At half past eight in the morning a group of around 13 people gathers around the church Santa Lucia in Antigua. We are waiting for a chicken bus destined for Ciudad Vieja. All of us are here to visit a school called Nuestro Futuro. The tour is organized and guided by volunteers for Niños de Guatemala and all of us joined the tour for different reasons. The vast majority of the participants are a group of resident doctors from the USA. They have volunteered to give checkups to all the children in the other school, El Povenir. Some other participants are going to volunteer for a number of weeks in one of the schools. I am visiting the school because I have been volunteering for the organization for quite some time already, but as a fundraiser in the Netherlands. I joined the organization because I believe in the cause: improving the lives of children through education. However, I hadn’t actually seen the schools in Guatemla yet. So this year’s holiday destination was Guatemala, to learn about the country, to visit the schools, and to get a better understanding of Guatemalan society.
The tour turned out to be much more than just a visit to the school. Sam, our tour guide who works in the NDG office, could tell us a lot about the living conditions and the major industries in the town, something that the normal tourist in Antigua is not exposed to. The story that made a deep impression on me was about the life of your average bus driver in the Guatemala. For those who have never been to Guatemala, take the chicken bus, it is a cool and exciting experience.
The first stop of the tour was a chicken bus factory, where they strip and rebuild old American school buses, turning them into the creative and often strange buses you see in Guatemala all the time. Although the factory itself was not that spectacular, the story that accompanied this stop was. Apparently all these buses are owned by a few companies, not by the drivers themselves. The bus drivers actually need to pay a fixed amount to the company, this is quite a high target, and hence they are always in a rush and squeeze as much people into each trip as they possibly can. When they breakeven or less, they do not earn anything. When they exceed the target, they can keep the profit. Pretty risky already, to have to work an entire day while not knowing if you earn enough money to provide for your family. Also the profession of a bus driver is also the second most dangerous job in Guatemala. Not because the drivers drive so crazily (although this might not be helping to bring down the number of deceased drivers either), but because they are targets for robbery and of organized gangs. Since they carry their earnings for the entire day around, they are an easy prey. Guatemala is also dominated by gangs that “protect” the driver in certain areas and of course demand to get paid for this protection. At the end of the day, the already struggling bus drivers are also extorted for the little money they could make in the first place and possibly they are extorted by more than one gang. You can imagine that some refuse to pay because of their desperate situation. The gangs often kill them to set an example. If this is not enough, the organized gangs have found even more creative ways to earn money. They frequently seek out the family of the the bus driver they have just killed to collect the insurance money.
In the following days, I learned more and more about Guatemala; I learned lots about the good, but more about what goes wrong. The story of the bus driver is just one example of the lawlessness in this country. There is little trust in the government, corruption is widespread, the police are distrusted, and crime frequently goes unpunished. The gap between rich and poor is enormous and it seems that if you belong to the rich part all you do is try to stay there and get richer. The poor are trapped in their own circles as well, often they cannot read or write, there is no water or electricity and not enough schools to send there kids too (if they can already afford the money for books and uniforms). If you hear all these stories it is hard to see a bright future for Guatemala.
However, there are definitely some positive signs. As we speak the mayor of Antigua has just been arrested and jailed for embezzlement of an astonishing 28 million Quetzal (around 2.8 million euro, you can operate around 20 schools for this around Antigua) This arrest is actually quite spectacular, since it is the first time that officials are been brought to court. Hopefully a sign of future change? I hope that the ruling elite here will one day realize that it is also in their own long term benefit to invest more in education and that eventually NGOs such as Niños de Guatemala will not be needed anymore. For now however, this is still wishful thinking.
The tour has arrived at Nuestro Futuro and we step into the school, welcomed by a lot of enthusiastic little children that like to hug a lot, chat a little and than continue playing. It seems to be a safe haven compared to the in the poor village and their home situations.The kids learn not only how to read and write, they also get taught a sense of responsibility for their own and fellow Guatemalans. This, together with an amazing amount of other private or NGO initiatives will hopefully change the future for at least some in Guatemala.