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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Role of Reading and Establishing a Library

        Over the last few months the hustle and bustle of keeping up with this blog has proved far more challenging than I expected. November and December are traditionally busy times of the year not just because of the holidays, but also because it is when the school year wraps up, and many horticultural products, mainly watermelons, are harvested for sale over Christmas. For me, this has been a hectic time because of various vacations, Peace Corps events, and project logistic planning’s that have taken me away from O’Leary to other places all over Paraguay, and abroad. Next week I am headed to Bolivia for 13 days in the wake of spending Christmas and New Years in Uruguay. As a Peace Corps Volunteer we are allotted 48 vacation days during our 2 years of service, and given the fact that it is the summer, and that I spend most of my days in front of a fan trying not to pass out from heat stroke or burn a layer of skin off I figured that now is as good a time as any to take advantage of those vacation days we are given especially considering the slow advance of the current project in front of me.
       In previous entries I have made reference to the local school where I work desire to create a library. One of the first things my host parents, Julio Area Director of 7 schools including mine and Iris Director of the school where I work, said to me during that first steamy month in O’Leary where the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees daily during an unseasonable drought was that the children at the elementary school didn’t have books to read, and that they would like to start a library. Naturally I thought this was a great idea especially considering my ignorance at the time of how the Paraguayan education system works, and the difficulty with obtaining age appropriate books in Spanish. I promised that I would do my best to get this established as soon as possible. That was over a year ago. Significant progress has been made, and to date we have roughly 150 books thanks to a generous monetary donation from the Rotary Club of Cincinnati, and a small package donated by Darien Book Aid in Connecticut, but the work is far from done.
My goal is to get several bookshelves made, paint a couple of maps on the wall of the ecological regions of Paraguay and a map of the Department of Alto Parana where O’Leary is located, and make the newly built library space colorful and fun looking to entice the kids to come hang out. All of those goals are feasible, and within reach short of a few minor obstacles starting with the electricity in the school that is currently broken and in need of repair, and the slow process of having a carpenter cut down a tree in order to build the necessary bookshelves to stock the newly acquired books. As I have said in countless situations when it comes to doing a project, especially one that requires significant logistical planning and outside sources of funding, getting things done takes time, effort, and levels of patience that I had previously thought impossible.
       Last May, I attended a library workshop put on by the Peace Corps with my close friend Claudio who just recently graduated from high school. The collective knowledge that either of us had about creating a library was less than none, so we both felt that this workshop would provide a good first step in the process to come, and it did just that. We got information on everything from how to obtain books in Paraguay through donations, how best to organize a library, and everything in between. We left with a good idea of the task in front of us, but little idea as to how long and drawn out the process would take to complete the library. At the end of June we presented our ideas and project timeline in front of the school’s parent’s commission, and received ardent support from everyone in attendance. Additionally, I got news at the end of July that the school had received a sum of money that was to go towards the building of a storage space/library in the old abandoned classroom that has been vacant for over 4 years. I was beyond enthusiastic at the luck because that financial contribution with the addition of the labor costs and funding from the parents commission allowed me to complete a Peace Corps Partnership grant that in order to create must receive a 25% contribution from the community. However that is where things began to slow down and I started to realize the challenges associated with seeing this project come to fruition in a timely fashion.
       For starters, I realized how difficult it is to get books to O’Leary. Library projects are a global Peace Corps initiative meaning that all volunteers regardless of sector are encouraged to establish libraries if there is a desire and means to do so all over the world. Despite all the institutional support, and the number of volunteers, including Kristin a fellow volunteer who lived one barrio over from where I do, who are involved in library projects, the process of obtaining books is still a remarkable challenge. There are no places that sell reading books in O’Leary. There is a municipal library in town, but people are not allowed to check books out, and the majority of the books are for adults as opposed to children. The only real places within Paraguay where one can by books are in Asuncion, a 5 hour bus ride from O’Leary. Additionally, the books one can obtain in Asuncion are limited and extremely expensive proportionally to the amount of money families in Paraguay make annually. It is no surprise that this is the case. I feel as though a consistent theme in each of my blog posts is Paraguay’s relative isolation to the rest of the outside world, so the books that do make it in predominantly come from Argentina, are cheaply made newspaper like booklets produced by one of the 2 national newspapers, or are extremely dense textbooks that are inconsistently distributed throughout the country by the ministry of education. This difficulty in obtaining books within Paraguay presents an interesting insight into Paraguayan’s perceptions of the value and importance of reading in education.
