Saturday, March 31, 2018

Where education has the flavor of Vanilla

The first thought I had once in Nueva Mercedes was that I have never seen such a place full of life and connection with nature. The village is literally immersed in the forest covering the hills surrounding the valley, and here the daily habits of 70 families are kept in time.

In this context Li Ch’utam is working with the youth bridging the amazingness of the colors and flavors of the Polochic Valley with the external opportunities deriving from the education, helping them to invest in their future.

Almost finished!

The realization of the IT & Knowledge Centre best represents this goal, and it is finally ready after 10 months and a very struggling but satisfying March. Since the last update, indeed, electricity has been completely cut off for three weeks compromising the construction works, and the finishing material delayed more than a week. Notwithstanding, everything is now going on the right direction and the 7th of April the inauguration will take place. The founders, the board members, the local volunteers and the families of Nueva Mercedes together with the most important donors will be reunited to start at best.

We already started to work at the centre!

The occasion of the inauguration created the good condition to reinforce the collaboration between Li Ch’utam, the community, the people part of the projects and the local authorities. All the village of Nueva Mercedes, together with the students part of the scholarship program, indeed, are willing to do their part! The women will cook the traditional chicken soup and every family offered to contribute how they can with chicken, rice, chocolate or tortillas. I am very happy about the engagement of the people with the Centre, the projects and us.

                  To sum up these first months, the work with the youth and adults of the communities gradually started. In preparing the activities with the youth, we kept the connection with those of our predecessors therefore we developed and increased the scholarship program, organized extracurricular activities as games, sport, gardening and art with the kids and provided support to the local school. On this last activity, we are focusing more on teaching English since otherwise the students will not have any opportunity to learn it. We planned in addition a series of meeting and workshops with the kids and adolescents.

           Nevertheless, also the involvements of the adults restarted and we have already been able to organise a first meeting with the families part of the scholarship program to discuss with them the importance for their kids to go to school and study. The director of a local school, who has an extraordinary attachment for these communities where he has grown up, held the debate. He strongly believes in education and he wants to support our activities to “leave something for the future of the youth here” as he said. We are planning to develop regular meetings with the parents and adults of the area to face multiple themes.  

Bread-making workshop with women 

Next to it we are setting up as in 2017 the activities with the women. They are willing to learn and discover therefore we restarted a previous workshop on bread and cookies making. The reaction is very positive and the results impressive! We are trying to use the traditional tools for cooking they have at home so that can keep try and cook on their own. 

We took this period to get into the context and know better the people we are working with; I am amazed how wonderful and collaborative they can be. Though flexibility is the keyword to be able to work here and every day there are new issues to overcome, the incredible landscapes and the people with whom I am sharing this adventure make it unique. I am really happy and I am looking forward to fully start with the Centre and all the activities.

We will update you soon on how things are going here!

The vanilla plantation right next to the centre

Extracurricular activity - Art in english with the kids of Nueva Mercedes

Cooking without electricity =)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

2018: Week one of new volunteers

It has been a week since the new team (Giulia from Italy, François from France and me) has arrived in Nueva Mercedes. The journey from Guatemala city was long, but once we settled into the volunteer house, we felt refreshed and was eager to start working and contributing to the projects. First thing we could do was to push a series of social media campaigns to raise funds for the scholarship program given the school year has just started. 

Everyday is a new and exciting day for me personally, and I am sure it is the same for my other two teammates (and housemates) too as we started more or less the same time. There is a lot to learn, anything and everything from this organization, to education in Guatemala and to the social and cultural norms in this village. It is quite overwhelming for me, not only because of the new environment that is totally different from what I am used to, but also because that I am feeling that there are so much we want to do for the children and community but we were not able to do all, at least not yet.

One of the tasks on the priority list is to get ready for the inauguration of IT centre. The IT centre is almost finished. It is looking beautifully from outside. It is built on high ground and is surrounded by a few village houses and green fields, it really stands out among the houses made of wooden sticks and hays. The first floor is nicely painted in white and the second floor is made of neatly shaped and polished woods.  While the IT centre always puts a smile on our faces whenever we walk pass by it, we know that there are still lots to do. For example, it is critical that we get more computers ASAP but it seems impossible to find them. We have been reaching out to various sources, personal contacts, schools and companies, but the response rate has been low. I would have never expected it to be so hard to get a couple of used computers. In the corporate world that I was in before, everyone changes computer every 2-3 years, but it is a complete different world out here. 

