Tag Archives: volunteer

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!


Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.


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Board of Directors

One of the requirements of becoming an official 501c3 non-profit is to have a Board of Directors to guide us toward our vision, as well as help with the practical operating and funding of the organization. We have a group of dedicated volunteers from a variety of backgrounds that have generously volunteered their time to be a part of our Board of Directors.

Meet our BOD here!

On Monday, September 19th, we held our first official BOD meeting. During the meeting, members were voted in, the bylaws were adopted,  our financial decision-making policy was solidified, and the committees were able to give updates. This is an exciting update- it means we are one step closer to getting our 501c3 status from the IRS! We are currently an incorporated California nonprofit, but need the 501c3 status so supporters can make tax-deductible donations directly to us. All of the proper paperwork is now in so it’s just a matter of waiting for waiting for approval from the IRS.

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Meet the summer 2011 volunteers!

Meet the volunteers for the 2011 summer Guatemala trip!

Sunthree Acosta

Summer 2011 Rabinal VolunteerSunthree Acosta is a Chicana educator who teaches Intensive Literacy and Reading Enrichment in South Central Los Angeles, the land saw her grow into a passionate woman.  As a Chicana who grew in Watts, Sunthree overcame many boundaries to earn a Bachelors Degree of Arts in English and Master’s Degree in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.  From her small classroom, she advocates for social justice and educational equity for people of color. She eagerly took the opportunity to travel with Voces y Manos to Guatemala in an effort to gain a personal understanding regarding the indigenous roots of her people.   Although Sunthree arrived in a different country than the land that gave birth to her ancestors, Mexico Querido, this adventure has expanded her knowledge about the indigenous suffering, deculturalization, customs, beliefs, and resistance.  Sunthree expresses that she is forever grateful with the people in Rabinal for opening their homes and hearts, as these actions enable her to learn so much regarding the indigenous struggle for social justice.

Amy Yam

summer volunteer medical student guatemalaAmy Yam’s history with Voces y Manos began in 2008 as an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego.  Her previous volunteer work in Honduras, combined with her interest in health, drew her to classmates Michael Bakal and Jessica Nicholas to form the organization.  Amy’s first experience working in Rabinal with Voces y Manos not only affirmed her desires to stay actively involved in the organization, but also to pursue a career in medicine.  Now as a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she has remained an active member of the Voces y Manos Executive Committee as well as an active participant of the summer volunteer program in Rabinal.  This is Amy’s third time in Rabinal, and she is ecstatic to return to the communities that Voces y Manos serves.


Cynthia Garcia

summer 2011 volunteer teacherCynthia first heard about Voces y Manos two years ago and was immediately interested in volunteering with the project’s youth component.   However, it was not till this summer that she was able to travel to Rabinal, Guatemala with the rest of the Voces y Manos team.  Cynthia is an Indigenous Chicana educator from California, where she grew up in a socio-economically disadvantaged community.   She is not foreign to the rural life and its hardships, she  grew up in a small pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico and has been able to relate and identify with the youth’s experiences in Rabinal.   Cynthia is thrilled and feels blessed to have had the opportunity to  travel to Guatemala  and learn about the history, culture, struggles and the people’s continued resistance against oppressive conditions.  Cynthia has found a home and a family here and is greatful to her host family.    She is inspired by the people of Rabinal to continue her work as an indigenous educator in California.


Josh Hoeger

Josh medical student volunteer guatemalaJosh is a 23 year old, once-and-future student with a penchant for the finer things in life (a bowl of atol de helote and a stick of sugar cane). He joined Voces y Manos in the summer of 2009, and has spent the last two years learning about health in the underserved and marginalized communities of Rabinal. During this time, Josh has been deeply inspired by the Guatemalan health care workers and students with whom Voces y Manos collaborates, and he is dedicated to continuing efforts to improve the quality of life in Rabinal.

Josh is currently applying to medical school and is becoming accustomed to working on applications by candlelight, during Rabinal’s frequent power outages. Despite this being his second Voces y Manos bio (and second summer working in Rabinal), he is still unused to writing in the third person.

Michael Bakal

volunteer educator guatemalaMichael Bakal first travelled to Rabinal in 2007 as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service.  The opportunity to work with and learn from the students, teachers, and staff of Fundación Nueva Esperanza was a transformational experience for him, so much so that inspired him to co-found Voces y Manos with Amy Yam and Jessica Nicholas in 2008 during their senior year at UC San Diego.

