Anderson Valley Advertiser, Christian Science Monitor
Statement of Purpose -- Bookseed is a non-profit work whose primary purpose is to establish children's libraries with indigenous cultures in remote village grade schools. Our secondary purpose is distributing new varieties of heirloom vegetable and fruit seeds to subsistence farmers.
The little libraries are provided to promote literacy and education in bookless places, while the seed program is meant to enhance their agrarian micro-economy. About 150 kids books, all in Spanish, make up a library.
Most of these books are stories, but others deal with health and environmental concerns. A good set of children's encyclopedia, plus a dictionary is always included in these little gardens of words. The seeds, often donated in the same villages as the libraries, number about 40 varieties. New varieties of tomatoes, beans, lettuce, and chard unavailable in these places are always valued by the recipients. Sometimes schools and corporations also ask me for seeds.
Since 1994 about 90 communities within a dozen indigenous cultures have received little libraries and seeds.
Working to establish kids libraries amongst indigenous cultures actually began for me in Honduras with the Garifuna people in 1994. That was the year of the Zapatista revolt and over the next several years I started to set up kids libraries with the indigenous Mayan people in Chiapas and Guatemala. In 1982 though I went through IFOR to help set up a library in a Palestinian high school in the northern Galilee of Israel. In these very different places I realized "how books explode like bombs" and how political pedagogy can become.
My work started unexpectedly on a diving trip for conch and lobster in the Hog Islands, six miles off Honduras' Caribbean coast. I had visited there on a couple of occasions and was shocked to find out in 1994 that the 75 inhabitant Garifuna fishermen and families living ever so poorly on one of the cays, Chachuate, were being pressured to move back to the coast. The Hogs Islands were being made into a national park and all fishing and diving, even for subsistence, was to stop.
The Garifunas (black Caribs) used these cays for nearly 200 years as fishing outposts, ever since the British deported 4,500 from St. Vincent in 1716. Their ancestors were shipwrecked African slaves who found themselves welcomed by the local Arawak Indians who they mixed with and finally dominated until the British invaded St. Vincent for cotton.
Honduras now has 200,000 Garifunas living mostly in coastal villages and the Bay Island. They are considered indigenous because the Garifuna language is the closest language left to the original Ardwak.
Anyway the Smithsonian Institution was there, helping set up the national park and also doing coral research, given a brand new very expensive facility on the big Hog Island to use. Their director and the captain of 17 Honduran soldiers continually harassed the 75 Garifunas to leave Chachuate. One day the two of them came over in their speedboat and carefully measured and staked off a spot for a military post to house four soldiers. This was their next step in a relentless attempt to expropriate the cay. Chachuate is barely the size of a football field and sure didn't need four soldiers living on it. Later we found out a certain Honduran colonel wanted the cay for an eco-tourist hotel
Well, no sooner did the arrogant wake of their departing speedboat quiet than the wooden stakes were pulled up from the site of their desired "posta." But what to do now, was the people's question in a rapidly called meeting. We knew we had to do something to stop this or life there for these raggedy fisherfamilies would cease. We knew we had to take the "posta" site, but how? With what? Finally my friend and only other foreigner there, an independent indigenous rights activist, suggested we build a little library. Because of the fact that I was the only person there with more than 10¢ to spare, I became the immediate focus of those gregarious Garifunas attention. After joking to my friend Carlos how he set me up, I realized it was to be either as a failure or a hope for these people. Agreeing to do it, I left by dug-out canoe early the next day with some Garifuna men to buy lumber and materials on the Coast for the new library. Unknown at the time though, that became the start of my kids library work.
We returned the next day and by the following day the foundation, floor and walls were built. The pilings for the foundation were acquired, I remember, by a wily Garifuna from the Smithsonian's dock project.
Then returned their director and the captain and some soldiers, furious from what we had done. They immediately called a meeting. After an hour of heated exchange, I'll never forget when a spirited Garifuna woman (you know, Garifunas are one of the only matrifocal cultures in the Americas) got up and said, "Enough! Let the children decide." And then she asked a dozen or so raggedy little kids, "What would you rather have, a library or a military post?" To the ever increasing frustration, especially of the Smithsonian's director, all the kids kept screaming, "Biblioteca, biblioteca!" (Library, library!) The director and captain didn't know what to do and left, flustered, in their roaring speedboat to sounds of laughter from the stage-like tiny cay. I remember joking that the captain, who studied counterinsurgency at the School of the Americans, must never have been taught how to deal with kids libraries.
But before we dared to find out about his nature, my friend and I were told to disappear for a while from the cay. So I bought books in Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City and returned in a couple of weeks to find that the roof was now thatched. We painted it bright pink and it stood out as the only wooden structure amongst a couple dozen palm thatch palapas, in defiance of the eviction orders.
