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.