APROFAM, the MAGA, and “Fijese que”
category: Emilys Guatemala

As Fletch explained in his post regarding the chicken vaccinations, part of our job as volunteers is to try and connect the communities in which we work with local organizations that will provide them with assistance and services that will be available long after we’re gone. Sometimes the issue is that folks in rural areas are simply unaware of what services are available, and sometimes it’s a matter of not knowing how to get ahold of services they know exist. Other times, and rather disappointingly, it’s a matter of being a gringo. Some local organizations, though in place to help the general population, are not egalitarian in their approach to helping those around them. It’s disheartening, but through my personal experiences here, seems to be true.

I mentioned in November that we thought we’d finally succeeded in bringing a local Guatemalan NGO, APROFAM, to our municipality. APROFAM provides low cost medical services but specializes in family planning: tubal ligations, vasectomies, jadelle implants, IUD’s, etc. When ALAS came to give a two day workshop to the local midwives about the benefits of family planning, the midwives thanked them for their information and immediately asked, “Now, how do we get these services to the women we work with? They want access to operations and family planning; they’ve told us this.” ALAS connected me with APROFAM. I was thrilled to be leaving for vacation knowing that the families all over our municipality had the chance to access these services, FINALLY. You see, the ministry of health, at least in theory, provides these services for free, but most health posts aren’t equipped to actually administer the services. Families here have to make the long and expensive journey from here to the capital. A one-way bus ride from our village to Huehuetenango costs slightly more than a day’s wages, so it’s a big, difficult investment for families who want and need family planning services.

As all of you who read religiously know, the day before we flew home for vacation, APROFAM called me to say that there were protests blocking the road from Huehue up the Cuchumatanes, the only road that gets from here to there. APROFAM never made it. I spent a lot of time on the phone in December trying to reschedule, but everyone goes on vacation in December. No one could tell me when exactly they’d have time. Finally, someone called and said they could do it January 19 and 20th here in our municipality. I was thrilled and began making the necessary preparations. I called the tecnico, who coordinates health services, and he reserved the community center. I confirmed things between the tecnico and APROFAM. It seemed like we were on a roll and this would really happen.

While at GLOW, I got a call from APROFAM saying that the community center is an inadequate place to perform operations, and they asked that we find a suitable space for them to work. I called the tecnico and he said he could find someplace. I tried to let it go and focus on having fun with at the camp. But let me tell you, calls from Fletch regarding how the SPA meetings were proceeding, then this, were really putting a damper on my fun.

I returned home and called the tecnico, who said I needed to call the Huehue director of the Ministry of Health to ask permission to use the health post in town for a day. This would mean that regular appointments and consultations would be put on hold for a day so that APROFAM could use the space and provide bonus services. It took me two days of calling to get ahold of the director. He said that we could use the space if a wrote a letter of solicitation that was signed by the nurse in charge of our local post, so I then called the tecnico and relayed all of this information to him. He seemed to think this was fine.

Later that day the tecnico called to say the head nurse was headed to Huehue and wanted to talk to the director in person; she would get back to me. This was a Friday, the APROFAM visit was supposed to take place the following Tuesday and Wednesday. I heard nothing, not from the tecnico and not from the head nurse. On Sunday the tecnico came to visit us to discuss the SPA mess, and I was finally able to ask him about the matter in person.

“Well, you see, the nurse couldn’t talk to the director because he’s on vacation.” I thought this was very annoying. Why was I able to call and talk to him at home and she wasn’t? [because you’re a gringa -jaime] “You see, we have a little problem. The government right now, on a national level, is really trying to bring people into the health posts and centers by pushing the fact that all the services are free. If APROFAM comes and charges people for services for a day or two, everyone will be confused. They’ll think that we’re taking advantage of them. They won’t understand that APROFAM isn’t the Ministry of Health and that they have to charge a small fee to stay in business. The director told you that if Magali (the head nurse) signed a letter approving it then APROFAM could use the post. He wants her to sign to the letter because, if there’s a problem, she’ll have to take responsibility for it. Magali talked to a different man at the ministry who is taking over the director’s duties during his time on vacation. He wouldn’t approve the use of the health center. You see, no one wants to take responsibility because if someone higher up gets angry, no one wants to be the one to be reprimanded.”