In the only other available space on the crowded cay we built a giant wooden swingset, claiming that spot for a children's park, opposing eviction.
At that time I was quite involved with trying to stop something, not start something. The library wasn't an end in itself, but a means to stop the expropriation of indigenous land. It was though an active catalyst in their struggling land rights movement.
A UN program donated a solar panel which powered the only light bulb on the cay. It flickered over the kids reading at night as a sign to the powers that be to leave it alone. Books were robbed, but it was never burned, as was threatened.
I returned over the years to restock it and to check the situation. Hurricane Mitch trashed it bad in 1998 and returning I found it inhabited by some young Garifuna fishermen. I called it the Palacio de Pescaderos Purdidos (Palace of the Last Fishermen) and recruited them to help put a new metal roof on it.
Though the little library Satuyé (named after the incredible Garifuna chief from the 18th century) was always more of a political than a pedagogical success, it exploded the enthusiasm amongst Garifunas on the coast. Village leaders and teachers would come to look for me to ask, "When will you start a library in our village?" So I did, and for the next couple years would go far down the roadless Garifuna Coast, taking a freighter and then dug-outs to remote villages.
I would go with leaders from the Garifuna organization OFRANEH, who are also affiliated with CONPAH, the umbrella organization of Honduran indigenous. Other tribal leaders from CONPAH would ask me, Why do I only help the Garifunas and not their children? So I started helping them, too, the Lencas, Tawakhas, Muskito and Chorti Maya. This is how I started and this is how it spread.
The more I did the more I was asked to do. Every village is bookless and everyone wants the school to have a children's library.
A year after the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas I decided to bring books to a few Mayan primary schools in the Highlands. I had to drive through Chiapas anyway on my way to Honduras from gathering books in Mexico City. Since then I have worked there more than any other place, starting 40 small libraries with five of the Mayan cultures. Books again exploded like bombs. They have no books. Almost for 500 years, since the book burning auto de fés of Bishop Landa, the Mayans have been bookless. They have sometimes nice new little schools, but no books inside, empty boxes. Like shoeboxes with no shoes inside.
With a Mexican friend who speaks Tzotzil, and his young daughter and my dog we'd take day trips to certain villages hours away from San Cristobal. Shortly after the 1996 peace accords in San Andreas Larrainzar, we drove there, bringing a little library to the primary school. They were elated. Then we went to Chenalho, Pol Ho, Huistan, Mitontic and a couple dozen other villages in the canyons associated with the Zapatista uprising.
At the end of that year's work I sent then-Mexican president Zedillo a picture of a jubilant boy with a book in the San Andreas Larrainzar school. I also told him I believed 70,000 kids libraries will do more for a lasting peace in Chiapas than 70,000 soldiers.
I mentioned that books are cheaper than guns, and if schools are empty of books then the gun will voice its mouth. If there is no chance for education then the gun will win. It almost becomes a choice between the gun or the book. One reason the reports from guns are heard in Chiapas is because the villages are bookless. The people know the importance of their kids' education, but it's kept from them, schools are empty of books. Education is one of the principle demands of the Zapatistas. Little libraries in classrooms where kids are exposed to books is one realistic antidote to the ubiquitous problems of illiteracy and the ever-increasing problems of drugs, prostitution, crime. Kids need to be exposed to books at an early age. And who knows how many potential Garcia Marquez or Rigoberta Menchus are out there if they are only given a chance? Rather a Pablo Neruda than a Pablo Escobar.
Zedillo's office sent me back a reply, twice actually. The year after the Acteal massacre I used it at a military checkpost to enter Acteal, which is in a restricted zone. Returning along the same road I was given a paper by the military to appear before immigration. The immigration officials already that month had kicked out several people from Chiapas -- or Mexico. They questioned me for two hours, putting everything on a computer.
I joke that they didn't know whether to pat me on the back or kick me in the ass. They liked what I was doing, they said, but I technically broke the law by intervening in Chiapas, and must leave within 24 hours. They were even apologetic and said I could appeal -- but I was leaving for Guatemala soon anyway, so I left. I've been back a few times since. A point that threw them was that the government of Mexico donated some of the books. Mexico's Secretary of Educational Publications (SEP) gives me donations every year.
Later I recalled this story to the Secretary, Philipi Garrido, himself an author of kids books and others. For years I would tell them they should be doing what this gringo is doing and start a children's library program. The next year I found out they were doing just that, starting a program to start 90,000 little libraries for kids. I know they'll be different from the way I do it. I doubt they'll have a good set of kids encyclopedias for instance, but still that's great. I was very pleased to know I might have influenced this to some degree.