Another challenge is to understand the cultural dynamics of all the stakeholders. One might think that with the mission of Li Ch’utam, it is so easy to implement all the programs whenever, and we get support easily from everyone because it is a good cause for the community. The reality is not like that at all. Having an understanding of the perception of each party involved and following the local protocols are very important. For that reason, the team has already been setting up meetings in the first week. Yesterday we had a good meeting with the COCODE, the local governing committee that is comprised of several representatives from the community, to update what we are doing and get their support. Next week, we plan to meet the school teachers and get to know them better. 

The first weekend here, we went to the river that is in the next village for a swim. We met the other volunteers who are teaching English in another NGOs in the next village. We also met families and friends that know Li Chu’tam. We all gathered at the house of one of them and celebrated the weekend with a simple dinner and music. It was a very pleasant and amiable gathering to know the people around and learn about their lives.

To sum up week one in Nueva Mercedes: it is a week of learning and a week of familiarizing ourselves with the place, the community and the way of living. Today there is no electricity after the storm last night so there is no WIFI and our computers are almost out of battery. We have to get used to that. Despite all that, the picturesque backdrop of the blue sky, hills with multiple layers stretching into the horizon and village trails meandering through the coffee and rubber plantation are something that I would never get tired of. 

Most importantly, the curiosity and smile of the children in the village is a constant reminder of why I am here. I think all volunteers would feel the same.

Melody (Singapur) 


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Saying goodbye to Nueva Mercedes!

Sadly my time as a volunteer at Li Ch‘utam came to an end. Saying goodbye to Nueva Mercedes was not easy for me and I left this little wonderful village with mixed feelings. All in all, I really didn‘t want to leave and would have loved to stay longer.
Since my last post was one where I introduced myself as a new volunteer, this post will be about my experiences, impressions, and about what I achieved during my time at Li Ch‘utam. What have I done and how could I contribute in these short 2 and a half months to the school and town of Nueva Mercedes?

First of all, I started getting to know the kids more and more during the afternoon activities. Attending them during „computacion“, playing logic or language games, or deportive games like „juego de la araña“ (the spider game), „pescador“ (the fisherman), „el pañuelito“, „stop dance“, a circus workshop, or recycling activities like making flowerpots out of old plastic bottles, has helped a lot in gaining their trust at the beginning of my time.
Once the new school year started, I begann to help Abelino with „Preprimaria“ (primary school), which I already wrote about in my introduction letter. It was a great experience to work with the youngest of the entire school, assisting them in learning things like holding a pen or tying their shoes, and spending time with them in their school breaks. After one month I left „Preprimaria“ and started to work with Seño Elda in „Segundo Primaria“ (second grade), where I stayed for one and a half months.

During my last week in „Preprimaria“ I joined the „family visits“ with the school teachers, where we detected, which of the kids in Nueva Mercedes and La Ceiba didn‘t visit school at all. One of these kids was Veronica, who is 9 years old and had only finished first grade. Veronica is a very smart girl, whom I knew from the afternoon activities like „computacion“, and she was definitely one of the kids, where I saw a lot of potential, interest, and motivation in. Figuring out that she wasn‘t inscribed in school surprised me and made me want to further understand her situation, which is why I was looking for a conversation with her and her mother. After finding out that she apparently had some writing issues and was bullyied for that, I asked her, if she would like to work on writing together one by one. She did great and surprisingly I did not see any difficulties. That was when I asked her, if she would want to go back to school again, and she said yes. This was a beautiful moment for me. Further, I reassured this with her mother, and asked the school director Profesor Reginaldo and Seño Elda (second grade teacher), if there was the possibility of her going back to school and joining „Segundo Primaria“ (second grade), even though the school year had already started. They also said yes, and that was when I started assisting Seño Elda with „Segundo Primaria“ (second grade). I first stayed with her, mainly for supporting and motivating Veronica and catching up what she had missed during the first weeks of school. Now, she is back in school for a month and a half and is loving it. After we overhauled the topics she missed, not only Seño Elda but me are very positive about her future development. She is a great student and I am incredibly proud of her of taking the big step of going back to school, which I can imagine was not easy for her.