Since 2008, Michael has acted as the lead instructor for Voces y Manos’ youth leadership program, and overseen the growth and development of Voces y Manos’ scholarship program.  In 4 years of close collaboration with Fundación Nueva Esperanza, Michael has seen the scholarship grow from a 5-student pilot initiative to a comprehensive scholarship program reaching 33 students.

Outside of his work with Voces y Manos, Michael spent the past two years working as a high school biology teacher at Animo Locke #3 Charter High in Watts, California.  At Locke #3, Michael worked with an inspiring team of social justice educators, and amazing students.  Although it was a difficult personal decision to leave the Locke #3 community, Michael resigned from Locke in 2011 in order to be able to work full time for Voces y Manos.

Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Education and Bilingual teaching certificate from UCLA.  In his free time, Michael enjoys playing basketball and the conga drums.

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Lasting Impacts from Week Two

This is how I knew Maynor Rocael last year:

 guatemala tonsilitis

Our introduction was brief, as Guillermo (the former director of La Fundación Nueva Esperanza) had simply brought him to show us the status of his tonsils.  I remember he was a shy, quiet boy who smiled politely as Guillermo raved about how great of a student he was and how he had been in a great deal of pain for months.  Yet if you were to ask me last year who Maynor was, my description of him would not have extended past his medical condition.  

 This is the Maynor Rocael I know now:

 guatemala youth education

I was thrilled to see Maynor in our classroom on the first day of lessons, beaming as he sat there with the rest of our scholarship students.  Voces y Manos had raised enough funds last year to pay for his surgery, yet I never had the chance to personally follow up with him.  Having the privilege of getting to know Maynor through our youth scholarship program, I can now tell you much more about him than merely what his tonsils looked like.  Over the past two weeks, I have seen how deeply he cares about his culture, his environment, and his classmates.  He is undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic participants in our program.  Building my relationship with him as well as the rest of the students in our program has been by far the highlight of my summer. 

Needless to say, our youth scholarship program has been running fantastically.  After covering the topic of interculturality with the students last week, we moved on to discussing colonization and its effect upon various Indigenous groups in the Americas.  Our most poignant session occurred last Tuesday, when we took a field trip to the local museum dedicated to the victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s at the height of Guatemala’s civil war.  Students personally identified how their community’s history had been shaped by colonization on a cultural, ecological, political and social level.  Moreover, it made a profound impact on all of us volunteers as we saw our students identifying pictures and telling stories of their own family members featured in the museum.  The theme of colonization was followed by an all-day leadership training, where students learned what makes a leader successful and examined how participatory community leadership was exercised in Sipakapa,Guatemala against an invading mining company 6 years ago.  Finally, our week was closed with a traditional Mayan ceremony held at daybreak on the sacred grounds of Kaj’Yuup (located at the top of one of the tallest mountains in Rabinal).  We are excited to finally begin placing these lessons into the context of community projects that students will be conducting this summer.

guatemala youth education museum

Student Mardoquello wanders through the museum dedicated to victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s

Aside from working with the youth, this week was most significant for me in terms of planning our health project.  Each year that Voces y Manos has been in Rabinal, we have worked with local organizations to put on at least one health fair that distributes both curative and preventative health services to communities with limited to no access to health care.  Intending to carry on with this tradition, as Josh had mentioned last week, we were hit hard after learning that Funcafé, our main curative partner organization, had left Rabinal entirely.  Furthermore, the lack of governmental funding allocated to El Centro de Salud (the main health center in Rabinal) has caused resources to become extremely scarce.  Given that our major contacts for coordinating a curative health fair have essentially vanished from the area, and given that other local organizations have taken on a greater role in providing preventative health services for communities in Rabinal, it seems as if a health fair isn’t practical or even feasible for Voces y Manos this year.  This decision was extremely difficult for us to make as an organization, but we must respect the changes that arise in Rabinal and remain dynamic in designing of our health projects in order to best serve the needs of the community.