“Alright, but what does all this mean in terms of APPROFAM coming to the muncipality for this health campaign?” I asked.

“Well, all the schools are back in session, so we can’t use one of the schools like we thought. They’re starting earlier than most schools because we have to get ready for the town fair the second week in February. The only other place they could work is the private hospital, but it’s Catholic. So APROFAM would have to pay to use the place, but since the hospital is Catholic, they wouldn’t let APROFAM operate there anyway.”

I was so sad and annoyed. Why didn’t APROFAM have a problem with this building the first time they planned on coming? Why couldn’t APROFAM talk directly to the tecnico? I’d passed the tecnico’s number to the NGO and the NGO contacts’ numbers to the tecnico. I was so tired of being in the middle of this increasingly ridiculous chain of communications that were apparently going to amount to nothing. This medical campaign wasn’t going to happen, not matter how much I wanted it to.

Aurelio said, “Listen, APROFAM is a good organization. You know I worked with them for 4 years before I took this job, and the work they do is really important. I don’t want to cause problems between our municipality and them. Instead of you telling them that we don’t have anywhere for them to work, maybe you could tell them that all the spaces they would be able to work in are occupied because of the Fair preparations. You know, leave the door open for the future.” Not only do all of my efforts amount to nothing, now he was asking me to lie for him?

Monday morning I called APROFAM and told them the situation. I didn’t know what else to say, so I followed Aurelio’s instructions and blamed it on the Fair. I felt defeated when I hung up with them. One more project off the list, chalked up to a fail. It seemed like such a simple, easy and positive thing when I started to work for it. To find out that our municipality doesn’t even have and adequate space to host a tiny aid agency like APROFAM means they’re still years away from being able to do justice to the needs of their citizens. And it was such an interesting, as well as incredibly annoying, lesson in evasion of responsibility. No one was at fault. No one did anything wrong. There is no blame, no responsibility. Rather than doing something that might be “wrong”, everyone’s individual decisions added up to no one doing anything at all. The midwives are back to their original stance, “Thanks for the information on why these services are important, now how do we get these services to our patients?”

This is a disclaimer: I’m about to repeat quite a few things the Fletch has said, but if I leave them out, then this story won’t flow very well, so bear with me.

Simultaneously, I was making a ridiculous number of calls to the Ministry of Agriculture, also known as the MAGA. We came back from vacation ready to go for our December 9 chicken vaccination day; that is, until the MAGA employee I was working with, Sebastion, called me at 8 pm the night before and canceled on us. “Fijese que my car broke down so I have no way to get there.” I must tell you, there are few things I find as annoying as the term “Fijese que”. We were told during training that when we hear this phrase we could interpret it as, “I’m about to lie to you.” If you want to get all euphamistic about it you could say, “I’m going to give you an excuse”. The thing is, I hate lying. All I ask is that people tell it to me straight. This part of my personality clashes terribly with the way people interact here. So his car had suddenly broke down, and I was left with the responsibility of canceling what looked like it was going to be a very big day of teaching and vaccinating chickens in two communities here. Everyone was incredibly disappointed by the cancelation, and I got to hear about it, over and over again, as I called all the relevant parties.

I was really disappointed about the cancelation too, but I felt like even though I was only the messenger, I was somehow being blamed for the activity not happening. This was additionally aggravating because the community didn’t even know the MAGA guy had asked us to give him 100Q for gas money, and instead of asking the community to pay for it, the two of us decided it would be easier for us to pay for his stupid gas out of our own pockets and not tell anyone about it. Doesn’t this guy have a job? Doesn’t the MAGA have a vehicle at its disposal? I mean, the health ministry has a small fleet of vehicles, so I didn’t think this was so unreasonable. I know plenty of nurses who pay out of their own pocket for transporting medicine and vitamins from Huehue, so why was the MAGA guy asking us for money? Is he better than the nurses? We just wanted to figure out this vaccine thing, so we told him we’d give him the money he asked for.