Since the day Veronica started joining „Segundo Primaria“ (second grade) again, I had been helping Seño Elda with teaching and assisting the children. After only one week I noticed that there was a kid (Max, 9 years old) who had heavy reading difficulties and was also bullyied for that. Since he seemed very upset and depressed about this, and had also already repeated this class, I decided to also focuss on him working together on the alphabet and the reading chapters step by step from the beginning on. It was not easy for me to understand the fact, that even though he might be suffering from a reading disorder such as Legasthenia, the circumstances in Nueva Mercedes will not allow him to be correctly diagnosed or find a special help for him. The school in Nueva Mercedes doesn‘t have the capabilities of concentrating on kids, who learn in a different pace or have learning disabilities. But I believe that is a field where volunteers can help a lot with. However, after working with him a lot on reading, he took steps into the positive direction. The more important thing to me is though, to see him more self confident in class and with a smiling face every once in a while.

I have to admit that leaving both of them behind was very hard for me and worries me. I am positive though, that both Max and Veronica have huge potential in them and will keep working hard on passing this school year. My greatest wish is, that even though I was only there for a short period of time, I could give them some inspiration for their future life and studies, or just their personal development.

As I already stated, my time at Li Ch‘utam was just too short. There are still so many things that I would have liked to achieved and I learned that you have to endow more time to such a volunteering program. I believe its not fair for kids like Veronica and Max to start working with them one on one so intensively and then leave them, and I feel upset about that. Also, it takes you like one month to get used to the life in the jungle and understand the system of the village, open yourself to this kind of lifestyle and get to know the people in town. I learned that one needs more time to achieve all the projects that come along the way and one would like to achieve. Another thing that I strongly believe is that a lack of volunteers can be prevent the progress of Lichutam instead of developing it. Daniel and I started to have our own little projects but would have loved to contribute way more and have many ideas of what else we could work on, such as a nutrition programe, a gardening project with the school, a sex education programe with the women, English and computing classes.

Even though only being two volunteers sometimes was hard, I really enjoyed the time with Daniel and Anna (who was there the first one and a half months of my stay). It was the first time for me living with someone, at the same time working with the person and basically being around the person 24/7 since there is hardy privatesphere in the house, but it turned out really great and I sure miss them already.

Also, through Jonas and the intensive time with the women, I studied some Q‘eqchi, which I really enjoyed and would have loved to study more of this interesting language, that I finally started to understand more and more.

Another thing that I happily achieved was my personal study with the women of the village, such as a photo project. As I already commented in my introduction letter, I planned to do a little investigation about beauty standards, body statisfaction, body- and self-esteem with the Q‘eqchi women. Through my friend Jonas (from la „tienda de Jonas“) I found a Spanish-Q‘eqchi translator, who helped me to translate my questionnaire. Apart from the interesting data I got through the study, it was a wonderful experience to spend some time with the women of Nueva Mercedes getting to know them better. Although many women couldn‘t read, they were helping each other (when one of them could read) and tried so hard to understand my questionnaire. I even got a couple of female friends in the village through this experience, that I already miss.

I felt very lucky to have had this experience with the women and was thankful and surprised about their openness and trust. Since I learned that especially within indigenous cultures you cannot only expect someone to give you something (in this case: information), but you should give them something back, I decided to give them a beautiful portrait of them as a reciprocal gift. I started the photo project on women‘s day, since many of them have never had a picture of them taken, and printed it out in Teleman. We had so much fun taking the photos. Some even borrowed me their traditional clothing (Po‘od & Uq‘) to take a picture together with them.

