Today in class, a little boy of 7, whilst playing with his classmates from first grade, fell and knocked his head hard against the sharp metal corner of the whiteboard hanging at the back of the classroom.
The wound was severe. When he came to the teacher's desk, his cheeks streaming with tears, Anne and I, who were talking to the teacher, flinched and gasped with fear. A patch of gushing blood the size of the little boy's fist covered one side of his head. When I saw it, I instinctly closed my eyes and turned my head away in terror.
The teacher laughed. What a very strange reaction. Perhaps, having exercised his profession for many years, he was used to accidents in the classroom, and this kind of wound no longer intimidated or shocked him.
In any case, Anne and the teacher stayed with the child, whilst I rushed home to get my First Aid Kit. We did our best to clean the wound but that could only do a limited amount of good to an open wound. Anne, who has some notions of first aid and nursing, said that he will need stitches.
The child gradually quitened down, and we took him back home to his family. When his mother saw him, she merely frowned. We explained the incident.
"Who pushed you?" his brothers asked him.
"No-one," the little boy shook his head shyly.
"Children are always fooling around and misbehaving." said his grandfather as he came out of his room.
The adults in the family seemed to take this as a normal matter of course. They didn't manifest either pity, empathy or exceptional concern for the child. These things happen, and they should not and will not disrupt the daily grind of their lives.
We explained to them that it's an open wound, and if it gets infected (which, with all the insects, dust on the road, and the general living conditions in the village, is more than a probability), it could be a danger for the child. We offered to take him to the nearest centro de salud in Teleman.
"Do you want to go?" the mother asked the child. The little boy shook his head vehemently, a new wave of tears invading his terrified eyes.
"You see, he doesn't want to go." she told us. "But maybe he doesn't need to? Maybe the wound will be cured naturally."
We didn't understand this reaction at first. Of course no child would willingly go to a hospital to endure the pain of getting stitches! But if the adults understand the gravity of the situation, they must impose that decision instead of following the child's desires.
But of course, it's not that simple. The great majority of families in the village don't have the money to pay for proper treatment. In all honesty, with the scarce and unreliable information on medical treatments, it was unclear to us how much exactly this sort of medical attention would cost. Some say that you would only have to pay for the thread, and the stitching is done for free. Others insist on the fact that the anaesthetics would cost a formidable sum of money. The worst thing is that it seems that even the families have no definite information on which to base their decision. And they are not willing to take the risk.
But money is just one aspect of it. The other is, as ever, culture. A friend of ours told us recently of a "parabole" which sums up the Maya Q'eqch'i's approach to child injuries. Imagine an outdoor garden party with adults sitting outside enjoying drinks and conversations, and children playing around them. A child runs towards them through a field, falls down into the mud, hurts himself badly, and starts crying. In Western culture, most adults would rise to their feet, and rush to the child's side to see if he is well, the parents in first line. The reaction of the Q'eqch'is, however, is pure, unrestrained, hysterical laughter. Oh, look how dirty he is! Oh how funny the way he fell down!
It's strange to realise this. But we are not here to judge or to establish cultural or ethnic hierarchies. We are in their land and in their homes. We must do our best to understand them, despite our differences, although it is no easy task.
As we stood there, comforting the little boy, and putting a bandage around his head to cover his wound, Anne and I were facing a difficult moral choice. What is the right thing to do in this situation? Take the child to the medical centre despite his family's apparent reticence, to make sure that the wound was treated properly? Or leave this family to take care of their children the way they want to, without our intervention? After all, haven't they been living here for hundreds of years, before "we", Westeners, came along? They're surviving just fine without our help, despite the arduous and challenging conditions they live it. If they judge that it is not necessary to take a child to receive medical help for a wound of this kind, don't they know better?
In the end, a certain degree of humbleness and resignation made Anne and I leave things as they were. We thought that in any case, it would not be right to go against the family's wishes, even if we sincerely believed it to be for the greater good. The worst attitude to adopt in an intercultural relationship is cultural imperialism. "We know better than you" is not a slogan we wish to adhere to.
So, we kneeled infront the little boy, looked in his eyes and told him: "Well, you've become a real man now!"
And for the first time since the incident, he smiled.
"You're going to be strong, aren't you? And no more tears!"
He nodded his head, his smile widening, tears still glistening in his eyes.
"Thank you for bringing him." said his elder brother.
Indeed, the entire family thanked us for our care. They seemed touched that we would take the time to bring their child back to them after – what appeared to them – such an insignificant event.
As we said goodbye and walked out of their house, somehow I felt closer to them. It's funny, how a small, unnoticeable and banal incident can bring people together, open a window onto the culture of those people, and make us reflect upon their lives as well as our own.
In the end, we still don't have the answers to the many mysteries of cultural interaction that living side by side with the Maya Q'eqch'i community has cast us into. But the beauty of this experience is that it makes us ask those questions that truly matter. And for that and much more, we are very grateful.
Written by: Katerina