       If I was to ask a mother or father who has a child in school if reading is important the answer is always a resounding yes. If I was to follow up that question with do you read to your children the answer would be a resounding no for two reasons one obvious the other not so much. As I mentioned earlier, books are not only expensive, but also are in limited quantity and quality. Families cannot go to the book store to buy their children books to read because books stores don’t really exist outside Asuncion, and even there the selection is limited. The other more interesting facet of this culture of reading is that because of the lack of exposure to books throughout the country reading is associated strictly as a skill attained in school for the purpose of studying and learning, not for enjoyment. Since arriving in Paraguay I have read for leisure more books than at any other point in my life by far, but every time I am in public or at a family’s house with a book the automatic assumption is that I am studying, which more often than not is not the case. Another common response is that because the books I am reading are almost always in English people assume that I am reading the Bible even though the bright colors and goofy title fonts would in theory make it obvious that I am not reading the Bible given it’s traditionally plain cover It isn’t an ignorance thing whatsoever it is the consequence of an engrained cultural association of the uses of books that has been fostered for generations due to the lack of exposure people have had to books meant for enjoyment. Changing that culture is something that will take decades to accomplish, and given the rise of the Internet, eBooks, and other methods of obtaining literature it might be said that going through the process of getting hard copy books is a waste of time as fewer and fewer books are published in hardcopy. My response to that is simply that while the type of books, for example children’s picture books are rare and uncommon the concept of their importance in a child’s education is not lost on most Paraguayan parents. Even if technology continue to develop and devices like E readers replace hardcopy books over the next several decades as the most efficient method of getting literature into the hands of the worlds poorest children. As a global development strategy, the fact remains that in a society where the majority of people are unfamiliar owning and operating new technology that is constantly changing it is difficult me to justify that electronic reading devices of any kind can work in a small elementary school in rural Paraguay. Books are something that have been around for hundreds of years and are recognizable commodities even in the poorest communities around the world. Personal computers and digital devices have eisted for, generously stated, scarcely over 30 years old.
       The amount of schools across this country that I have seen that have received a donation of computers, or some new learning curriculum promoted by the Ministry Education or other outside educational entities that sit dusty and unused is incredible. The pace in which technology changes requires constant adaptation from people using said technology, but if you are a teacher in a small school in the developing world who was certified over 20 years ago how capable are you of implementing new teaching methods and devices within a highly standardized system that reforms at a snails pace? I guess my big point in saying all this is that Paraguayan teachers know how to read, but they lack the fun materials to read to their students that would help develop a culture of reading as a recreational activity. They are also are a product of a highly standardized system of education that prevents flexibility from the regular curriculum. Not to mention that the teachers in Paraguay were themselves educated in Paraguay under the same system of education that hasn’t been reformed since the early 1980s.
       The library project at the school close to my house will hopefully be done before the start of the upcoming school year at the end of February. The biggest challenge I face is being able to figure out a way to utilize this recourse effectively so that the kids benefit from the materials that are inside. I believe that if over the course of the next several years some sort of consistency is established within the library that maximizes the resources within that it will eventually allow for  transitions to newer forms of technology to occur especially as our world becomes smaller and smaller. That challenge is something that I could spend years trying to overcome, and that is the one thing I don’t have.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tom. I came across your blog post by accident. I'm living in Asunción and soon moving out of my house. I have a few bookshelves I am no long going to use. I don't know how we could get those to O'leary but if you'd like them, you can contact me. I'm pretty sure I have some children's books in Spanish that I could also donate. I think your idea is wonderful. Send me a text message to 0981223292 and I'll reply.