After six months of unanswered emails, worrying lack of news and uncertainty, we had admittedly began losing hope regarding any positive results from our work in Palmera, our first project of this trip. We had sent countless emails to the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation asking for news from the Cabecar Indigenous Reserve, and for the report we had written for them, so we could perhaps attract investment, tourism and volunteers to continue the process that the Foundation had started and we had enhanced during our nearly two months living with a local family. We had found a magnificent community, rich in resources and culture, but lacking in infrastructure. A very promising land where a terribly apathetic mindset obscured the vision of the future for the youth, despite their eagerness and commitment to education.
It was exactly with education, the bridge between preserving their ancestral history and bringing positive development to the community, where the key to the gate of the future lay for Palmera and the majority of its inhabitants. Although we focused our activities on strengthening the link between these two factors and improving local understanding of their importance, we hit a massive road block very early in the form of corruption.
The newly appointed principal of the high school had taken advantage of the seeds planted by his predecessor, now working a few hundred meters away as principal of the elementary school, and didn't take long to harvest the rewards. There was factual evidence that he was repeatedly using school funds for personal use, buying personal hygiene products, food and alcohol, as well as rather heavy accusations of drug use on school grounds and in the presence of students. In addition, the president of the board of education, otherwise known as the town drunk, had taken a liking to the methods of the new principal and soon became involved in these insidious activities. The most worrying result of these acts was the constant cancellation of classes, three or four times a week for lack of food in the school cafeteria, and the inability of the faculty to buy teaching materials. Teachers had to use their own money for such purchases.
The students displayed a flagrant mistrust in the educational system as was demonstrated by the lacklustre attendance, which was well under fifty percent. Many of the young boys would rather work with their fathers in the nearby plantations. The girls, many of whom were already mothers, could not afford to waste their precious time at a school that didn't provide a meal nor an education, and preferred to tend their domestic duties, as Cabecar tradition dictates.
Infuriated upon realizing this, and urged on by members of the community, teachers and students, we wrote a letter to the regional authorities and the local board of education, asking for an internal investigation, a new directive and a series of conditions in order to achieve transparency and a more efficient administration in the years to come.
The effects of the letter were immediate, although not as impactful as we had hoped. As news of a board meeting to assess the situation spread through the town, fierce tension invaded the faculty, the student body and the general population, as everyone began dividing between those who supported the principal and those who quietly disapproved. Fortunately, there was a third group: those who had taken a stand against the principal and the president of the board. Unfortunately, the group only consisted of our host family, the school cook, as the teachers who had initially inspired and incited us to take action, ultimately denied everything in fear of losing their jobs. The board meeting, which was dramatically similar to a court trial was hindered by the principal, who made sure it was scheduled during school hours so that the few students who were willing to take a stand against him would not attend. Much to our dismay, Leo, the father of our family forbid us from attending, fearing an angry reaction from the two characters involved, who had proven to be rather unpredictable.
As we had expected, without lack of support for our cause, the principal asserted his position at the board meeting, gaining support from the board members, whom he and the president had appointed. The appointees were illiterate, an unlawful situation, as we came to find out.
Our projects at the school became severely hampered on account of our actions, as we were no longer welcomed at the school. Some of the teachers were certainly reluctant to be seen speaking to us, so we spent most of our time with our family.
What had begun as an emotive and devoted campaign, ended quietly as we left Palmera without any visible results to our actions. Eventually, once we had the time and resources, we extended our letter to the Ministry of Education, but only received an acknowledgement of receipt from them. The past few months we had often wondered, albeit hopelessly, what had been of the situation in Palmera, and whether Leo, his family or anyone in town had fed the fire that we had ignited.
Surprisingly, yesterday we received a great piece of news from the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation.
The principal of the school has been sanctioned, and is being very carefully watched by the Ministry of Education. They are assessing the situation and may fire him in the coming weeks. From now on, the principal is not allowed to cancel classes, nor does he have access to funds, as it goes directly from the Ministry to the suppliers. The members of the board of education are now named democratically by the people and the student government has been given additional support and power. The people of Palmera are satisfied with these changes, which they directly attribute to the document we drafted in early November.
We left Palmera more than half a year ago, with an amazing experience to remember for the rest of our lives, but disappointed at being unable to make a lasting impact. Over the past few months, a mountain of disappointment had began to build on the foundations created during our time in Palmera as we poured our hearts and souls into several projects along the way but failed to see the end results. Thus, as you can imagine, it is extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling to receive these news.
We can now see more clearly the importance of embroidering experiences, even the most marvelous ones, with actions which will last beyond memory.
"They are small things. They don't bring an end to poverty or lift us out of underdevelopment, they don't enforce social responsibility in means of production and exchange, and they don't expropriate Ali Baba's caves. But perhaps they set in motion the joy of doing, and translate it into specific acts. And, when all is said and done, acting on reality and changing it, although just a little bit, is the only way to prove that reality is transformable." - Eduardo Galeano (Uruguayan journalist and writer)
You can find the report we wrote to the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation and the letter to the Ministry of Education in our new 'Documents' section.