 At first, letting go of the health fairs affected me on a very personal level.  My identity with Voces y Manos began in 2008 when our major project was essentially only health fairs.  The experience I had that particular summer was extremely inspiring and played a strong part in my decision to pursue medicine.  Yet as Voces y Manos has matured over the past few years, our mission as a health organization has become more centralized around addressing the root causes to medical problems in Guatemala, which ultimately stem from poverty and oppression.  While a project such as health fairs does provide important curative and preventative services to many on the one day of the year it takes place, it ultimately does not make an impact in a broken health care system that people suffer through year-round.  Thus in order to truly impact health within Rabinal, we believe our work should be focused on constructing programs rather than completing projects.  That is to say, Voces y Manos recognizes it is only through sustainable, long-term investments in the community that such health disparities can be overcome. 

Given our decision to not continue with the health fairs, my reflections this week have been consumed by where we, as a health organization, stand within Rabinal to make a meaningful impact.  To start, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what health services are being provided by which organizations.  Josh and I plan to observe as many events as we can this summer to get a first-hand glance of how exactly these projects are being implemented.  We began this process last Wednesday by accompanying a nurse from organization Fundameno as he saw patients from the community of Nimacabaj at the Puesto de Salud (the community health center). We plan to visit more Puestos de Salud with Fundameno later this month, as well as observe Fundameno’s trainings given to health promoters from various communities. 

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Josh Hoerger riding in the back of a pick-up truck after visiting the Puesto de Salud in community Nimacabaj

It is only after we fully understand how health care is being conducted in Rabinal that we can then begin thinking how Voces y Manos could possibly fit into the picture.  Our next step in determining an appropriate health program for our organization to implement will be listening to the concerns and desires of the community.  This summer, we will have the privilege to work with Dr. Linda Walsh, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, who will be leading focus groups to gather these comments in Rabinal from various community members.  I am eager to hear these responses, which will ultimately shape a health program that best suits the needs of the community.

Overall, last week’s critiques and decisions regarding our organization’s mission for community health was extremely invigorating for me as a volunteer.  I feel very fortunate to be a part of a group that is constantly evaluating itself in how it can best support the people with whom it works.  The fact that we are willing to sacrifice projects we may feel very comfortable in executing, such as health fairs, so that we remain flexible towards the ever-changing needs of the community highlights what is truly special about Voces y Manos.  This is my third summer returning to Rabinal, and already I can honestly say that this has been my best experience with Voces y Manos so far.  My reflections and participation in this organization have shown me how much I value working as an activist for community health, which I know will ultimately influence my career as a physician.

 Written by Amy Yam

guatemala youth

Leadership Retreat: Voces y Manos volunteers pictured with current and past participants of the youth scholarship program

guatemala education youth

Volunteer Cynthia Garcia discusses the impact of colonization after showing students video clips from El Norte

guatemala volunteer program
Volunteer Amy Yam steps in to work with students at La Fundación Nueva Esperanza on a landscaping school project

Volunteer Sunthree Acosta leads a dicsussion on the effects of globalization in the Americas
Volunteer Michael Bakal rests with students after a long hike up to Kaj’Yuup
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Scholarship Student Projects!

Our scholarship students are amazing! Guillermo Chen at our partner organization, Fundación Nueva Esperanza, just sent an email update with the final report from two of the scholarship student group’s community health projects- “Improving Community Nutrition in Guachipilin” and “Reforestation in Chiticoy.”

It is impressive. Erlin, Yessica, Yeimy and Vilma worked together to improve access to nutritional food to families in the village of Guachipilin. Gustavo and Reyna planted 500 trees to help reforest the village of Chiticoy.

Check out the Improving Community Nutrition full project report!

Check out the Reforestation full Project report!

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Visit to an Aldea Clinic

Today was a rude awakening for my young naïve aspiring-to-be-a-doctor self.  I’ve been beautifully blessed to have good examples of compassionate doctoring in medical school and more specifically through my involvement in the free clinic.  I guess it was about time that I ran into some of the realities of how health care functions in the world.

The way that it works for the indigenous people who live here in the aldeas of Rabinal is that there are two NGOs which split and canvas the entire region.  Each aldea receives one visit a month from a doctor and their 4 person vaccinating/health educating team.  If there are any health problems between these monthly visits, the patients have to wait out their sicknesses or travel to the Centro de Salud (a 3-4 hour walk to reach Rabinal before the Centro opens at 8 in the morning, only to get a spot to wait for a doctor’s visit).

