Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stories from Corozo

Lunes, 20 Julio 2009 - Martes, 21 Julio 2009

Monday morning Wily and I left for a new aldea, Corozo, where HFPF recently completed a stove Project. Many families in Guatemala cook over open fires in their homes, which is very dirty and unhealthy. It leads to respiratory problems (like asthma and bronchitis) and also affects pregnancies (birth weight, etc.)

This past Spring, Santa Clara University’s Ignatian Center and the Santa Clara Community Action program (SCCAP) helped me attend Unite for Sight’s Global Health Conference at Yale University. (At first read, you think “Wow!,” but it was actually so-so) But, there I met a nursing professor at UC Berkeley who is currently researching the effects of open, wood-burning fires on childhood respiratory health in Guatemala. Interesting stuff.

HFPF takes pride in their philosophy of working with the people, not just giving them donations. During the trip to Corozo, I witnessed the importance of the philosophy firsthand, multiple times. HFPF has an 80-90% success rate with their projects. This compares with an approximate 70% success rate with other organizations (such as those who build the stoves and then just install them in the villages w/o the relationships that HFPF takes pride in building).

The purpose of our trip to Corozo was to check every stove in the village (all 71 of them!) to make sure it was working properly (wasn’t broken), answer any questions, clean out the stove (and teach the families how to clean out the stoves for themselves), and make sure people were using them. Also, Wily had to check in with the villager’s payment plans. Corozo (like many other aldeas) has developed a culture that is used to receiving gifts from organizations that are trying to help the poor of Guatemala. However, this well-intentioned effort has had malicious consequences. Many of the previous projects do not last (one reason is because they are not taken care of, this could be to lack of education or lack of personal care and attention) In order to give the people of Corozo a sense of responsibility, pride, and ownership for their stoves, every stove owner must fulfill the contractual obligations of 5 monthly payments of 20 quetzales (for a total of 100Q or about $12.50 with the current exchange rate). Some people had yet to pay, so Wily had to remind them of the contract they signed. To help with his work, Wily hired two of the village council leaders to help assess each stove’s condition; each stop lasted 10-15 minutes. At the end of the day, one of the workers was trying to convince Wily to pay him 150Q instead of the 100Q they had agreed on previously. 100Q was the “just” wage for the day, but due to a culture affected by years of gifts (and maybe coupled with my presence as a Gringo- “someone who light skin, usually from the “other side,” and someone who can be counted upon to have money or valuables”) Gaspar thought he deserved more. Eventually, he and Wily worked things out after Wily offered Gaspar his “perspective.” Another interesting scenario resulted when (after dinner) we drove up to the school where we were to sleep for the night. A outside/open air meeting was just finishing up as we approached. Immediately after we parked, a few men swarmed the truck, picking through the stuff in the pick-up bed (our sleeping bags, mattresses, Wily’s bag, a pelota-soccer ball for the children) to see if we had brought them anything. One man asked (I don’t think he had seen the pelota), “Did you bring a pelota for us?” Wily replied that we hadn’t and just had one for the kids.

I offer the stories above as cultural observations. There could obviously be more factors to each situation and this is by no means a catch-all picture of all Guatemala. But, it offers some interesting insights to how we can best help those who are in need.

I want to share a few other experiences I had over the past two days:

Buda (pronounced “Bue-da,” means widow)

Pete brought some quilts from Faith Lutheran Church, which he attends, in Everett, Wa. These beautiful, warm quilts had been made by woman in the church and were meant to be given to widows and widowers in the villages HFPF works with. Every hand-made quilt carries the message, “Made With Love.” As the quilts were given to the widows, Wily gathered some information about the widow(er): his/her name, age(many villagers can’t remember their age and have to check their id card or just guess), number of children, when his/her spouse died and what happened. One woman shared a very poignant story. Her husband had died 25 years ago.
He had planned to go to the United States but didn’t tell his wife. He made it to San Mateo, a small city outside of Barillas. One day, after drinking, a bus drove by and he was pushed underneath and died from the accident. He left his wife to raise 7 children by herself. The death of a spouse not only steals a companion and lover, but in Guatemala it also leaves the burden of raising children, cleaning, cooking, gathering firewood, and farming all on one person. Many people’s spouses die after vomiting and diarrhea for days on end. Many families don’t have the money to take the patient to a see doctor. A few patients have come into the clinic and haven’t had any money to buy medicine. They return their village, knowing what disease plagues them, but not able to do a thing about it.

How hot is your Chu?

One of the most interesting parts of Monday was learning about Chus, small saunas, built with rocks to waist height. There were a few scattered around the homes of Corozo. As Gaspr explained it, Chus are a bit of indigenous medicine, to ease the pains and sores of a hard day’s work. Just like any other sauna I’ve been in, there is a small pile of rocks which are heated and to which water is added to create steam. There is small bench inside, but I don’t think I could sit up straight inside because the ceiling is so low. Usually the people will carry in a handful of reedy plants and hit the sore parts of their body (sometimes, they will just use their hands.) I wonder how saunas developed in Guatemala, if it is a cultural tradition that has been practiced for ages or if the notion was brought here from elsewhere (East Asia, the Mediterranean, etc.) It would be very interesting anthropological connection indeed if this human invention was born in various parts of the world by people who had no knowledge of each other.

A sad story
As we walked around the village evaluating the stoves, we were approached by a drunken man, who waved a piece of paper at us (which turned out to be a contract for an HFPF stove.) Wily explained to me that when the stove project was being organized in Corozo, the man got drunk and beat his wife. The village leaders decided that the stove should be placed in her name (most of the stove owners are the men/husbands.) So, she moved to a different house and how retains possession of the stove. I couldn’t understand a word the man sad (he was speaking in Q’anjo’bal), but apparently he was trying to get ownership of the stove.

The pools of Montenegra

On our way back from Corozo, we stopped to go swimming in a series of beautiful pools that have been molded from the rock by a flowing stream. The place was beautiful, a small sampling of Semuc Champey for those who have seen pictures or visited. The water, a brilliant, celeste-green color, flows from pool to pool and is quite warm. I imagine it must have been doing so for centuries to have sculpted the rock as it has. One can jump from pool to pool or sit under the small waterfalls at a pools’ edge for a massaging effect. It was so relaxing and refreshing!

One of my favorite parts of Guatemala has been the constant presence of nature wherever I have been. Rugged mountains hug the shoulders of Barillas, there is always a snack nearby hanging from a banana tree or shooting from the ground in the form of a sugar cane stalk. Last night was a very special experience. Not a single cloud was in the sky (surprisingly) and the stars came out by the thousands. The Milky Way streaked across the dark sky, untainted by light poisoning from any nearby human city, where lights are never extinguished. I was even wished goodnight by our friend “ratón” who stalked the rafters of the schoolhouse and I was kept warm at night by a friendly little snake that curled up right under my mattress, though I didn’t realize it until the morning.

1 comment:

  1. That's really interesting about the stoves, and that's a rather good idea to have the people actually pay some amount for them instead of giving them away as charity. Kind of a Kiva like concept with microloans being used more responsibly than free charity.

    Also, I listened to a USF grad student's presentation on her research on the effectiveness of mosquito nets in preventing malaria in Uganda, which is sort of similar to the stove situation as some sort of solution to health risks...I think what is really important is the actual education aspect behind these--the people aren't going to use them if they don't think they're going to do them any good, and I feel like a lot of organizations don't take the time to connect with the community and build relationships, as you said HFPF is trying to do.

    Anyhow, I'm glad to see that your experiences are so diverse! Good luck with the rest. =]