In Colombia, Jacob Joseph witnesses a very different country from its dark past and hopes for continued change; despite the looming spectre of the FARC/Government cease-fire.
Hundreds of voices hush in expectation of an announcement. We are about to be addressed by the President of Colombia. He will speak to us about our involvement in a program called Heart for Change (HFC).
We two hundred or so people from English-speaking countries all over the world — from Africa to Australia — are English teaching fellows in the new Colombia. The group is mostly made up of North Americans, which makes sense for obvious reasons; however, it is encouraging to see so many nationalities present. It’s not even a requirement to be a native speaker.
The Ministry of Education can appreciate the role of English as a lingua franca. People from North and South America are seated at the front. Europe is behind them. Austral-Asia and Africa are at the back. The sounds of idle chitchat grow louder. We realise it’s another false start. The time we must wait is indicative of the status of the keynote speaker. Santos will keep us waiting for a respectable twenty minutes.
Colombia has come a long way in the last decade — my being here is a testament to this fact. The random killing and kidnapping that characterised this country has all but stopped. There is the strongest sense of peace and relative stability in almost half a century. Colombia is now a safer place than the prevailing international sentiment of drugs and murder. There is still violence. If any of us possessed the power of hindsight, we would know that bombs will be detonated that very afternoon. But we don’t. So tea is served in fine china. We accept the surprisingly non-perfunctory offer of refreshments. And we smile for the cameras, sheltered from the eventual woes and pain around us on the streets of Bogota.
Santos enters the room. I switch on the translation device provided to the non-Spanish speakers. Suddenly Santos sounds like a beautiful Latin woman. The translator tells me Santos is speaking of peace through education and a bilingual Colombia. By improving the standard of literacy in public schools, there are hopes that the peace orchestrated by the government will stick. I am not Colombian, and I don’t feel fit to comment on a situation I can only barely grasp with the tips of my fingers. But in a nutshell, there is a cease-fire, the FARC and national government will stop fighting each other. The FARC are Marxist influenced rebels financed by drug money. Captured soldiers have even been released as a sign of conciliation. This not the first peace dialogue between the warring parties, but it may be the last.
It remains to be seen whether the aim of a bilingual Colombia is achievable. Colombia is one of the lower ranked countries on the English Proficiency Index. In 2011, I participated in a similar program in the Republic of Georgia. The program was disbanded after a change in government. Perhaps Heart for Change will befall the same fate. Quantifiable data is the lifeblood of this program. It takes more than one political term to learn a language; the opportunities that come with knowing a second language — especially English — will last a lifetime.