We, the NGO health workers workers and I, arrived in Las Ventanas after an approximately hour long drive on the not-approximately, but most definitely, gnarliest road that I have ever ridden on.  Outside the cinderblock clinic at the top of a ridge sat 50ish Mayan women in their brightly colored skirts and huipils, their babies slung on their backs and their other children toddling around.  And boy, was I excited to return to clinic.

But I didn’t expect that the first thing the doctor and I would encounter when we entered the door was the community midwife lamenting the loss of an infant in childbirth on Sunday morning.  I didn’t expect the doctor to sit down and talk to the family about the baby’s death without every offering a word of solace.  I didn’t expect her to immediately scold them for not making it to all of their prenatal checkups.  The father said that the reason they didn’t call the community’s emergency committee for a ride to Centro de Salud when things started going wrong with the delivery was that they couldn’t afford to pay the pista for the ride.  And I didn’t expect the doctor to once again scold him for thinking that anyone would be so cold-hearted to not loan him the money to take him to medical care to save his baby.  Least of all, I didn’t expect for her to only ask for the names of any of the family members so that she could write them on the official report finding them at fault for their baby’s death.  Hour One.

Then the physician’s official consults began and I was able to do many things for the first time.  I performed an abdominal exam on a pregnant woman and felt the positioning of her baby, I made my first child cry in a doctor’s office, and I heard my first cases of pneumonic lungs.  I also saw my first (through eighth) cases of child malnutrition.  And it was most interesting what the doctor did in these interactions.

“Escucha” [Listen] she’d say overtly to me.

“¿Cuantos años tiene usted?”  [How old are you?] she would direct to the patient.

“Viente” [20].

“¿Y cuantos hijos tiene?” [And how many children do you have?]


And each time I would get the imploring and incredulous gaze, the gaze which made the mother look down in shame, the gaze which preceded another round of scolding about how each mother should be feeding her baby better.  Often this conversation would be followed by one in which the doctor attempted to cajole the mother into birth control because “No puede llevar otro bebé a este mundo que no puede dar alimentacion” [You can’t bring another baby into this world that you can’t feed].  At this point, the patient’s conservative beliefs, cultural background, and the machismo restrictions of her husband would lead her to refuse and lead both women to end the consultation, shaking their heads in disbelief.

As the day wore on I grew more and more disenchanted and incised with the doctor and her attitude toward the patients she was supposed to be serving with compassion and care.  Why and how can/does someone treat people like this?  Could compassion fatigue cause you to demean your patients?  Could the frustration of having the smallest supply of approximately 10 different drugs in your medicine cabinet make your efforts feel pointless?  Are the days just too long when your 44th patient of the day at 3pm is another malnourished infant?  Is there every a point where personally blaming someone for their consequences of their poverty is an acceptable practice?  I left my day of doctor-shadowing in Guatemala with far more questions than I had entered it with.
I hope that this experience remains a reminder of how high a level of patient care we’re able to offer in the US, even in our little free clinic at UCSD.  May it be a distinctive forewarning against discriminatory medical practice because of a patient’s cultural background.  I pray that the path that I enter as a doctor will never lead me here.  And I wonder as I sit on my thin wire bed in my dirt-floored room, if maybe this is the space I’ve been looking for, the medical niche where I fit, living in rural Guatemala.

~Liz Berryman, first year medical student at UCSD School of Medicine

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Afternoon with Jesus

A Brief Prologue:  This week our team had the privilege of meeting Jesús Tecu, a human rights worker who lived through the state-guided massacres of thousands of poor Mayan Guatemalans in the 1980’s, a period of violence later deemed genocide by the international community.  Jesús has risen as a leader in his community, calling loudly for justice for the massacres in his community of Rio Negro in 1982 and invoking positive change, a role which earned him the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1996.


Jesús met us in the street on his motorcycle after scouring up and down the calles for our five lost gringo souls.  He removed his helmet and turned his baseball cap around to reveal an embroidered silhouette of Che Guevara.  A revolutionary…

As we sat in the quiet midday shade of some giant banana trees, Jesús began to describe how the school that he founded functions today, giving scholarships to Mayan kids from distant aldeas (surb-like villages that are still considered part of Rabinal) so that they have a chance to receive a good education, without the discrimination that they often face in Ladino (those of Spanish-European descent) led schools.  While these children are given equitable education, at the same time they are also taught about human rights and the history of discrimination against their people, so it can never become quite so bad, to the level of genocide, again.