This year, 2001, was the first time I worked outside of Central America. I chose Bolivia because it has the highest percentage of indigenous people in the Americas. Initial problems with the Bolivian customs office, which wanted a $1,000 tax on the books, turned out to be beneficial to me, after protesting the issue by phone and fax with the Minister of Education and Culture in La Paz. After a week he responded to the Customs, to let me go for free. I was only asked to visit the Ministry of Education's office in La Paz. People were assigned to assist me in the decision of locations of libraries and also to accompany me. In the months of February and March seven different workers for the Ministry went with me to 22 schools amongst mostly Quechua and Ahmara-speaking Inca Indians in the Altoplano. Many were in llama and alpaca areas above 12,000 feet, such as below Mt. Sajama, the 2nd highest peak in South America. Two others were on a remote island in Lake Titicaca, but most in the south in the state of Chuquisaca.
On a three-day journey from Sucre, the capital, I went with the head of that state's education department and a village mayor to the village of La Higuera, where Che Guevara was killed in 1967. A library was started in the 26-student primary school. A large cement bust of Che atop a rock was built in front of the school beside the diminutive plaza. Kids often play on it. A few buildings away in this tiny hamlet is the old laundry building Guevara was killed in. Now it's rebuilt for a medical clinic with a ham radio. The walls are covered with pictures and quotes from Che. A few people remembered him. One old coca chewing woman often fed him in a restaurant. She talked fondly of him, of how he won the people's confidence and trust. Later her family was afraid of being accused by the military of collaboration, once Che's location was betrayed, a few hundred meters above the Rio Grande, and just below the wings of condors, near La Higuera (The Fig Tree). We were all glad to have been received so warmly with their hospitality and stories, and we all agreed it was the same "miserable little village" Che called it. Nothing has changed.
On my journey with people from the Bolivian Ministry of Education I became privy to their budget. Nowhere could I find kids books listed though video and electronic equipment was, even though few rural schools have electricity. Before departing Bolivia I presented a pamphlet to the Minister of Education, Culture and Sports -- a three-in-one ministry -- of pictures and school receipts and ideas and addresses to get books, very cheap. I was pushing them, like Mexico some years before, to start their own children's library program. But while students in La Paz must buy their own chairs to sit on in school, the Minster rides in a large chauffeur-driven limo.
Like other indigenous places, Bolivia's indigenous are kept in a high rate of illiteracy by having no secondary schools in villages, only primary school. Only towns have secondary schools and very few families can afford to send a child to study there. This perpetuates illiteracy where the poor are kept poor through systematic uneducation.
I started living along the Mendocino Coast since 1986 when I painted a house in Mendocino of a friend I knew from Israel. I lived up Albion Ridge first. Now, I'm nearer Fort Bragg, but still fly the Albion Nation colors. Having just spent five years in the Middle East, it was a joy to wander the forest here for mushrooms.
As I wrote before I went to a Palestinian village in the northern Galilee of Israel to help set up a school library. I ended up staying in the "neighborhood" for five years, living in Lebanon (during Sabro and Shatilla), Jerusalem, and Tiberius. In Jerusalem I was loosely connected to the Palestinian Center for Non-Violence, and took part in some activities such as the Katania tree-planting incident. Israel deported me in 1980 for visa problems after I spent six weeks in three of their jails.
That fall I was in Berkeley and discovered that a philosopher from Jerusalem I knew of was teaching some classes at UCB. A the same time I decided to do some study in Liberation Theology at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) nearby. I finished an MA and now plan to open the Timmy and Tammy TV Revival Hour.
Let me mention some things about my seed program, the other half of Bookseed. Actually, I've been distributing seeds longer than books. About 40 varieties of heirloom vegetable and fruit seeds plus flowers are given to poor indigenous subsistence farmers, co-ops and some schools, with the purpose of enhancing their agrarian micro-economy. Old Indian farmers sometimes get as excited about the seeds, much like the little kids do with the books. I've seen them in wonder pass a single Jacob's cattle bean around, whispering as they curiously examine it, never having seen one before.
Chiapas and Guatemala have received most of my seeds because the people there in the highlands grow vegetables everywhere and are very good farmers. Some villages are known for flower growing and I bring flower seeds like zinnias, asters, things they don't always have. And it is the indigenous subsistence farmer who is being disenfranchised, especially now with NAFTA. These people need new options, new varieties of crops to market to better survive against the agro-invasion of NAFTA. The planting sticks these people use cannot compete with the tractors of the agribiz.
