"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together" -Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Saturday, January 14, 2012


My volunteer friend Winfrey sometimes describes certain events and happenings in his rural village as "National Geographic moments."  All PCV's have these; those moments that despite how accustomed you've become to the local language, food, way of life, etc., still make you stop and think "Where am I?"  Those moments that if you stopped and snapped a picture, that picture could headline an article entitled something to the effect of "Guatemalan Indigenous Cultures Impervious to Globalization."   Those moments in which I'm sitting in a tin shack full of indigenous monolingual Q'eqchi' people praising God, or sitting on a cramped microbus holding a stranger's baby that was passed off to me like a football.  Or sitting at a small table in a dirt-floor hut eating chicken soup with my hands whilst a live chicken pecks bits of food out of my mud-encrusted hiking boots.   To me, these moments are some of the most humbling, the most entertaining and the most inspiring, and are the moments that really bring me back to how lucky I am to be here.  They make me step back and wonder if our shrinking planet is perhaps bigger than we like to think.  There's so much culture, so much beauty that goes unacknowledged; so many worlds to discover within our own.  I fear that I'll have trouble being stimulated by a life free of these kinds of moments. 

And then there are the even rarer moments that I feel perfectly at home, despite the fact that I'm worlds away.  The moment when I'm standing in the smoke-filled kitchen shack with six Q'eqchi' women, helping them make tortillas, and they're treating me not like a Kaxlan (outsider), but like a friend.  The moment I soon ruin by asking about the small bits of chicken meat being fried up into Chicharones.  "What part of the chicken is that?" I ask.  "It's, you know, their parts," says Estela, pointing down towards her "lady bits."  The room, me included, bursts into laughter and the women poke fun at me for the rest of the afternoon. 

And then there were the events of Thursday.  I'm still not sure quite where to file these away to.  I'm not sure I can file them away at all.  Moments of human suffering that pull you so rapidly back down to earth, that turn previous priorities into frivolities--those moments are hard to forget.  Those moments when things get really real all of a sudden.

I went up to Tzibal on Thursday morning to check on the women's group's progress on the pila drains.  After the meeting one of the women, Carolina, approached me.  I immediately noticed that she wasn't carrying her son.  When I first starting making visits to Tzibal, Carolina's son was one of the first things I asked about.  He was over two years old but still unable to even hold his head up on his own.  He was roughly the size of a 6-month old infant.  He had what appeared to be severe malnutrition, and so I asked Carolina if she had taken him to the health center.  She quickly explained that she'd been to many doctors, even traveling as far as the capital, to no avail.  Nobody could tell her what was wrong with her son, why he wasn't flourishing as he should.  Over the months she missed many women's group meetings for being in the hospital with her son.  And he never seemed to get much better.  So when I saw her walk up to me, without her son, I knew.  She told me, breaking into tears, that he had passed away two weeks earlier.  "He was going to be four years old," she told me in her broken Spanish.  I wanted to hug her but didn't know if I should.  I grabbed her hand, told her how sorry I was.  She thanked me, collected herself and left.  Estela then pulled me aside and asked that I go visit two families with her; families of women who aren't in the women's group.  She explained that these families were both particularly needy and desperate and that maybe I'd be able to find an organization to help them financially.  She thought it important that I meet these families, pay them a visit, even if I can't help them.  I agreed, still in a haze from Carolina's news.