At this point, my compañero Peter asked Jesús how he was still involved in his previous community of Rio Negro, with all of its history, and whether he was still testifying in court against the perpetrators of the massacres.

Jesús replied, a little more withdrawn and his eyes a little less bright, that yes, his times of testifying were done.  He’d testified in many cases against those who had participated in the massacres and he’d walked through the center of Rabinal and had those same people openly threaten his life on Thursday and Sunday market days.  He’d testified so that the mass graves of 177 of his fellow villagers would be exhumed, 70 of them women, 107 of them children and only 3 of them identifiable.  He’d testified so that the man who’d killed his family and kept him as a slave for two years would be prosecuted.  In the end, 3 men were prosecuted for the entire massacre.  Three men from a nearby Mayan village who lived without punishment for many years and who began the cycle of violence because they themselves were forced by the state to kill their own Mayan neighbors.

All that Jesús had recounted was tragic, but the fight had been fought for this specific case, the direct persecutors (at least some of them) prosecuted.  The greatest tragedy of all was what Jesús next described.

“Pero no, no hay justicia en Guatemala.”

For all the exhumations, for all the petty convictions, for all the crimes against humanity, none of the governmental officials who served as the intellectual authors of all these events have ever been convicted or even done anything but scoff at the charges against them.  Most still retain positions of power in the Guatemalan government and deep-seated prejudice still runs rampant throughout the inter-workings of Guatemalan leadership.  For this culture of impunity, Jesús mourns.

I was reminded at this moment in the conversation of something our friend Manuel had said three days prior on a hike through Rabinal’s rolling green hills.

“La ley solamente exista para los pobres.”

[The law only exists for the poor.]

How unfortunately true this statement is.  Manuel was speaking that day directly about officials that campaign illegally and prematurely in the poor pueblos and have already begun painting their signs up around Rabinal.  But he was also speaking to a culture of impunity that scapegoats poor Mayan farmers and leaves those who direct them to violence unscathed and scoffing.  He was speaking to an American culture in which the conviction for possessing crack-cocaine (prevalent in low income communities) is incomparably more severe than the conviction for normal cocaine (the same drug prevalent in high income communities).

It’s insane how far you can travel to find the same laws of human interaction.  And while I can draw parallels between the life I know in the US and that that I’ve found here in Guatemala,  at the same time genocide is alien to any world that I know and understand.

We thanked Jesús for sharing his story with five young foreign students and for the lucha that he keeps fighting and the work that he does and will do with the youth in his community and this was the only moment that he almost cried.  And I with him.  What a blessing we can be to others when we simply share our stories or when we take the time to listen and care.  New worlds can open and maybe we can even catch a glimpse of what revolutionaries look like today.

To continue reading more about the tribunals in Guatemala or the story of Jesús Tecu, check out the article:

Sanford, Victoria. “The ‘grey zone’  of justice: NGOs and the rule of law in postwar Guatemala.” Journal of Human Rights 2.3 (2003): 393-405

~Liz Berryman

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Creating a Water Tank in Ribaco, Purulha, Guatemala