NAFTA was a major reason of the Zapatista revolt. GMO seeds were part of this. NAFTA and its New World Order agribiz doesn't like self-sufficient farmers. They want to be the "provider." Hunting and gathering can only take place in supermarkets anymore. They want the Indians to shop in supermarkets and give up their milpa fields for cheap GMO NAFTA corn. Corn was an element in the January 1994, Zapatista revolt. They have a corn-based diet. NAFTA's invasion was, I believe, a well thought out way of how to commit agricide on a culture of subsistence farmers. NAFTA, for many of them, is the worst thing since Columbus. (Or Cortez.)
In certain places of Chiapas where the Red Badge and other right-wing death squads roamed, it was the Tzotzil Maya women who did the planting. Sometimes whole villages of men would flee, because at planting time death squads would come around to prevent the men from planting. They hoped to eventually get their land. It was the women who did all the work, they refused to be intimidated. On several occasions seeds were given at planting time to women like this.
Acteal, the ridgetop village where the church massacre occurred in 1997, is one place where seeds were most gratefully received. The school was still closed when I was there, a year after in 1998, so no library could be started. A small crowd of very friendly meek Indians gathered around my truck for seeds though, which they were most happy to receive. This took place, I remember, beside a house which had one wall painted in a giant mural of Zapata with his apropos slogan, "tierra y libertad," still the basis of their problems.
Upon leaving Acteal, my truck was again stopped at the Chenalho junction military checkpost. While waiting, one of the more seasoned soldiers, after looking through a box of books, wanted one. I told him he's too big to read kids books, at which a couple of other soldiers laughed. "No," he said, "I want it for my children." Of course I let him keep it, and of course another one of them said he too had children. "Too many children, not enough books," I told him. Right then the senior officer came out of the office and handed me a paper to appear before immigration, which led to a speedy "salida" stamped in my passport.
Once in the Tzotzil village of Mitontic, above Chenalho, seeds got us out of an increasingly unpleasant situation. Having just finished giving the books to the little school and pencils and paper to the kids, some men showed up, armed and somewhat drunk. One was the cacique who wanted to know what a gringo with his big dog and two Mexicans were doing in his village? The teacher in Tzotzil, quieted him down, but he was angry that we didn't go to his office first. Right then my Mexican companion whispered, "Give them some seeds," and I thought, Good idea. So I got the box out of the vehicle. No sooner did I ask them what vegetable seeds they would like than their visage changed. So did that of the driver of the car I was in who, until then, was worried they were going to take it. Leaving a short time later to their waves left us laughing a good way back. From then on I would usually try to look up the village cacique first, before going to the school.
In the Tzetal village, poor Oxchas, the little school had quite a good agricultural program. They had a worm farm, vermiculture, that impressed me. I gave them a wide variety of seeds which they appreciated nearly as much as the books. The same is true for the Tojolabal school in Amatanango, and others.
Books and seeds are very much alike, one nourishes the mind and soul and the other the body. Both are encapsulated forms of growth without which life is so very much different, if life at all.
"Deconstructing Chachuate" -- It is true, the first little library, the one on the cay Chachuate in the Hog Islands, subverted the military's plan to put up a "posta" on the cay. But over the years the little library Satuyé was subverted too. This library lit a fire in the minds of many, most to get light and hope from, but some wanting to put it out. At times soldiers and others looted the books, as did Hurricane Mitch. Returning one year I found the books gone, replaced by a new TV and solar panel. The subversive little library was subverted by a TV, of all things. It was donated by a foundation (AVENA) which received funding from the US Congress for doing coral bleaching research. I wanted to monkeywrench it, but restrained myself. Then a dozen Garifuna women with all their kids came in to watch the noontime "novella," some trashy romantic soap opera. I call this the War of Words, the spoken against the written, the TV against the book, and the TV won.
That was the second TV on the tiny stage-like cay. After Hurricane Mitch, a neighbor, Henry, who I've known for years, took the UN-donated solar panel and battery from the "biblioteca" and reassembled it on his new thatched roof to power his diminutive TV. He would eventually sell snacks and drinks to a nightly crowd of onlookers. Having restocked the biblioteca with books, I castigated Henry by letting him know he took the light source from the children's library and now they can't read at night. I don't think he heard my words; he was so absorbed in a football game. His team lost, but the TV won.
Realizing an opportunity, AVENA, which replaced the Smithsonians after three years, then gave two more TVs with solar panels, one, like I mentioned, for the library and another to a leader, both to control the people -- with US tax dollars and TVs.
For some years now there has been a library on the school of the larger Hog Island, where all the kids from the cay go to by boat. Though the biblioteca Satuyé has been deconstructed, it was this out-of-the-way little place that kept the tiny cay from being expropriated. And also was the spark to start more libraries -- and the books continue to explode like bombs.
Tim Deppe Mendocino