Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I learned in Guatemala

My recent trip to Guatemala with Save the Children was the kind of experience that cannot easily be processed and captured in tidy sentences and paragraphs. But, after almost two weeks of rumination, I've tried to spit it back out for you here:

Things I observed and learned and thought about in Guatemala:

Women and girls carry babies. Men and boys carry machetes.

The women were all stunningly beautiful to me in their traditional, color-filled dresses. I often felt as if I was dressed like a boy, lacking color or any semblance of traditional femininity.

I saw very few mirrors. Do they know they are beautiful? Do they care?

The women wore traditional dress while the men wore normal western style clothes. This strikes me as completely sexist, macho, and patriarchal. Probably because it is.

Girls get married as young as 13. Some are considered too old for marriage at 16.

When girls get married they go to the home of their husbands. They leave their own mother and father and siblings behind and become a part of the in-laws family. The mother in law has all the say in child rearing. Could you imagine this?

Children take care of each other. Little kids everywhere were taking care of even smaller kids. Young girls  carried their siblings in a sling, walked them down the road, always took them by the hand, and acted very motherly towards them. My daughters do this as well, but this is taken to another level. Their mothers are far less available to give them the kind of attention we are used to getting.

Siblings are expected to look out for each other, sometimes at the expense of their own future. The trained health worker we met, Elena, said she would love to go to nursing school but cannot because, since she is not married, it's her duty to stay home and look after her younger siblings.

When I see big sisters looking out for, mothering, little brothers, I can’t help but wonder what it is like for these little boys to lose their sisters/ mothers to marriage at 13.

The mother we stopped in on in a high mountain village, and her son Benito, and the little boy who claimed to be her son, but turned out to be her little brother, is a good example. Turns out the date spray painted on the wall, was a reminder that their parents died that day. Another brother wrote it down so no one would forget.

There is no such thing as a helicopter parent in Guatemala. Children are everywhere, next to roads, which hardly ever have cars on them, near wood stoves, climbing ladders and trees, no one seems to be telling them to get down, look out, be careful. Not like you would see in America.

Guatemalan mothers generally don’t push when giving birth. Childbirth  happens at home, women labor mostly alone, a midwife helps deliver the child.

Going to the hospital to give birth is associated with dying. Women often die on the way, or were already having complications, and it is not the hospital at fault, but that is the association. Save the Children does all they can do to make sure these moms get good pre- and post- natal care, by trained volunteers, to assure they are healthy and their babies are healthy. 

New mothers and babies use a steam bath as part of a post- partum ritual. They build a fire in the shower, like a sauna cave, and bring their babies in there to sweat out the toxins. I learned the word for this sauna but don't know how to spell it. 

The rural Guatemalan women will not take off their clothes when having babies, mostly because the husband forbids it  One doctor we met at a clinic refers to it as machismo.

I never once saw a mother disciplining a child in any harsh way. The children were generally docile, and self sufficient. Still childish and adorable, but I did not witness any blatant naughtiness. I had to wonder how much of this had to do with how much babies are worn when they are young, then how quickly they must adapt, in order to survive, to being self sufficient. 

Dogs are treated like rodents or wild animals. They are everywhere, scrounging, skinny, mangy, even dead in the road with no one seeming to care. Domestic pets are the luxury of a wealthy society. When you don’t have enough food for your children, you aren’t going to give it to a dog.

The real meaning of hand to mouth is not the same as paycheck to paycheck. These people chop wood, carry water, walk and walk and walk everywhere carrying heavy loads, plant the corn, harvest the corn, grind the corn, make the tortillas, cut the firewood, carry the firewood, build the fire to cook the tortillas, fetch the water from the stream to bathe the children and cook and drink.

I saw no one smoking.

Indigenous Guatemalans are tiny. 80 percent of rural Guatemalans are said to be chronically malnourished, living on a diet of corn, which affects their physical and mental development, yet they all have shiny black hair and bright eyes and white teeth. From my pictures you will not see unhealthy people. But what you don’t see is what the chronic malnourishment is doing to limit the mental development, and intellectual capacity of these people.

Without the proper combination of nutrients, which Save the Children is doing everything they can to remedy, including introducing a farming education program, teaching families how to farm, smarter --permaculture, these people will never "evolve."

Most of us who were lucky enough to have been born into the developed world take our sufficient diets and fully developed brains for granted. The progress we have enjoyed because of this, is the cause of great joy, and, yes, sorrow. These mothers deserve to see their children be more and have more. To give birth to children, only to see them lead a life as full of hard work as their own...

