Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tales of the Grandfather: Planting More than Seeds

We turned off the main road onto a dusty route, strewn with rocks.

Gritty clouds waft in through the open windows.  Keeping the windows open is always a good idea when traveling for the first few times in a new area.  We check in with the guys hanging out near the main road, and with the neighbors as we bump along our way.  The Grandfather was born here.  He has walked these paths his whole life.  The neighbors are not accustomed to shaking his hand and patting his shoulder through a car window.

Papá is super happy, smiling and waving his white baseball cap out the window as we move forward.  His oldest daughter and his son, our sister pastor, look lovingly at their dad.
 This is the day that we would get to know the land in which he plants, the land of his dreams.

Nance Tree
The crops beside the road are mostly brown and crunchy, and every leaf is covered with a grayish film.  The tall trees are green, some have yellow flowers, and above the flora and the dust and the mountains the sky shines bright blue.  A big earth-moving machine blocks our way.  Our pastor hops out to guide us through the very narrow space.  "They are fixing the road," the Grandfather tells us.  "It will be paved that way up to the top.  It's blocked off today, so that is why we are taking this long way."

We arrive at the gate.  "This is it!" exclaims the Grandfather proudly.  He and his son unwind some barbed wire and other secret lassos and pull back a wide gate made from 6-foot branches intermittently spaced between rows of barbed wire.  We pull in.  Four little girls walk in behind us.   Three of them wear white head scarves, a tradition in many of the evangelical and pentecostal churches here.  We learn that one of the girls took care of the Grandfather last week when he fell and hit his head near the gate.  The three sisters and their friend come in the afternoons and sit under the shelter which the Grandfather built, and he teaches them the Catechism.

Conocaste Tree
The Grandfather walks from plant to plant, flower to flower, tree to tree.  Like Adam naming bits of creation in the Garden of Eden, he gives me a tour.  He is careful to point out each small paterna tree.  The nance tree, he tells me, produced fifteen big green nances last year - the sweet kind.*  The Grandfather pulls a well-repaired hose out of an old sack, carefully unties the cords that bind it, and connects it to the spigot.  "That is exactly how my dad would have done it," I think.  There is running water here, and a beautiful pila (cistern).  With hose and bucket the Grandfather gives each plant a drink.  "This place has everything," he says.  "Whatever you need to eat, you plant.  Haha!  Do you need soap to wash your clothes?  Go to the conocaste tree.**  You really never need to leave this place."   Papá is in his glory.

A nearby neighbor lets the Grandfather sleep in his cement block house.  We borrow plastic chairs from the house and sit down to rest and visit below the shelter.  The columns of the shelter are fashioned from tree trunks, each with a natural notch at the top where the trunks branched into two, with the upper limbs cut off.  The horizontal poles rest in these notches. The walls consist of bamboo poles and the roof of large bamboo poles cut in half the long way to create beams to hold sheets of laminated metal.  Everything is put together in a way to make best use of limited additional materials - just some wire and only a few nails.

The girls sit on a homemade wooden bench. Carefully harvested piles of bamboo and lumber rest in piles around us, and in the middle of everything sits a porcelain toilet.  The Grandfather has dug a pit, and soon the bathroom will be built.  He also fashioned a tall concrete light pole by making a cylindrical form from metal sheets and pouring the concrete in little by little.  The home-made scaffolding is still erected around the pole so the Grandfather can attach the electrical lines.  The Grandfather is in his 80's. He is a marvel and an inspiration to his neighbors and to his family, though they worry about him because he continues to do the work of his youth.

We chat with the little girls.  They are in third grade and fourth grade.  We learn that the oldest does not go to school because she has not been able to register yet.  She wants to go to seventh grade.

The Bishop arrives.  He is here to celebrate the work of the Grandfather and the beginnings of the little church which has grown up here.  The Bishop and his wife and another friend join us under the shelter, and a few more friends from the community settle into the circle of plastic chairs.  We take a little time to get to know each other, and the Bishop lovingly asks each girl her name, her age, and her grade in school.  The oldest says she does not study.  "It's your right to study," says the friend.  Yes it is, everyone agrees.

