I am so proud
category: Jims Guatemala


I just returned from a village meeting. As you may know, we’re working with the town elders on a plan to do a big infrastructure project using money from USAID combined with locally available funds and personal contributions from participating families (time and/or materials). We’ve identified three sanitary infrastructures as critical in our village:

  • concrete floor in kitchens (instead of mud floors that cause fecal-oral disease transmission and bring parasites)
  • stoves with chimneys (instead of open fires that fill the house with smoke, causing acute respiratory infections)
  • sanitary latrines (to contain sewage and protect drinking water supplies)

Our budget can’t exceed $3,500 USD for the USAID portion, so that controls to some extent the total number of families that can participate. Luckily, the elders have been able to prioritize the most needy families, and we have the list down to 50 households. The hard part? Explaining it all to the villagers.

ewulSM.jpgThe meeting started off as one might expect: an hour late, then a bunch of rambling introductions followed by a prayer. Then I got quite a shock. Ewul, one of the ladies that sits on the board of the Women’s Group, got up and made a little presentation on how a concrete floor improves the health of the family. WHAT? Not only did she stay awake through that lecture all those months ago, but she actually REMEMBERED it! Then, she sat down and another board member got up and did a presentation on how stoves with chimneys save lives by reducing smoke in the house and the associated lung diseases. FInally, the third woman got up and talked about how having a proper, sanitary, well-maintained latrine helps the whole community avoid dangerous communicable diseases.  

Yep, I was flabbergasted. Manuel was smiling the whole time, and he knew he caught me off guard. As the president of the Health Committee, he had written the agenda for the meeting and chosen his speakers carefully. Manuel, though sometimes a pain to work with, is a clever guy and he really DOES want to do a good job. I patted him on the back; this is exactly what the town needs to hear. But more so, it gave me a lot of hope for the future of the village. Our “primary project” for Rural Home Preventive Health is to train health promoters, making it so our village has a resource of knowledgeable people that can teach everyone else about how to guard their family’s health, even after the Peace Corps is gone. Emily and I had given up hope that we’d ever get that far, and relegated ourselves to the job of “frontiersmen”, getting the locals used to international presence and laying the groundwork for the volunteers that will follow us. Tonight, I saw the first glimpse of what might one day come to pass: Mayans teaching Mayans about how to care for their family’s health.

The rest of the meeting was Don Ximon and Don Tomax explaining how we would be distributing the aid, and that families would have to come up with about Q500 of their own money to get a floor or a stove. There were a lot of questions: what size floor would we build? Can we have a latrine instead? Can the women work, or only the men? How do you expect me to find Q500?

The leaders already knew most of these answers, based on our previous meetings, and did a good job fielding most of the questions. I had to step in for the last one.

“I know you think that Q500 is a lot of money,” I began. They all nodded. “But the world is changing, and there are no more free handouts. People want to help you, but you have to help yourselves too. I know that all of you get Mi Familia Progresa (welfare) checks from the government every month. That money is supposed to be helping improve the health of women and children. What better way to do that, than with a floor in your house? We want to start building in January. That means that you can take your November and December checks, stick them in a box, and buy your new floor at the start of the new year. What else are you going to do with that money? Buy soda, candy, or music? (they all laughed nervously and nudged each other)

“Those things will be gone within the month. But a concrete floor? That will be keeping your family healthy until your kids are grown up and gone. That welfare program isn’t going to continue forever, and if you save two months -just TWO MONTHS- of checks, you can have something that will. Think about that.”

The leaders seemed pretty happy about the speech, and Manuel translated it into Q’anjob’al for those that didn’t get it the first time.

About then, Nas Palas leaned over to talk in my ear. “We should close the meeting now, and let the women go home and think about what they want. Remember, this is the first they’ve ever heard about this, so they’re heads are in the clouds right now. Also, they are going to want to talk to their husbands.” Nas, always the voice of sensibility and reason.

“Yeah, I couldn’t agree more,” I said. He then got up and gave a passionate speech about how this was the community’s big chance to make good use of a great opportunity they were just handed on a silver platter. Nas speaks so earnestly, he always has everyone’s attention. “Now, go home and consider this,” he concluded, “and we will reconvene Friday afternoon to discuss what everyone thinks.”

I am so proud of them. Keep your fingers crossed for Friday.

Posted by: jfanjoy