There is no garbage in the houses because nothing is wasted. Food does not come in packaging in Guatemala. The only waste I saw was the occasional litter of candy wrappers and soda pop bottles.  Things that are exported into their world from our world. 

Crocs are perfect shoes for little Guatemalan children.

Women carry things, all sorts of things, on their heads.

People have pigs and goats and chickens. Goats milk can change a malnourished kid into a perfectly healthy kid in a very short time. 
Being busy, being purposeful is human nature, born by necessity. Rural Guatemalans are all going somewhere, doing something, all the time. Now, back in the developed word, I see the same in our world, in the glowing snake of headlights I saw from the plane landing in Heathrow at 6:30 a.m. And in the endless stream of people walking past shop windows, carrying shopping bags, consuming, consuming all the time, and I understand why.  That habit of moving, of being busy, out hunting and gathering, is so ingrained in us, we make up reasons to keep moving, to keep busy, even though we don’t want for anything.

Charities like Save the Children are amazing in the breadth and scope of what they are trying to accomplish. The change they hope to affect, the challenges they take on, the research they conduct.
Cultures are so complicated, such an  intricate web of environment, geography, language, tradition, mores, it is amazing to me that anyone knows how to help them. But I saw people, mothers, children being helped with my own eyes.

People generally don’t give enough. I don’t give enough. I claim to be broke, yet I pay $3 for a cup of coffee, and $3 in an airport for a bag of chips. If I forget something, I buy a new one. I bought a raincoat for $100 on the way to Guatemala. That gnawed at me the whole time I was there.

Read more about my trip to Guatemala with Save the Children at Million Moms Challenge, and at Momformation. 


Adrianne said...

Would you ever bring your daughters (and Ian?) and go again, possibly longer, doing missionary work over the summer? Have you tried to live differently now that you're home? Thinking more about your own waste and "consumerism" and how to control that?

I'm glad you learned about, and shared with us, the malnourishment of the people and the effect this has on their mental development, especially since (uneducated?) Americans have complained about the number of children these poorer people have. Reproducing comes naturally.

I have a great love for Maryknoll, a Catholic missionary organization, and would love to do missionary work but the only thing I can do is give when I can and pray ... I'm so glad you were able to experience this and share it with us! Jealous : )


The Foodie Family said...

The thing I really love about "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" is the simple life that they led. Making the food, the clothing, farming, going to church. Something really romantic about that, about maintaining your life and home so simply. That's probably why I enjoy knitting and crocheting; there's something deeply satisfying about creating things with your hands like that. Is it possible that, although they are technically malnourished and their culture is so drastically different that it seems horrible, they're happy with their way of life? Hmm.

Betsy said...

Adrianne: I have definitely given a lot of thought to the wasteful habits we employ every day. I would like to think I will return to Guatemala one day. I think my children could learn so much there.

Betsy said...

The Foodie Family: Sounds like an interesting book.

"Is it possible that, although they are technically malnourished and their culture is so drastically different that it seems horrible, they're happy with their way of life? Hmm."

Bingo. I have thought about this a lot, and don't know the answer. I certainly don't think they need to become us, but they could benefit from an improved diet and health education.

Sheri said...

These are amazing photos, Betsy and even more, amazing words. It really makes you think, especially at this time of year when we consume so much and stress about silly things. Thank you for sharing.

Emma said...

That was so interesting to read... as you can imagine I am always interested in hearing about any organisation that tries to address the appalling discrepancy in infant and maternal mortality rates that exist between developed and developing countries. I hope to volunteer overseas in that capacity one day. Sounds like you had a deeply moving experience Betsy, thanks so much for sharing it with us! And Merry Christmas to you, Ian, Esther and Isla.

Helena said...

That would indeed be a life-changing experience.

Sue Kol said...

I somehow missed reading this post. For some weird reason, I thought to myself that I never read about your Guatemala trip, and I went looking for it. Glad to have found it.

Growing up in India, I've seen most of what you have described in this post. It used to be more true that the girl went and became part of the in-laws family after marriage.

Nowadays with more and more families becoming nuclear, it is not true for the most part. And yet, that concept still does remain.

There is a very poignant part of wedding ceremonies in India, where after the wedding itself is over, the final part is where the bride's parents take the bride's hand and go to each and every member of the in-laws family and say to them, please take care of our daughter. This includes All members of the family including babies.