On the morning of December 18, I met with the cocodes, or community leaders, of Ribacó, Purulhá inside the community church for approximately 2.5 hrs.  Ribacó, a remote town of approximately 300 residents, is located about 2 hours drive away from center of Purulhá.  The poor conditions make the commute unimaginably bumpy, but the problem is greater than just discomfort: a few weeks earlier, a woman died shortly after child birth when her emergency vehicle encountered a mud slide that made the road impassable.  Because of its geographical remoteness, Ribacó has little contact with outside organizations, and few of the residents speak Spanish fluently.  The community is close-knit, and the people struck me as extremely hard working and compassionate individuals.  The natural environment is spectacularly beautiful, and a powerful, uncontaminated river flows just a few hundred meters below the center of the village. While in Purulhá, I stayed in the home of Don Jacinto, a community health promoter I had met the year before.  Since Don Jacinto had to travel the day of our meeting, he arranged for me to meet with the rest of the community leaders in his absence.
Although I had never met any of the other community leaders before this day, I was immediately made to feel welcome and honored by the group, which included a staff member from the local Puesto de Salud (health center), a member of the school committee, a comadrona (traditional midwife), and leader of a women’s group pro-mujer.
Mario, the health worker, translated the conversation from Spanish to Pocom’chi.  Mario’s skill as a translator turned a potential limitation into an asset: he would succinctly summarize key points from the group discussion while always ensuring that what he expressed to me reflected the consensus of the rest of the group.  My original intent for the conversation was not to arrive at any concrete decisions, but rather to get a better understanding of the needs and assets of the community. Thus, we discussed a variety of topics including children’s health and nutrition, agriculture, work, and women’s health.  But regardless of which topic we were discussing, the conversation always gravitated back to the same underlying problem: The people in Ribacó can only harvest crops once per year during the rainy season, and the amount of grains and beans they are able to reap barely lasts them the entire year.  By improving agriculture, significant improvements in overall health, nutrition, and quality of life can be achieved.  To make this small-scale agricultural revolution happen, the community leaders were in consensus that what they need more than anything is the construction of a water tank.  This tank would allow them to produce two harvests per year, nearly doubling their agricultural output.
When I asked about the specific details of the project, it became immediately apparent that the idea had been well-formulated, and much discussed among the community leaders.  Mario explained to me that most of their farmlands surround a small hill and lie close to the river.  The water pump would sit on top of the hill amidst the farmland.  One set of pipes would be needed to pump water up to the tank, and another set of smaller tubes would distribute the water to the farms.  Mario explained the project in a way that gave me the sense that this community has hoped for years to build the water tank, that they have the skills and human-power to build it, but that they lack the financial resources necessary to break ground.  I asked, twice, whether they would need the assistance of an engineer or another expert to do the work, and twice I was assured that the community members have the expertise to build it.
We took the time to do estimate the cost and scope of the project: We approximated the cost at 115,000Q, or close to $15,000.  In total, around two-hundred 4’’ pipes would be needed to pump water from the river to the tank, five-hundred 2’’ pipes would be needed for distribution to the various plots, and one-thousand 0.5’’ pipes would be required for local distribution within each plot.  The local government will probably be willing to provide for transportation of these materials, although no formal request has been made.
Even though I went into the conversation simply hoping to get a better feel for the community, I left with the sense that this project really needs to happen.  The community was extremely motivated and passionate about water pump project.  They know exactly how to build it, and they assured me that once the materials for the project arrive, that the 300+ members of the community would work together to build it.  Additionally, there is a good chance that the Guatemalan organization Fundación Solar will be able to power this water pump using solar panels (this is not included in the $15,000 rough estimation).  I told the community leaders that I would confirm with them as soon as possible as to whether or not we will be able to assist with the water pump project.

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The ASECSA Conference

After a 7 hour microbus journey from Rabinal to Chimaltenango, we finally arrived at ASECSA Chimaltenango on Tuesday afternoon.  We dropped our bags off in a dormitory building up the street from the site of the conference and headed out to check out the town of Chimaltengango.

Off the bat, I realized that we weren’t in Rabinal anymore (sorry Todo).  Chimaltenango has a very different feel than Rabinal.  In Rabinal, you greet everyone you walk by with a “Buenos Dias” or “Buenas Tardes.”  I suppose Chimaltenango is a more of an urban setting (as evidenced by the fact that they have multiple traffic lights, whereas Rabinal has none).  Regardless we explored the centro and walked by giggling high schoolers (terecero basico en Guatemala) and chatted with a few locals.  We also met up with Bron and Eric Anders, 2 doctors from San Diego that would be helping us with the planning of the health fairs.  Bron has been heavily involved with the Department of Community Pediatrics at UCSD, and she and her husband have some great perspective on international medical projects.

When we arrived back at the dormitory, we realized that each room held about 14 people in a relatively tight space.  That made for 28 women in close quarters.  Let me clarify, 28 women and one bathroom!  Many of our roommates were health promoters and comadronas (midwives) from different regions of Guatemala, while others were some of the women that we interact with on a regular basis from ASECSA Rabinal.

Wednesday morning at 2am, we were all loudly awoken by conversations going on in the 2 women’s rooms.  Both the power and water were not functioning, and we had all planned on going to a traditional Mayan ceremony at 4am that day.  After getting ready, we walked over to the site of the traditional Mayan initiation ceremony.  We walked through a garden during the dark of early morning and followed the sounds of traditional Marimba music to an opening in the greenery where the ceremony had just begun.  In the center the guías, or spiritual leaders of the ceremony, had arranged a circle of rocks about 5 feet in diameter in which they placed kindling material, lenia (cedar firewood), sugar, bread, corn husks and many other offerings and kindling material.

