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Birmingham fair trade campaigner Maggie Jo St John sends the latest despatch from Nicaragua where she's helping the locals learn English and seeing for herself the reality of life in a poor coffee growing community.

Slowly the coffee harvest in Miraflor is getting under way. In other areas of Nicaragua it is in full swing but here it is always a little later.

Looking at the bushes I can see scattered ripe red berries so the picking is laborious at this stage. Later, with more rain to swell and ripen the berries, everyone will be out for hours each day.

It isn'tjust the picking though. After that the beans have to be dehusked, mostly wet using a small hand turned mill. Then they are left for a while to ferment and then the beans, which are beige in colour by now, are placed in the sun to dry. I was up in El Sontule last week (a community at about 1000 - 2100m) and in the yard of the family I stayed with the first berries were drying but with little sun and a lot of wind and rain.

We (myself and the 4 volunteer teachers) were up there for an intensive course with 9 of the best English students. I'd hoped for 12, in part because then you can work in 2s, 3s, 4s and 6s; in part because there are 3 other fairly good students.

But they had work and harvesting and the opportunity to earn always has to come before the chance to learn. One aim of this course was to give them a few first principles of teaching, including planning lessons, giving praise and organising pair and groupwork.

On the walk back at the end, Nelvis, who had been a revelation in terms of her standard, said that she, her elder sister, Gladys, who has just graduated from secondary school and her brother, Ariel, wanted to try from the end of January to teach the new secondary school students.

Not on Saturdays at the school, she said, but during the week; Nelvis herself still has a year of secondary studies and so I dreamt that maybe later she'd teach in the school itself.

This afternoon, I learnt that the teachers at the school have selected her and Zeydi, another of the course participants, to start teaching in the school immediately. And they're going to be paid £125 each, each Saturday. That's US$7, currently about £3.50. That'll sound miniscule to you for all the preparation, the giving of the classes, doing the paperwork, the exams. But to them it is good.

I've just had a meeting with the 5 young women who have half scholarships through the English project for tertiary level studies. They all have to live in Esteli and work Monday to Friday, attending university on Saturdays. Most of them were earning $4-600.

While at one level I'm delighted that these two English project students will begin to earn from what they'velearnt, it is also a sad marker of the standard of English teaching (and other subjects too) particularly in rural schools.

We all hope that the new government will gradually be able to reverse some of the dire trends and consequences of the past 16 years of neo-liberalism. Nicaragua has had some of its debt cancelled. However such huge amounts of debt are held by USA banks who are not within the debt cancellation programme that even the present government has admitted that most people will hardly feel any benefit.

I'm taking off in 3 days time for a 3 week break in Costa Rica so it's likely to be early January before I write another blog. I wish you all fun and happiness in 2007.


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