The first house we stopped at was Maria's house, a young mother who was recently abandoned by her husband.  Upon entering Maria's modest wooden home, she immediately handed me her two-week old baby girl, beaming with pride.  She left to tend to something in the kitchen, leaving me standing in her living room with the most beautiful baby I've ever seen (I'd never before held such a recent newborn).  This little girl, who Maria had not yet named, weighed about as much as a bag of cottonballs, and immediately dozed off in my arms.  Maria, who looked to be about 15 years old, returned and told me, via Estela, that her husband had run off with another woman, abandoning her with the baby and leaving her with almost nothing and no real way to make money.  Meanwhile my gaze was permanently affixed to this tiny thing in my arms, this tiny life with what already looked like a very difficult future, and I couldn't help but tear up.  Estela thought it time to go, so I reluctantly handed the baby back to her mother and on we went to the next house.  On the way a few other women from the women's group met up with us in the road, toting bags of sugar and cans of juice.  We left the road and climbed the steep muddy embankment that led us to the modest shack of Margarita and her family.  I was led into a small room in the back of the house where Margarita lay on her deathbed, a wooden bed frame with only a small straw mat as a mattress.  Hanging from a ceiling beam was a makeshift IV delivering her fluids through a vein in her wrist.  She was covered in a few ratty blankets, with an old shirt covering her face.  Only her arm with the IV was exposed.  Lining the walls of the small room sat several women from the community.  Nobody spoke.  Margarita's brother approached me to tell me her story.  Eight years ago she had a small bump form under her eye.  Over time the bump grew larger and larger until the entire side of her face was swollen.  She sought medical care and was sent to Antigua and diagnosed with cancer.  The doctors said that they would operate and remove the tumor, but only after she received seven treatments of chemotherapy, each which would cost her Q800.  Unable to pay for the chemotherapy, she returned home untreated.  The tumor progressed and now covers both sides of her face, making it nearly impossible for her to see, speak, eat, or drink.  She's ashamed of how she looks so she stays in, covers her face when visitors call.  With nothing else to do, the family much watch her slowly deteriorate.  She is 45 years old, with two young daughters.  Her husband later told me that they've spent thousands of quetzales on doctors' visits and traditional healers.  Neither daughter will attend school this year due to lack of money.  The women who accompanied Estela and I gave their bags of sugar and juice to Margarita's husband as offerings to the family.  A prayer was said, and we left.

I was in a daze after those visits.  It was around noon when I walked the half hour down to my house, and I immediately got in bed and slept for two hours.  I woke up feeling helpless, sad, and emotionally drained.  These moments weren't National Geographic Moments at all.  On the contrary.  Instead of painting a pretty picture of a far-off place with far-off customs and far-off problems, these people's hardships highlighted how their lives are indelibly linked to my own.  They made me stare the bleak, ugly reality of suffering--a suffering that is commonplace here--in the face.  Their problems are real, and their problems are now, and their problems are a direct result of their situations.  What if Margarita could have paid for her chemo treatments?  And Carolina could have found doctors to properly diagnose and care for her son?  And Maria could have stayed in school, learned a skill, and had children later in life?  I'm not sure what I can do to help Carolina, Maria and Margarita's families.  I'm not here to give hand-outs, after all.  I'm left feeling helpless and disheartened, ashamed that just yesterday I was complaining about a meeting being rescheduled, about the rainy weather.  These are the perspective-giving moments that really challenge me to maintain optimism and conviction in what we're doing here, wonder if it's enough, if it's enough to simply have shared these moments with these people, even if I can't work miracles.


  1. Hannah, first of all you are a little miracle worker. You've already changed their lives so much. As for Carolina, you should really talk to fife and see if they can help with Partners for Surgery. They usually pay in full for transport and surgeries. As for Maria, you are so creative. Help her brainstorm how to generate income: I.e. sell cut up fruit on the street, make some artesian stuff, etc. and poor margarita, you just need to be there for her. Showing that you care about her and her loss will undoubtedly comfort her. If she's planning to have more kids in the future, you should maybe do some nutrition talks with her and the ladies. As much as I think they are just a bunch of handouts, mercy corps does a food/nutrition program called procomida funded by USAid. You should check to see if that community is interested. Chin up!

  2. Oh and 'siege the day'! Who knows when PCG is going to decide your service is over...

  3. Thank you Winfrey for the encouragement and the ideas! Those are all great suggestions and I'm going to do my best. Siegin' the day.

  4. you're a great writer. I'm really enjoying reading all your blog posts.

  5. Thank you 'Anonymous', your comments are appreciated!!