was no mirror so the proud princesses could even see themselves..

Campania odontológica – a very noble idea in itself, there was only one problem. True, now the kids know which tooth needs treatment, but the knowledge itself will not heal it.  And most of the children come from the families that cannot afford a visit to a dentist… So their teeth will just get worse and worse, until the next check-up of the helping doctors..

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My daily routine

On Friday, Miriam from the 3rd grade hugged me with her little arms and told me: “Te quiero mucho mucho! Te quiero como a mi mamá!” (I love you so much, I love you as much as my mum!). It was the most beautiful moment of my day.

But it’s not how my day usually starts.

– “Profesora, Carlos and Juan are fighting!”

– “Señorita, she took my notebook!”

– “Anita, he doesn’t want to give me back my pencil!”

These are the words I am welcomed with in the classroom. From the moment I enter there are problems to solve: Daniel is running around the tables, Ever is throwing the chairs, Maria and Rosa are fighting about a pencil. Explanations and talking often bring nothing, shouting more, but not for long. I am new and first I need to earn the respect as a teacher. The profesores have it easier, kids love them and usually listen to them. In peruvian primary schools teachers are not specialized but accompany their pupils throughout all the years, so they know pretty well how to deal with them. But even with the profesores, the noise level never falls down to zero. The simple fact is: these kids cannot sit still and quiet.

Since a couple of weeks, every day I enter a different classroom to assist/substitute the teacher. There are 5 grades at school and 5 days of the week – fits perfectly. Although I was hoping to do science and experiments with the kids, it turned out they what they need more are math classes. It is actually really basic math, I don’t get far beyond elementar arithmetics and basic geometry. The only difficulty is to make it fun and interesting.

My daily schedule looks more or less as follows:

8 am  – all the pupils gather at the school patio 

8:15 am – the classes start. I usually teach for around 2 hours, in this time all the possible emotions go through my head: from excitement and pride to anger and resignation.

10:10 am – recreo – break. All the kids (including me) drink their milk and eat their breakfast (which is usually just a piece of bread) and go outside to play (read: run like crazy, fight and scream).

10:50 am – the class starts again, now usually the teacher takes over.

1:00 pm – lunch time! I transform into a food-server and try to convince the kids that vegetables are healthy and tasty and should not be thrown away.

1:40 pm – I can finally eat myself!

2:00 pm – I start the class for the kids who have problems with math. This time they are just few and usually behave better (but not always).

3:00 – 3:30 pm Ufffffffff, I can go home!

The day is over. I am usually really tired and I feel even more exhausted thinking that I still need to prepare the class for the next day….

And then a ‘miracle’ happens, a little childish voice says: “But you are coming back tomorrow, right? Please come back again to my classroom!”. At that moment, a big smile comes back to my face and my tiredness just vanishes.

Back at school

Little Veronica stands in front of a blackboard and says nothing.  She is supposed to read aloud a short text written on the blackboard, it is her daily reading exercise. “You really don’t know how to read it? Or you just don’t want to?” – she does not answer and smiles innocently instead, hoping that this time her teacher will give up.

Veronica is at the the second grade of the primary school Jesús Trabajador. The kids here are like everywhere else: some are smart, some are lazy, some have problems with mathematics and all prefer to play instead of studying. But there is one big difference – after school they don’t go back home to their toys, they go to work. More than one third of the children at school work on the street. They sell sweets, sell tickets in the minibuses, work with their parents at the market or at the street foodstands. The younger ones go home to help their mother or take care of smaller brothers and sisters.

Jesús Trabajador is not a regular peruvian public school. It has been founded by MANTHOC, the organisation who fights for the rights of the working kids. It gives a chance of education to those that cannot attend the public school, for various reasons. Some of the pupils need a specific time schedule because of their work their, others have been expelled due to discipline problems. And what is true for all children, is that their parents just cannot afford the public school, which requires special set of clothes and books. One can easily imagine what kind of explosive mixture those kids form! They are super energetic and hiperactive, several have problems with violence. But at the same time they need a lot attention and this kind of emotional contact that is so often missing in their families. And, however unbelievable it may sound, they all love school and their teachers.

I never wanted to become a teacher. Ten years ago, when I was still during my physics studies, I promised myself that this was the one job I was never going to do. And yet here I am, my promise from old times broken. Every day I enter a class full of kids and try to convince them that mathematics and science can be fun. And guess what? I really enjoy it! (Kids seem to enjoy it too..) I think I started to  discover my hidden passion for teaching. Taking into account the number of teachers in my family I’m afraid it might be genetic 😉

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The story of MANTHOC

It was 1962 when a german priest, Alois Eichenlaub, came to Perú. He was just 30 years old and probably did not expect to spend next 50 years of his life in the Andes. Living in Perú, Alois quickly realized how hard the life of an average family was. It was not unusual that the children had to work, they were, however, usually expoited, treated unjustly and made unfairly little amount of money. “I met the boys washing the cars and I remember asking myself the question: why don’t they join together and set fixed prices?” – tells Padre, now grey haired, 81 year-old man. Together with already existing JOC (Juventud Obrera Cristiana), he set himself the goal of creating an organization that would support those kids, that had not known the support of anybody. That is how MANTHOC started.

Today MANTHOC unites over 3000 kids from almost all the provinces in Perú. The name stands for Movimiento de Adolescentes Niños Trabajadores Hijos de Obreros Cristianos, which can be translated as the Movement of the Working Youth, Children of the Christian Working Class (it sounds old fashioned also in Spanish!). Most of the children and teenagers that belong to MANTHOC work on a daily basis: they collect tickets in the microbuses, work in a bakery, help to carry the luggage or shopping in the market, work on the street with their parents or grandparents. MANTHOC is not against the work of children in general – on the contrary, it promotes working with dignity and responsability, in fair conditions. It take care that the kids know their rights and give them possibility to develop new skills, gain education and finally become independent.

In Cajamarca MANTHOC unites around 300 kids in the poor areas of the city. They are divided in the groups, who meet on sundays or afternoons during the week. Since many of the children are not allowed or cannot afford to go to the public school, the organisation created its own primary school, with educational system adjusted to the needs of the kids. This school will become my working place for the next 5 months.

Padre Alois, the initiator and for many years the main organizer of MANTHOC activities, still lives in Cajamarca. Sitting in his library, full of the traces of peruvian culture and history, in the slow pace tells stories from his life and talks about his passion for the culture of Cajamarca. On the walls hang great pieces of the pre-inca cloth, on the shelves the ceramics from the Wari culture. Protecting and spreading the local culture was, next to creating MANTHOC, another focus of his life.

In fact, Alois is not a priest anymore. His adopted peruvian daughter recently got married in Germany. Being over 80 years old, he does not participate in the activities of his organisation any more. But he still remains the soul of MANTHOC.