And then folks began to say, “Well, you know the government doesn’t care about us because we’re indigenous. The MAGA is a government organization, and they’re supposed to work for all of us, but you know, they only work in the city, where it’s easy and most people don’t need their services anyway. It’s because we’re Mayans.” And this was also disheartening to hear, because the fact is, even if that isn’t the case in this instance, every time a government organization just lets the people here down, it reinforces this age-old racism theory regardless of whether it’s true. I promised everyone that I would keep trying until we got the MAGA or someone here to help us learn about chicken vaccinations.

I spent much of December calling Sebastian. When he answered his phone, after greeting me, he would usually jump right into another “Fijese que”. I think it seriously began to affect my blood pressure. It made me so annoyed! His car was broken, I should call back in a week. I called back in a week, and he didn’t have enough money to get the car fixed. He said it in a way to suggest he could get here faster if we could help him out. He said I should call back in a week. Then he stopped answering my calls for a while. The first week in January I called, expecting no answer, and he picked up! But he couldn’t tell me whether he could come or not. His car was fixed and he had it back but, “Fijese que” all the MAGA employees were waiting to see if their government contracts were going to be renewed for the new year. He couldn’t do any work until he figured out if he was officially going to be rehired. I should call him back in a week.

I tried calling him, several times, to no avail; no one answered the phone. Then, out of the blue, last Thursday he called, minutes after we received an email requiring us to report to Huehue to receive mandatory vaccines from the PC nurses. There was no question of whether or not we had time or if there would be a day that was good for us. “Hello, Emily, Sebastian here. I’m going to come on Wednesday.” I stammered, “But, well, we aren’t going to be here. Could we do it another day? Tuesday or Friday maybe?” He wasn’t available either of those days. “I could come on Thursday.” This was far from ideal, because we’d have to race back from the vaccines on Wednesday and end up walking 45 minutes in the dark to get home. But we didn’t want to wait another month or two for this to happen, so we said ok.

We notified the leaders of our village and they notified leaders from the surrounding communities. I was still not sure this was even going to happen, but no one called to cancel all day Wednesday. We had a long and tiring day, ten hours of travel for about 3 hours in the city. We came home and ate with the family and bathed in the chuj. Just as I was getting ready to go to bed, the phone rang. Fletch has a no-answer policy after 8, so he handed me my phone and said, “I wouldn’t answer it if I were you.” But I did.

“Hello, are you Emily? I’m Nelson. Sebastian can’t come tomorrow, but I work for the MAGA also, so I’m going to come up. I don’t have a car, so I’ll be coming in public transport. It only takes an hour and a half to get there from Huehue, right?”

“Um, no, it actually takes about 5 hours.” He told me no, like I had no idea what I was talking about, even though I’d done the arduous trip TWICE that day. I was tired, and fed up with working with these people, and they hadn’t even bothered to show up yet. “If you want to get here for the 9 am meeting we’ve set up, you need to leave Huehue at about 5 am, and you’ll still get here a little late.”

“Ok, well, how much does it cost to get there?” he asked, so I told him. “Now, Sebastian said you’d give him some money for gas. I’ll only be bringing enough money to get there. So you’ll give me money to get home, right?”

Where do these people get off being so presumptuous? “Fine, yeah. We can give you some money.” I gave him directions to our village. Things seemed precariously “on” for the morning.

I woke up to the six o’clock announcements mentioning the days’ program and inviting everyone. Shortly thereafter, I got up and started moving, sort of waiting for things to happen. At 8 o’clock my new friend, Nelson, calls to say he hasn’t yet left the city, “Should I still come?”

I figured him showing up late would make us look less bad than not showing up at all. “Yes,” i said, restraining myself from yelling at him. And then I got to do one of my most favorite things EVER, talk to Manuel.

