Putting success in the picture: meeting the Coffee Vs Gangs trainees
In the first of a series of interviews with participants on the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs training course in rural Honduras, Gary Quinn talks to a group of the youngest of the 20 trainees
Participants in the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs project: James (16), Juan (18), Santiago (20), Dani (17)
There isn’t a flicker of static on my Skype call to Central America. I ask the four young Hondurans who’ve been selected to speak to me, the youngest only 16, to squeeze together in front of the camera so I can see them all. Technology really is incredible. I can feel the teenage embarrassment of having to talk to a stranger thousands of kilometres away in a country they’ve never heard of. It’s no surprise they don’t know where in the world I am. Why would 16 and 17-year-olds have any interest in a cold tiny island on the edge of the Atlantic? They’re more concerned with why I’m interested in them.
It’s six months since they won a place on the Kenco training course Coffee Vs Gangs, designed to give them a leg up in a country that is better known for its violence and steady stream of emigrants to the US than the career development of its young people. The eldest of my group of four, Santiago, is 20 and he knows the route to the US well. He set out for the US border early last year and spent two months sleeping rough and begging for food before, penniless and hungry, realised that he would never get closer to the US than he was at that moment, looking across the horizon from Mexico. He turned around and came back and hopes that, whatever happens next, it will prevent him from having to make that journey again.
There’s one woman in my group of four, Dani. She’s 19 and married. She’s from the same region the coffee farm is located in and has worked with her father on coffee plantations before. Her parents call her getting a place on the course a blessing. They’re delighted with the chance she’s been given for a fresh start and encourage her a lot. She’s immediately the leader of the group, describing her country and colleagues on the course with a growing confidence. The others relax too, reflecting on a country that they know to be beautiful but they are too poor to visit as a tourist.
They laugh at the idea of having to describe it from what they’ve seen on TV but the Kenco farm they assure me is in a beautiful area too. Near mountains and in a valley, a place where people like to live or visit because of the good climate. They’re in a hot season right now, with lows of 16 degrees and highs of 36 and when I visit the farm myself I’ll get to spend time working with them on the land.
The course is split between academic class work and farmwork. They’re learning the business of agriculture as well as mathematics, English and business studies. They’re proud of their role there and of the fact that only one person out of 20 has dropped out of the course - an attrition rate that any course leader in Ireland would be proud of. They like their new course coordinator too – he’s easy to communicate with and has a strong rapport with the group. He’s the boss, they say.
As the interview continues they come out of themselves more, laughing at my questions about describing the average Honduran. He’s serious they say and spoils parties by talking too much about the problems of the country. The gangs dominate most conversations they say but they just want to have fun.
For them, the most famous Honduran right now is their president, Juan Orlando Hernandez and his wife Ana. He’s popular they say, but their expectations of what he can achieve for Honduras is split between the group. Some of the issues Honduras faces are simply too big they suggest.
Honduras has its problems, they admit. There are places that are dangerous to go to and young people are constantly being tempted into crime or gang membership or to take the emigration route, but they want to be there. They’re mostly had a poor start in life and the choices that are open to them now on this course are great, they say, and they want to do everything they can to maximise its opportunities.
They assure me a great fiesta when I arrive and I’m looking forward to meeting them face-to-face. In truth, they’re no different to any other students you might meet in the world. They hope the course will help them become something more than they are. Each of them is working on a business plan as part of the course, a plan that they want to believe can take them even further than the coffee industry.
It’s a small group with a small chance but I’m encouraged by them. I grew up on the Border with Northern Ireland. I saw lots of courses just like these, designed to give young people a chance. People signed up, people dropped out, but, for those individuals who took it seriously, it helped shape their lives. You can’t measure a country’s progress in a training course but looking closely across our Skype connection I could see a flicker of success in their eyes – one that I hope to see grow.
Gary Quinn will conduct a series of interviews with the participants of the Kenco training course over the coming months as well as visiting the farm in Honduras.
For more, see irishtimes.com/coffeevsgangs