My stay here and getting to know some of the Q‘eqchi kids and women better has changed some of my perspectives on life, or reinforced perspectives I already had. There is something I will take home as a memory, something which I already knew but after living it, it became more clear to me: I feel so priviledged about the life I live in Germany. We are so lucky to have access to good education. We don‘t have any reason to complain the way we do about things, either if it is about infrastructure, politics, or education. Life is a lot more difficult in a village like Nueva Mercedes. Every day is a rough day and you have to work hard to survive and satisfy the basics needs of food, safety and health.

I have to admit that at the beginning I felt a bit agitated by the way many of the Q‘eqchis lived. I didn‘t know how to deal with the fact of women being pregnant are such young age or many kids having symptoms of denutrition. I saw a lot of poverty and also focused on the materialistic part, on what they had and didn‘t have. Especially coming to Guatemala right after Christmas, where kids in Germany are overwhelmed with gifts, I saw such a big difference in childhood life and unconsciously compared their lives to the one of many kids in my country. Now I know that kids in Nueva Mercedes might not own a single toy to play with, but they live in a giant playground full of treets to climb, branches to play with, with so much space to run, and they are happy children. Similarly, even though many women are living in really rough living conditions they always have a smiling face on them and are happy about the little things in life, such as when a sweet potato grows in their garden.
This made something even more clear to me than it was before:  Its not about what you own, all the materialistic things, friends or clothing that you can identify yourself with and be a happy person due to other people liking you for that. It‘s about an inner happyness, disconnected from all materialistic and everything that you can own. That is why happyness is inside, and not outside.

Besides that, there are also a lot of good things, that we can learn from the Q‘eqchis: The friendlyness, the strong family connection, and helping each other at every time. That is why you will never feel or be alone in a place like Nueva Mercedes.

I will miss the smiling faces screeming „Juliaaaaaaaa“ throughout the village, I will miss the friendlyness, I will miss that you greet each other when passing by and sometimes even have a quick chat, even if you don‘t know the person, I will miss the most beautiful nature and wildlife of Polochic valley, I will miss this life, where every day is like an adventure and you really feel like contributing to something important.

There is one thing I am looking forward to returning back to civilization: a shower with good water pressure!

Tat naq‘ sa‘ in xchool ut lain waj sut qiik‘ chaq‘ Mercedes! (I will miss you and I will be back, Mercedes!)

Xchawil aawib‘! Bantiox! (Que les vaya bien! Muchas gracias!)


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Time to say goodbye, Nueva Mercedes

Three months have flown fast. It feels like it was yesterday when I first arrived to the jungles of Nueva Mercedes covered by the night darkness and wondered where on the Earth had I come to. First weeks here were quite challenging; getting used to the humid heat, mosquitos and the Guatemalan laidback mañana- mentality (basically meaning that never expect anything to happen in time or as planned). However, sooner than I even noticed I was so well adapted to the jungle life style that it felt like I had lived here for years.

 This week my volunteering period at Li Ch’utam will unfortunately come to an end. I am already sad thinking about that soon I will have to say goodbye to my wonderful colleagues, Daniel and Julia, all the awesome kids and other villagers we have made friends with. Not even mentioning the queen of the house, our cat Mis (translates to cat in Q’eqchi)! 

 Living among Mayan ancestors and getting to know their culture has been an amazing experience. It took a while to realize that Q’eqchis, especially women, are very shy and reserved compared to mestizos (Guatemalans with mixed ancestry). However, once you get a little closer to them, Q’eqhis are the most kind and generous people, always willing to help and share some tortillas and tamales with you from the little they have.

 Having been able to observe the life of the local people from very close distance has, however, not always been pleasant. Over half of the Guatemalan population still live in poverty and especially in the rural areas such as Nueva Mercedesthe amount of poverty strikes in one’s eyes. Local people would always have their maiz tortillas and frijoles to feed their families, but besides that they don’t have much. Although always so happy, the children run around playing with the broken clothes and often barefoot. Many children also have severe symptoms of malnutrition and the parents’ often cannot afford to buy the medicine when their kids get sick.