“What? He’s not going to be here until when? Why didn’t you tell me this before I made the morning announcement.” Again, why attack the messenger? It’s misplaced blame and frustration. I get that, but I hate it, especially from the mouth that has caused us more problems than anything or anyone else in our entire time here. I actually looked at him and said very testily, “You know, if I’d known at 6 am that he was going to arrive late, maybe, but seeing as how he JUST called me, and it’s 8 o’clock, I couldn’t tell you something I didn’t know at six o’clock this morning.”

He backed down some. “Well, you have to come make the announcement with me that he’s going to be late, because if you don’t everyone is going to blame this on me.”

You know, Manuel has a funny dilemma. Since the guy usually takes credit for everything, quite gloriously, he has to deal with a lot of annoyed people when things don’t go according to his phenomenal plans. But I was pretty sick of getting blamed also, and so I took pity on him this time, telling him that it would be fine. I’d go announce the time change with him. As we walked down to the school to make the announcement, I called Nelson to see how far he’d made it, to estimate his arrival time. It turns out he ended up in a private car after all, and would get here sometime around 11. Fletch ended up joining us and somehow making the announcement as well. I talked to the early arrivals who were apparently very excited about chicken vaccines, and very disappointed in me for letting this thing happen late after they’d already arrived. Sorry.

In the meantime, I made phone calls to ladies who lived far away and told them of the change in plans but asked that they please find a way to come. I ran to the houses that were near by, to tell people in person and to encourage them to bring their chickens. “You know, we were thinking about bringing our chickens, but what if the vaccine kills them?” I tried to explain that the vaccine would only kill birds that were already sick, but I got nothing but skeptical responses in return. “You know, bring a chicken or two if you want to. If you don’t want to bring any, don’t. Just please, come and listen to what he has to say and learn how to give the vaccines. You’ll learn some good stuff, I promise.” And then I cringed at my desperate promise realizing I didn’t have a clue what the guy was going to say or how he was going to handle anything.

I ran around a lot up to and even after Nelson arrived in the village. Fletch talked to him first, assured me he was nice guy and all. I decided I was going to let Fletch handle things as soon as the program got underway. I felt exhausted and defeated before things even began. I felt myself annoyed at the announcement that he was a “nice guy” because he’d already succeeded in so thorougly annoying me. Fletch hadn’t dealt with any of the phone conversations, consequently he wasn’t already carrying the grudge I was.

Finally, women and a fair number of birds were seated in the salon. The early arrivals had returned, still eager to learn. The nurse and her assistant showed up and began to help with getting the program underway. Nelson did indeed begin with an eloquent apology on being late that I had trouble taking to heart. I feel, overall, pretty fed up with words. Since no one really tells things straight, their actions are quickly becoming all that matters. And as the title of my last post indicates, much of the time, the words and actions don’t really add up.

Nelson got into the information he’d come to disburse, and it was all very useful. Yet, I couldn’t help but find irony in his announcement that, “We don’t charge anything to you all for coming out here. We, the Ministry of Agriculture, don’t charge for vaccines. These are all provided by the government. We will only have to charge you if you need medicine for sick animals. This isn’t something we can give for free.” Where was the irony? In the fact that the only two MAGA employees I’d ever talked to had both asked me for money.

The vaccinations got underway with a chorus of squacking and brawcking. Everyone seemed excited to get a chance to practice putting in eye drops and giving injections. There were so many people who wanted to try, I decided it was best to get out of the way and let them practice. I made sure our own birds were vaccinated, and helped manage the lines until things wrapped themselves up.

Nelson left me with all the unused vaccines, which was great. Originally we’d planned for the MAGA guy to visit two communities in his day here, but as they became less and less reliable, I decided it would be best if we did the workshop in our village only, and then Fletch and I could give the talk and help the other communities interested in getting their vaccinations taken care of. As it turned out, I was quite relieved I’d decided to do it that way.

