issue 215 - January 1991
School is out
Guatemalan programme falters
School is just breaking up for the day in the remote highland village of Rio Azul. Outside the dilapidated single-storey building the village teacher is fixing his motorbike while the pupils, all of them Ixil Indian children, hurry to their nearby homes. 'Even the best pupils can't afford to continue school,' he says despairingly, 'they either finish at sixth grade or they drop out to go and work on the plantations. This is the problem in all our villages.'
The children of Rio Azul are fortunate in that they at least have a school to go to. Large sections of the population have no access to education at all. There is an estimated national shortage of 3,000 classrooms and 40,000 teachers.
Guatemala's growing economic crisis is reducing the minuscule proportion of the state budget still further. Shortages of books and materials grow more intense and some schools are unable to provide even water or electricity.
The crisis is particularly severe in rural areas. Here the illiteracy rate can be as high as 80 per cent, and absenteeism has risen as children are increasingly required to contribute to the family income. More children are coming to school too hungry to concentrate on their work.
The state literacy programme, CONALFA, has been cut back severely. It was started three years ago as the first serious attempt to tackle illiteracy, and developed an excellent methodology. Workers are recruited from within each community. They find the pupils and arrange classes to fit their work schedule. Adults can choose the language in which they wish to become literate, and great stress is laid on literacy as a practical tool.
But despite the initial enthusiasm and the commitment of many local coordinators, CONALFA has failed to have any impact on national illiteracy figures. 'People say literacy doesn't help them,' says one CONALFA worker. 'They say they prefer a meal to learning to read and write.' The presence of the army in the countryside creates a climate of fear and instability which does not help.
CONALFA is now unable to pay its literacy workers in the field, and many have received no salary for over four months. Classes have been abandoned as a result. The programme has reached a period of decay from which it may never recover.
Japan's hidden homeless
Photo: Peter J Mallett
Midday on a stifling June day at the start of the rainy season, and the streets of Kamagasaki, Japan, are full of middle-aged men drinking sake, chatting or gambling, or sleeping on filthy mattresses. There is litter everywhere and a pervading stench of urine. It's not the usual image of modern Japan, and one that the Japanese themselves go to some lengths to ignore.
Kamagasaki is the biggest of the four casual labour markets in Japan and home for some 25,000 day labourers. Most Japanese call the place abunai (dangerous) but few have actually been here. The place doesn't exist officially, renamed Airin (brotherly love) after unrest in the 1960s. But the name is unused. And unrest has welled up again. In September there were several days of rioting which left 150 people injured and the streets strewn with wrecked cars and broken glass.
Compared with slum districts in other cities in the world, Kamagasaki is superficially prosperous. The streets are lined with doya, the cheap hotels where labourers rent rooms by the night. Many have been rebuilt and renamed 'VIP Inn' or 'Hotel Hilton', doubling their charges in the process.
There are no women here, and no families. Some men come to escape family problems, or after divorce. Others are unemployed, bankrupt businessmen, people who cannot meet the fierce, competitive demands of Japanese society. They rarely leave, except in death.
They do the dirty, smelly and sometimes dangerous jobs no-one else wants, usually in the construction industry. The casual labour market is largely controlled by the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), who take about a third of the wages. Many of the workers are too old to be able to work every day, even when jobs are available. When they don't work they don't get paid. The Yakuza do a brisk trade in black market health insurance stamps - the Government occasionally prosecutes the buyers of these stamps, but never the sellers, from whom they receive political donations.
Some turn to drink to escape their problems, others have problems because of their drinking. In an area with 155 cheap restaurants there are 179 bars. Drink is also available through ubiquitous vending machines. Either way, plenty find their way to the doors of Kibo no Ie (House of Hope) a voluntary centre for the rehabilitation of alcoholics. Christian groups of all denominations are active in this area, but the Government refuses to fund them because of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Although the poor and homeless of Japan are no worse off than some, and better off than many slum dwellers elsewhere in the world, the difference is that in Japan no-one will admit there is a problem.
Peter J Mallett
Escaping South Africa's iron grip
Namibia became independent last March, but it remains economically subject to its powerful neighbour, South Africa. South Africa buys 75 per cent of Namibian exports and supplies 80 per cent of its imports. Moves have now begun to slacken this dependence, and much of the impetus is coming from grassroots and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
One success has been the use of Angolan oil. The Deputy Minister of Mines and Energy, Helmut Angula, said as the first shipment was off-loaded in Luderitz that he hoped that within five years 50 per cent of Namibia's oil would come from non-South African sources.
Negotiations are underway with the European Economic Community (EEC), with a view to Namibia joining the Lomé Convention, so providing an alternative market for Namibian beef and sheepmeat.
Local NGOs have also contributed to developing skills in Namibia, thereby reducing dependence on South Africa. The Namibia Development Trust (NDT) was set up in 1987 to channel EEC funds to the victims of apartheid. It has transformed itself into a 'networking' agency for Namibian NGOs. It has been critical of foreign NGOs who bring their own agendas, such as the current emphasis on small businesses rather than co-operatives. Lindi Kazombaue, the NDT Coordinator, recognizes that co-operatives have problems too but is convinced they are critical to spreading management skills.
NDT has presented the Government with a three-fold strategy: replacing goods like shoes, crockery, uniforms and textiles imported from South Africa; switching to other sources of supply, such as Zimbabwe; using local products, like the marula tree for oil, fruit-based alcoholic drinks and aloes for medicine and cosmetics.
Irrespective of the outcome of the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa their local initiatives are the key to Namibia's future.
Rio's 'Children's Republic'
Photo: Joanna Griffin
Three years ago 128 Washing ton Luis Street was a derelict building in one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest areas. With a leaking roof and crumbling plaster, the house still has a long way to go to become fully habitable. But these days it is home to 28 children who would otherwise face violence and destitution on the city's streets.
The Republica dos Meninos ('Children's Republic'), as the house is known, was taken over by artist Paulo Faustino three years ago. Since then, Faustino has campaigned relentlessly to transform the abandoned house into a home for a handful of the children who live on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is best known for its beaches, glitzy hotels and Carnival. Few people remember the hordes of children who routinely sleep in shop doorways and in tunnels, scratching out a living through begging and petty crime. Brazil's seven million meninos da rua face increasingly brutal treatment from police who are using torture and violence to 'clean up the streets'.
Faustino shudders when reminded of reports of police brutality. The house in Washington Luis Street is safe and is also a kind of rehabilitation centre for children who have known no other life than the streets, he says. He and the other staff try to prepare the children for a different life.
'We can feed and clothe them, and give them somewhere to live, but we cannot wipe out the terrifying experience of living alone on the streets', he says.
Fourteen-year-old Vitor Da Silva came to live at the house two years ago to escape continued battering from his stepfather. Many children leave home for similar reasons, or to relieve their families of an extra mouth to feed. Vitor is now preparing for school exams and plays in a local soccer team.
Earlier last year Faustino realized a dream when he took over another abandoned house from the authorities. With the help of a Catholic primary school in West London, he raised almost $4,000 to renovate the house and set up a carpentry workshop that will eventually help the older children to generate funds for the project by restoring furniture. Faustino wants a network of similar projects throughout Brazil.
The children share household tasks and must either go to school or work. It's a condition of their stay in the house. Not all of them want to stay - some find the transition from life on the streets just too painful.
'I know that our houses are a drop in the ocean,' Faustino says. 'But we have a responsibility to give as many children as possible a chance of a decent life.' The 'Children's Republic' is doing just that.