Volunteer with wounded Colombian soldiers

When a British soldier dies, we collectively feel terrible about it. We see a cheeky, grinning face in the newspaper; read the words of a proud yet clearly devastated mother and wonder if the wars we’re fighting are worth such a sacrifice.

When a soldier is injured, we play less attention. We pay taxes in the hope they receive the best medical care possible. If we had the chance, we’d wish them well but we don’t – so we allow them to live quietly with their injuries for the rest of their lives.

Colombia knows a bit about this. The country has been mired in internal conflict for what feels like forever. Huge chunks of it are completely safe but there are still police and soldiers – mostly lads, often poor – out there in the jungle, stepping on landmines and dodging bullets.

I know because I’ve spent the past two months guiding about a dozen of them through the basics of the English language.

I was part of a pilot project with Corporacion Matamoros which aimed to create a task force of English speakers who would volunteer their time to relieve the soldiers (confined to a base miles from their homes) from the daily boredom of physio and facebook.

Unfortunately, the ‘task force’ became a mere three of us; a pity when you consider English teachers in Bogotá generally work flexible hours for excellent pay.

It was also a pity because the work was so rewarding. Journalism has long since taught me that soldiers share similar characteristics worldwide – they are generally bright, funny, practical and hard working. Our soldiers were no different.

But Colombia does still operate a system of national service – and it’s a system there to be beaten. That means a huge number of those who serve are simply those without the money or opportunities to wriggle out of it.

With this in mind, we were concerned about the pace of the classes. Many of the soldiers, we assumed, would not have been exposed to much formal education and may struggle with the formalities of learning a new language.

Oh, the shame of it.

“Teacher, if you have a difficulty with the Spanish words, I can help you to translate,” one of my students offered in the first class.

“You speak English?” I gasped.

“A little,” he grinned proudly.

“I learn from books but I came to this class because I do not know the pronunciation.”

Of course, the abilities were mixed – but while some struggled more than others, the influence of the Army was clear. If you don’t know how to learn when you arrive, you shape up pretty quickly. The soldiers who completed the course were serious about their English – grumbling about auxiliary verbs like every other student.

Johanna, the volunteer who created and co-ordinated the project, is sadly leaving the city this year. But I hope the project continues next spring. If any of you are interested please contact me and I will keep you posted.

Volunteer with Colombia's forces
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