As I was going to put the vaccines in the animal vaccine fridge at the health post, the early arrival came up and asked if he could take some of the vaccines back to his community, as they’d already planned to do vaccinations that afternoon. He’d even brough a cooler. As I was hooking him up with ice and vaccines, Manuel jumped in. “But,” he sputtered. “Wait. But, what about the rest of the community here? If he takes all the vaccines there will be none left for us.”

The early arrival persisted, “But what about the people waiting to get vaccines today? We’ve already called them together in our community.” Manuel looked mad and unsure of how to proceed. And the women who’d come from Yulais wanted to know when we were going to come give them their share of the vaccines. In general, people are pretty passive here, but suddenly everyone was tense and demanding their fair share.

I was so tired at this point. I just wanted to take the vaccines and march out. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. “Manuel, the people here received numerous announcements about this activity today. Anyone who didn’t show up missed out for the time being. They’ll have to show up next time. Diego, (the early arrival) how many vaccines do you need?” He requested about 450. I gave him his vaccines on ice and packaged the cooler myself. “Now, as for Yulais. We have more vaccines here. Please tell Diego (a different one, who is leader in Yulais) that we’ll schedule a workshop and vaccination sometime in the next week. Jaime and I will bring the vaccines with us from here to there in a cooler. We can’t show up today, but we will do it soon.” The woman I was talking to didn’t speak Spanish, and Manuel just stared at her blankly, refusing to translate. Pedro, our language teacher, was standing there and jumped in to help me out. He’s been well informed of all the problems we’ve had with Manuel of late.

Then I turned to Manuel. “Look, Nelson told me all I have to do is contact him when I’m in Huehue and he can meet up with me and give me a package of vaccines. We will schedule another meeting here when I get the vaccines. For now, this community has had their turn.” I felt like an exhausted mother with bickering children. Everyone seemed to take my decisions and final, and filed out. I was left with Nelson who was on the verge of asking for his money, I was sure. I handed it over, thanked him, and walked to the health post to put the vaccines in the fridge– half afraid that Manuel would come take them without telling me. I went home to rest.

The turnout for the workshop, based on the number of people who told us they wanted it, seemed low. But there were so many time changes, which I’m sure didn’t help. I came home, and though it could have been declared an overall success, I just felt defeated. My interactions with the APROFAM mess and with the MAGA were so draining. It made me acutely aware of the lack of professionalism in anything but words, the lack of respect for a person’s time and effort, and the overall inefficiency in the way people communicate and work here. I was defeated, and thankful that the whole thing was finally done. And it made me very sad.

Fletch always beats me to posting things, and generally I try not to repeat him, but in this instance I feel it’s important. Although we were taking part in the same activity, he was much more upbeat about the whole thing. I’m glad he can be upbeat. It generally keeps me from going crazy, and frequently lightens the mood in our house. I’m the first to admit that I brood and get overly serious about things sometimes. But honestly, I have been feeling in the last month that people are just taking and taking and taking from me and I’m not sure how much energy and effort and enthusiasm I have left to give. It’s an awful feeling.

I want to be here. Or at least, it feels like these days I want to want to be here. Most of the time I’ve enjoyed this experience, and a lot of the time if I’m not exactly enjoying what’s going on, I’ve been learning so much that the experience is fascinating. To me that’s worthwhile. But lately, I’m just tired, absurdly tired. My patience is nearly non-existant. It’s bad. It makes me glorify coming home in July, as though once that happens everything will be better. Realistically I know that’s not true. Reintegrating to American life will come with its own set of challenges and heartbreak. I know this. I’m just having a hard time feeling postive and being content with being here now.

That said, my parents arrive in two days. I’m looking forward to this visit, not just because I love my parents and am really thrilled with the opportunity to give them more than a virtual tour of our lives here. But I’m also hopeful. Generally when we’ve had visitors its given me an opportunity to see things anew, and it helps me adjust my perspective for the better. It also doesn’t hurt to know that a week from today we’ll be enjoying some R&R at Casa del Mundo and celebrating my mom’s birthday.

Posted by: emily