Sunday, July 8, 2007

Enlace Quiche: Hope Through Education

It's still dark at 4 AM when 16-year-old Oswaldo gets up to do his chores. He and his brothers and sisters all help their parents to run their small landholding.

In the 'developed' world, it may be a challenge training a child to make their bed in the morning: in 'undeveloped' countries, it's more than chores; children need to work so that the family can continue to have food shelter and clothing. Children born in poverty grow up working in the fields, or sometimes they live in cities and spend the day trying to sell stickers or newspapers to make a few extra pennies for their families. In rural Guatemala the average boy spends less than 6 years in school. The average girl spends less than two. They will be farmers or labourers all their lives.

Oswaldo's life will be different because of the work of one remarkable organization. Every day at 7AM Oswaldo gets on a bus and goes into the nearby town of Santa Cruz del Quiche to take classes in a computer lab at Enlace Quiche.

"If this school didn't exist, I would probably be working in agriculture," says Oswaldo in Spanish. "Most of the people that I grew up with are working now. I'm pretty much the only one who is still going to school."

Enlace Quiche was started by Andy Lieberman, who moved to Guatemala in the early 1990s to get a break from the high tech industry in San Francisco. He fell in love, married a Guatemalan social worker, and had a couple of children. In 2000 he was approached to coordinate the Enlace Quiche Project using USAID/AED funding. Through 2003 , Enlace worked with local partners and the Ministry of Education to create the first Technology Centers with computers and multimedia equipment to support the training of bilingual teachers and the production of lecture and textbook material in the K'iche' and Ixil Mayan languages. After direct funding from USAID ended Enlace Quiche continued forward as an NGO. Their website says that their mission is "to teach with computers and not about computers, contributing to the development of Quiche, of Guatemala, and of indigenous peoples in the whole world."

"One thing that is really different about our organization is that it is almost entirely run by Guatemalans," says Andy. "In many other organizations the entire executive is made up of foreigners. In Enlace Quiche I am the only person on the board of directors that isn't a native Guatemalan. This allows us to be more responsive to the local culture and needs; it also means that the organization can keep going without me."

Enlace Quiche has courses in typing, small business management, computer use , K'iche' and English. The courses are all aimed at the needs of the local indigenous people. M ost of the course materials have been developed in-house to make them more applicable to native Quiche speakers. Enlace Quiche is even creating Quiche web pages, and there is a new effort to provide a comprehensive online directory of local businesses and community organizations. The award winning course material is available for free download from the Enlace Quiche website at

Enlace staff working on course materials.

All the students we talked to value their traditional culture and language. The boys, who are all dressed in modern clothes, all agree that traditional dress is important for the women. The women aren't as sure about that, but they do all agree that they want to maintain their language. Spanish is important: it is the language of business. But speaking K'iche' allows them to maintain a connection with their Mayan roots.

Like most modern NGOs, Enlace Quiche requires that users pay a portion of costs. The fee structure addresses some of the effects of Guatemala's rapidly growing yet poorly funded education system. Due to the dramatic quality variance in primary school teachers, students often have not developed the discipline of good learning skills. It isn't uncommon for them to miss classes, show up late, or talk on their cell phones in class. "It is important to charge a fee so that the students will value what they are getting", explains Andy. When Lara and I walked into a class, the students were all intently focused on their assignments and teacher. If we had been really quiet, I'm sure they wouldn't have noticed us until class was over.

The classes cost around $20.00 a month, though scholarships reduce the cost for many students by up to 75%. It might not seem like much, but in an area where people earn a few dollars a day and have ten children, $5.00 is a lot to spend on one child. Most of the students also have to pay bus fare every day to get to classes. As a result, many students do extra work to pay for their education. Oswaldo, for example, goes to the town square every evening after classes and sells belts to earn tuition money.

Selling belts to earn tuition money.

The students we talked to clearly value what they are getting. We asked three girls from one of the classes to describe their experiences. They are 16,18, and 19, but could be five years younger. "Many of our friends are married already," they explain. "If we didn't have this school to go to we probably would be too." Indigenous women often marry at 13 or 14 and start having children shortly after. The girls are astonished to hear that in the developed world most people marry in their mid twenties and many in their thirties.

To spread their idea further, Enlace Quiche has just started a youth club. Students who join the club can bring friends into the computer lab and library. Oswaldo says he would really like his brothers and sisters to come, and he plans to bring them through the club. Maybe they'll be the next generation of students.

Oliver Wendel Holmes said "The mind once expanded by a new idea never returns to its original size."

Just as Enlace Quiche is expanding minds it touches, it is also expanding its vision for social impact. Enlace Quiche says on their website, "We have great dreams!" Andy L ie berman is now focusing a large part of his energy on turning the original center in Santa Cruz del Quiche into a blueprint for self-supporting technology centers in other communities. As an example of 'social entrepreneurship,' this type of proposed sustainable model uses "the enormous synergies and benefits that arise when business principles are unified with social ventures". As a social entrepreneur, Andy hopes to change the world. His plan will not only help people: it will support itself, attract investors, and eventually it will take on a life of its own.

All of the kids we talked to have bigger plans for their lives now. Salvador hopes to be a teacher. Maria wants to work in an office. Most will be the first generation of their families to have jobs outside of subsistence agriculture. They will be teachers, office workers, and computer operators. They will marry later in life, have fewer children, and earn enough money to see that their children get educated as well. For them the cycle of poverty has been broken.

You can donate to Enlace Quiche through GlobalGiving by clicking here.


Mark Steidler said...

Thanks for your post on multicultural learning!

The reason I’m reaching out is to see if you’d like to receive a Maya & Miguel Cinco de Maya DVD. I’m working on a marketing project with Scholastic to raise awareness about cultural diversity, language learning and even supporting a soccer tournament by connecting with parents like you that are publishing great content.

If you’d like to receive the DVD, just email me at with your address and I’ll have it shipped out to you. If you do choose to get the Maya & Miguel DVD and decide to blog about, please make it clear how you received the DVD. Our goal is to be open and honest with everyone we reach.

Many Thanks,
Mark Steidler

Toby & Brittany said...

Taco and Lara-

Thanks so much for the beautiful piece you wrote. It is very gratifying to read another's perspective of what we see here each and every day working at Ajb'atz' Enlace Quiché.

We really enjoyed talking about our projects and classes with you during your visit. Thanks for your continued support and connection to our organization.

Toby and Brittany

Tomás said...

It's a great piece, and here in Health Unlimited Guatemala, we'd like to add our voice in thanking Enlace, and Andy in particular, on behalf of all the young people in the communities where we work for the new horizons and new opportunities which Enlace is giving them every day. ¡Maltiox!