The purpose of the ceremony was to celebrate 30 years of ASECSA, initiate the ASECSA conference, and ask ancestors for their blessings on this auspicious occasion.  The guías emphasized 3 main topics during the conference.  They emphasized (1) respecting the earth and all of the gifts it provides us with, (2) solidarity and equality amongst all human beings, and (3) praising the ancestors for their continuing guidance and contributions.  The ceremony lasted about 5 hours and ended with some group sharing about the experience.

After the ceremony, we walked through the garden and across the street to the ASECSA Conference.  The first day of the conference gave us a good overview of the history of ASECSA.  We heard from a couple of the main founders of ASECSA, Maria Zuñiga and Armando Cáceres.  They outlined that 2 main needs in the Guatemalan health care system in the 1970’s were (1) low cost medications and (2) training of health promoters.  Over 80% of patients receive primary care from health promoters and comadronas in their homes, and only 20% of patients go to local clinics or doctors for medical care.  From its inception, ASECSA has been training health promoters in the community to provide care for fellow community members.  ASECSA has also concentrated on being conscious of natural resources and traditional Mayan remedies.  The organization incorporates these concepts into the health promoter trainings.  The first day of the conference was a good introduction to the history and objectives of ASECSA.  Later that evening we were treated to a traditional Mayan dance performance and music.

Day 2 of the ASECSA conference started off with a panel discussion about (1) the rights of indigenous women, (2) youth in the community, and (3) the new Mayan Cosmovision.  I especially enjoyed learning about the Mayan Cosmovision which emphasized a unifying energy, unity and synergy, and the concept of dynamic equilibrium.

My favorite part of the whole conference was the afternoon session on Day 2.  The topic was “Health for All: an undeniable right.”  The highlight of the panel discussion was the presence and comments of Nobel Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu.  I read Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography in college in an anthropology class that focused on the struggles of indigenous societies in Latin America.  Menchu’s autobiography details the tragedies, violence, and injustices she, her family, and the Qui’che Mayans faced during the time of the Civil War in Guatemala.  Some other group members have been reading her autobiography on the trip, so we were all very excited to hear her comments.

The panel began with a history of statistics presented by Dr. Rigoberto of OPS.  We learned that there is approximately 1 doctor per 1,000 people in Guatemala.  The Guatemalan government spends 1.2% of the GDP on health care in comparison to 7.5% in Spain.  He emphasized that the worst part of the Guatemalan health care system (similar to problems in the US system) is that people are forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money at the time that they become ill.  He emphasized that the state has an obligation to guarantee the right to health to each citizen.

Next Rigoberta Menchu described many of the issues her Qui’che population face with the current medical care system.  She emphasized the distrust between doctors and the indigenous people due to language barriers, cultural barriers, and racism.  She urged people to fight for their health.  She described a need for a movement fighting for life, for equal access to health care.  She praised ASECSA’s efforts in reaching out to the most distant communities and training health promoters there.

Finally, Maria Zuñiga spoke about the People’s Health Assembly.  She discussed that the main cause of disease and illness is the structure of injustice within a society.  She denounced privatized water, clearly stating that clean, running water should be accessible to all without additional cost.  She also spoke against genetically modified corn, which would harm the businesses of traditional farmers by making them dependent on a commercial product.

Then, the fun part!  We got to ask questions.  Three members of our group asked 10 of the questions that were presented to the panelists.  I asked if the panelists thought that the medical education system needed to change so that doctors and health promoters could develop mutual respect as they worked towards the same goal.  Mike Bakal referenced Menchu’s book and a disconnect between doctors and the attitude of people in the local aldeas here in Rabinal about opinions on health care.  Mike McGuirk asked how the government could separate the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies from providing necessary medications to the population.  We got some interesting responses to our questions from each of the panelists.  They emphasized the importance of having indigenous doctors in the communities and the need for a scholarship program to train such doctors.  They also agreed that doctors and comadronas need to have mutual respect and work together instead of against each other to provide medical care.

After Day 2, we left for a group trip to Lake Atitlan.  The ASECSA conference overall, was a great learning experience.  We will definitely be incorporating some of the ideas we learned into future Voces y Manos plans.


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