The situation of the indigenous women is also sad. It is rare that a Q’eqchi woman has an income of her own and the role of the woman is mainly to stay at home with the children. Q’eqchi marriages are still often arranged by the parents, and at the very early age. According to the Guatemalan law you are not allowed to get married before you turn 18, but in the reality, many girls are unofficially married as teenagers. This week we talked with my volunteer colleague Julia to a fifteen-year-old girl from Nueva Mercedes who told us that she was not at all interested in studying and that she had already found a boy that she “soon” will marry.

I have been told that a measure of a “good wife” in Q’eqchi culture is a woman who can tortillerar (make tortillas). In fact, without the previously mentioned skill, you might not get married at all which would be a shame for the woman herself and her family. In the Q’eqchi families the average number of children is around 5-6 and even families with 15 family members are not unusual. Considering the number of the children a woman gives a birth to and has later to take care, there is no time for studying or other personal development. Sadly, it is often the poorest families that have the most children which leads to a poverty trap cycle since the parents cannot afford to educate their children.

Education is another pitfall of Guatemala. Although if even such a remote rural area as Nueva Mercedes a school exists, the quality of education and the drop-out rates of the pupils are extremely high. Almost half of the pupils drop out from during or right after the primary school (according to my local experience especially girls) and only a tiny percentage make it to the university. We volunteers were very delighted that after the first school week of the teachers of the local schooltook it seriously that many of the children hadn’t appeared to school. They dedicated one day to go from home to home to talk with the parents. After the teachers’ visits, nearly all the children that had been missing have showed upto the school on a regular basis.

 During my stay, here I have had contradicting feelings, on the other hand that there on the first place exists a school with relative proficient teachers but on the other hand realizing that the school system here is decades behind of the schools back at home in Finland. Many pupils even in the higher grades of primary school still struggle with basic Math, writing or reading. I have even talked to youngsters who finished college with barely knowing where Guatemala is located on the world map, that our planet turns or even their own history.

During the last weeks, I have been assisting in the third grade in a local school. As I got to know the pupils better I was shocked how many of them still couldn’t read or write properly, even the ones who were repeating the third grade. Some of these pupils struggle even with identifying letters and numbers. After discussing their situation with Daniel and Julia, we decided that these pupils are in a need of some additional personal help since there is a urge need to basically teach them to read and write from the very beginning. Last week we volunteers talked with the teachers and they agreed on that we would organize some extra classes in the afternoons for the pupils having struggles. From the next week onwards Julia, who has also studied psychology and causes behind learning difficulties of the children, will take responsibility giving the reinforcement classes.

Taking into account the myriad amount of inadequacies found in the region, a presence of an NGO such as Li Ch’utam is incredibly important. I have been very happy to have been a part of it, and that I have been able to bring my contribution to the important work Li Ch’utam is doing. It has not always been easyand the results are often hard to see. However, if during my stay here I have managed to change even a small thought in a mind of a kid or motivated them to study further, I consider it as a huge achievement.

Volunteering at Li Ch’utam has been a wonderful experience. The circumstances are definitely not the easiest; the region is difficult to access and you lack many “luxury” things (such as reliable electricity, fluid internet connection and many groceries we back in Europe take for advantage). As mentioned earlier, there is also a lot of misery and poverty that has sometimes been hard to digest. But at the end, I consider it is in such remote places where the real help is really needed. For anyone considering looking for a meaningful volunteering experience, I can highly recommend jumping on board of the Li Ch’utam team. It won’t be easy and you will for sure be eaten by the herds of mosquitos, but as a change you will be able to experience something unforgettable and peerless.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A new volunteer Julia presents herself


I would like to introduce myself as the new volunteer of Li Ch‘utam. My name is Julia, I am 22 years old and I am from Hamburg, Germany. I am currently studying psychology and one of my goals during my time is to complete an internship for at least three months during my fifth semester. It has always been a strong desire of mine to spend some time abroad in a different culture and participate in a volunteer program focused on Child Education during this time. My interests are music, dance and art such as exploring nature and different cultures, human diversity, psychology and education. 

