Our third week in Rabinal began with a traditional Mayan Ceremony. At 5:00 AM on Sunday, July 10th, our group of 5 volunteers, 10 current youth participants, and 8 former youth participants met in the dim lighting of Rabinal’s plaza to ascend to the sacred site of Kaj’yup, where the ceremony was to take place.
Voces y Manos students and volunteers together at the top of Kaj Yup
After an hour of hiking, we arrived our destination, where, according to legend, Rabinal Achi (the Patron saint of Rabinal) fought off Varon Qui’che (the patron saint of the Qui’che people) gaining the Achi people their independence. To this day, Kaj’yup remains one of the most important cultural and spiritual locations in Rabinal. For me, the Mayan ceremony is always a special part of our program, as it is one of the few times when past scholarship recipients and current participants can get together to motivate one another to continue their academic pursuits and affirm their commitments to betting their communities.
Once our entire group had arrived the top of the mountain, our guide, Profesor Manuel, led us to the top of a small pyramid. There, he lit a few candles to request permission for us to start the ceremony, then addressed the group: “It is privilege for me to be back here with you all. Many of you I know because I was your teachers, for others, it is a privilege to meet you for the first time. I would like to invite everyone to be fully present in this ceremony. Being present does mean only being here physically, but also to be present mentally, even though it is only 6:00 in the morning.”
Josh Hoerger and Cynthia Garcia listening to Professor Manuel as he discusses the Mayan ceremony
Manuel went on to explain that the Mayan Ceremony is not a religious ceremony but a spiritual one, and he welcomed people of all different faiths to fully participate in the event. For the next hour, Manuel explained to the students about the various Nahuales, guardians that comprise the Mayan Calendar. Embedded in his descriptions were countless life lessons: Appreciation for what one has in life, respect for nature, the importance of community, and the necessity to maintain and develop one’s cultural identity.
As the ceremony drew to a close, I looked into the faces of each of the students who were present, and felt a great sense of gratitude for the community that we have developed over the past four years. Represented in our group were students from all four years of the program: some who are on the verge of graduating, others who are just beginning their careers in higher education. All the students are united by a vision of bettering their communities through education, and direct service to their communities.
This unity, and this vision of building community carried over into the next week. It was with a mixture of nervousness, and excitement that students received the news that in week 3, they would begin the process of developing community projects. On Monday, we trained students in how to conduct interviews, and on Tuesday, 2-person teams of students dispersed throughout the city to interview the various organizations involved in health promotion in Rabinal. Initial nervousness was overcome when students were welcomed by organization representatives. Immediately following the interviews, many of the students began thinking about the types of community projects they might want to undertake, and which organizations they might turn to for support.
The following day, Wednesday, teams of students travelled to their home communities identify crucial community health needs, and the assets they can utilize within their communities to address these needs. Conducting interviews with their fellow community members, students were truly in their element. Many of the students spoke to their fellow community members in Achi, translating for us volunteers after each interview. Neighbors, friends and family members welcomed the students into their homes, and delighted in the fact that these youth were taking proactive measures to address the community’s most pressing needs.
Students Maynor & Mardoquello take off for their community interviews in Nimacabaj
As the students were preparing for their own community projects by listening to the perspectives of community members, so too are we preparing for our next phase of engagement in health promotion. As we have discussed below, this year marks a turning point in the work of Voces y Manos, as we temporarily suspend our direct health programs (the community health fairs) to first listen to the voices of community members and partner organizations, in an effort to guide the future directions of our work.
When we were not working with the youth, we have been working closely with our partner organization ASECSA to lay the framework for the “Listening to the Community Assembly”, scheduled to take place next week. In this assembly, health promoters, and traditional midwives, nursing students, and doctors, youth leaders, and community elders, will come together to share their perspectives on health in Rabinal. We do not know what will be the outcome of these assemblies, but we are excited to start the process, and eager to put into practice one of the key lessons we have been emphasizing with our students: before undertaking any initiative to promote health, one must begin by listening to the perspectives of community members.
Written by Michael Bakal
Michael Bakal instructs students on their community projects
Sunthree Acosta and Michael Bakal working with their student pair, Benjamin & Glenda
Amy Yam works with her student pair, Mardoquello & Maynor, on a reforestation project
Cynthia visits the Biotopo de Quetzal (a national park dedicated to the national bird of Guatemala)
Volunteers planning their lesson plan for the day