"Do your parents know you are here?" asks the Bishop.  The girls say yes, they have their permission.  "It's good when our churches can be together," he says.

We sing and we pray.  The girls in their little white veils know the songs..."I have a friend whose name is Jesus who loves me."  Only one week of school has passed.  Maybe something can be done to enroll the girl who wishes to study.  The friend takes down some information.



The Bishop and those who came with him need to leave.  Our sister pastor and I ask the girls if we can walk to their house.  We can!  The view of the Guazapa volcano from the dusty road is precious.  "It's that way to the river on the mountain," points out the girl who wants to study, "and that way to the river below."  We walk onto a tidy field strewn with dried corn leaves.  Two cows are tied up below a couple of trees.  "Good morning, cows," I say.  The girls laugh.  "What are their names?"

"That one is Butterfly, and that one is Princess."

We meet the goats.  The chicken house is very large, and hens swing happily on long benches suspended from the ceiling from ropes.  Their cackling song is quite loud!  The pastor and I look at each other, both thinking that this is quite a farm!

The pastor introduces himself and me to the girls' grandmother and he explains the purpose of our visit.  He asks the daughter if her friends are in school.  "Yes," she says.

"All of them?" he asks.  Yes, they are all in school.  The grandmother passes her phone to the pastor so he can talk with the girl's father.  It has been hard for the mom and dad to register their daughter because the school for 7th-9th grade is pretty far away.  Another phone in the house rings, and it is the mother.  The pastor is very skillful in his conversation with the parents, very respectful of their faith tradition, but also clear that this little girl should be in school.  Both parents happily give permission for the Lutheran Church to help to register the oldest daughter for school.

As we say good-bye to the goats and the cows and head back up the hill, the pastor tells me it will be hard to find a spot for the girl in the morning session.  Her mother will only accept a morning slot because she does not want her daughter to have to walk home from the bus late in the afternoon as it gets dark.  She is right, it would not be safe for this tender-aged girl to walk home after dark.

The pastor gets on the phone and makes a plan.  Between him, his older sister (who is a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school) and his younger sister (who is a pastor in the town where the girl should be registered for school), they know who to call and how to make an appointment.

We say good-bye to the neighbors and the gardens and climb into the car for the journey back to the main road.  Along the way, the Grandfather tells a story from his childhood.  "Right there," he points, "there used to be a big well.  One time a boy fell in.  Everyone looked and looked for him, and when they finally found him, he was alive.  His dog had jumped in, and grabbing the boy's hair in its teeth, the dog held the boy's head above the water for all that time."  Sometimes the tales of the Grandfather are almost too fantastic to believe!

This visit happened on a Saturday.

On Monday, there were phone calls.

used with permission
On Tuesday, the girl and her mother and the younger pastor-daughter of the Grandfather met with the director of the school and secured a place in the morning session for the girl.  As the director was filling out the paperwork for the entry certificate, she asked the girl for her date of birth.  The pastor and the director were surprised when the girl said, "It's today!"

With the help of friends, on her fourteenth birthday, a girl in a rural community claimed her right to continue her education.  Her mother was extremely grateful for the help in navigating a system that was a little bit beyond her reach.  Her mother could not stop giving thanks to God for sending friends who could help the daughter to claim her right to an education.

Yesterday, I met with the pastor who accompanied the girl and her mother to the school.  She said, "When we are called to act we cannot sit and wait.  When we are called to act, we have to act on time."

The Grandfather has planted so much more than seeds.


*These fruits are described with photos in a previous story.

**The seed pod of the conocaste tree is sometimes described as an elephant ear.  The mature pod contains hard seeds often sliced and made into jewelry.  The fluffy stuff around the seeds makes a good soap substitute.

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