Through my studies, I have learned a lot about how the environment a person is raised in can influence their future behavior. I have become impassioned about the importance of childhood education, especially for children who grow up in an impoverished environment and who lack access to quality education. Starting education at a young age and creating an environment which fosters creativity and curiosity is incremental in forming interests, goals, and positive lifelong behavioral patterns in children. I have prior experienced teaching and working with children, and enjoy both very much. As I am fluent in English and Spanish, I provided private lessons in both languages to younger students while working on my Abitur.

I have now spent one month in Guatemala and so far, I am in love with the country and especially the Polochic Valley in Alta Verapaz. Not only I am impressed by the beautiful nature of this valley, but also by the kind and generous people that live in Nueva Mercedes, the little village Li Ch‘utam is located in. Everyone will always greet you when passing by and will always help you. I am surprised but very happy how fast children have begun to accept and trust me as a new volunteer. As Anna and Daniel already explained in their introduction, it is impossible to just walk down to Nueva Mercedes and go to „Tienda de Jonas“ (a local grocery store) without being called or greeted by several people, especially children. Sometimes you might even hear a voice from very far away shouting „Juuuuuuuuuuliiiaaaaaaaaa!!!“. There is also another thing about living in Nueva Mercedes that I will always remember: Eating frijoles con arroz basically every day can eventually get boring.

However, the way Q‘eqchi in Nueva Mercedes live, is very different to anything I have ever seen or experienced before. Being confronted with the poverty has not always been easy for me. I find it very hard to realize and accept the position that women have in this place.  Teenage girls, who tend to visit school only until 6th grade and often already are married and have kids. I am also shocked about the medical situation and condition of some of the kids. I cannot believe it is not possible for a family due to monetary reasons to have a simple disinfection liquid at home. It makes you realize that the life you have been living is not something taken for granted and makes me appreciate everything I own and the chance of getting the education I wish for. Even though, there are days that I come home and are just so exhausted by all the impressions I have had during the day, the thought of seeing all the smiling faces of the kids on the next day makes me put a smile on my face as well.

The four weeks in Nueva Mercedes have flown by so fast, and when I am gone during the weekend I get so excited to come „home“ to this gorgeous place. I have been learning a bit of Q‘eqchi‘ (already can count to 20 yaaaaay and sing a Q‘eqchi‘ children song), and would love to learn much more. Since school has begun, I have been in charge of helping Abelino, the Preprimaria (pre-school) teacher in his class. I am super happy with this position and totally enjoy being around the smallest ones of the entire school, that are between four and six years old. Every day when I wake up, I get so excited to see them again. We sing a lot of songs in Q‘eqchi and Spanish, play games outside in the sun, paint with the fingers and with modeling clay and do some eye-hand coordination tasks such as drawing certain lines, play with beads and strings. I am also very glad about how fast they accepted me, built trust in me, and respect me.

 Next to the everyday afternoon computing classes, we have been planning different after class activities on Wednesdays and Thursdays, that always turned out to be very fun. We did a circus school, where the kids learned how to slackline, jump the rope, and play Poi. It was very difficult to tell them, when the time was over. Another activity was playing several games together, such as a quiz. Last week we were drawing our lives and presented it in front of everyone and today we played our new memory game where the little kids had to find word pairs in Spanish - Q‘eqchi‘ and older ones in Spanish - Q‘eqchi‘ - English. This game definitely not only helped the kids to learn Spanish, but me to learn Q‘eqchi‘. In the following weeks, I would like to do some more art and cognitive games with the children, to stimulate and support their creativity.

As my personal project during my stay in Nueva Mercedes I will conduct a study for my Bachelors thesis. The goal of this study is to compare female Q‘eqchi beauty standards including body satisfaction and self-esteem with the ones of Colombian and German women. Since this is a very personal topic, I still need some time for the women in Nueva Mercedes to accept me and feel more confident around me. 

 Receiving a position volunteering with Li Ch‘utam is allowing me to combine the skills and interests I have developed with the chance to learn about a new culture and perspective of life I have yet to experience. I am confident that my prior work, volunteer, and education experiences as well as my dedication and my eagerness to learn will make me a valuable contribution to your organization. I am sure I will have an unforgettable time here. I would not want to miss a single day that I have been here until this day.