The World Health Organization has statistical profiles for every country in the world, but we’re missing something from these dry numbers. We are missing real stories- the pains and illnesses of everyday life that do not end up on a mortality distribution curve, and the people who fight every one of those days against the structural systems that produce and maintain these inequalities.
How did I end up in Guatemala interning and conducting research at an NGO? That is also another story. For the past four summers, I have worked at Open Windows Foundation, a learning center and library for children in San Miguel Dueñas, translating and recording treatments during a dental service trip led by my mother. With every summer visiting Guatemala, I fell more in love with its fascinating culture, heartbreaking history, breathtaking landscapes and warm people. Every time I visited Guatemala, it became harder and harder to watch the volcanoes disappear into the clouds as the airplane rose to the sky. This summer, I decided to stay at Open Windows and work there as a Buffet SIGP intern, and never have I felt more happy or fulfilled than when I am teaching English, tutoring math, working with visiting volunteer groups or interviewing women for my research project on diabetes in San Miguel Dueñas.
While I would have loved to travel to a new country, or go on an NU study abroad trip this summer, it has been another experience entirely to fully immerse myself in the quotidian life of Guatemala, and conduct an independent research project, by myself.
As I was conducting outside research for my project on diabetes, I happened upon the WHO statistical profile for Guatemala and scrolled down to the list of the top 10 causes of death in 2012 (it has yet to be updated). The first one on the list was lower respiratory infections, causing 12% of deaths in the country. Instantly, I remembered her. She was an older woman, her skin toughened by long days in the strong sun, and deep wrinkles that hardened her face. She wore a traditional huipil and skirt, a hand-woven colorfully embroidered garment, a symbol of her Mayan heritage. I remembered the smoke, and how it filled the room from the open fire and my eyes watered and burned from that black smoke. But then I also remembered my new friends, a group of Canadians who came to Guatemala to fund and build safer stoves for these women, and how, even though some of them could not actually build the stoves, they made themselves useful by folding clothes and washing dishes during our visits. I remembered the women’s gratitude, as I helped translated for them and the foreigners. And, with some satisfaction, I can say that at least the women and their families will breath easier now, and as a bridge between these two groups, I helped facilitate this change.
The second leading cause of death in Guatemala was interpersonal violence, causing 11.5% of deaths in the country. For most of my life, I grew up sheltered from the reality that is Guatemala. I saw the worn faces, the stooped backs, the dirt and the bare feet, but I did not understand that sort of life, could not comprehend it having grown up as I did in the U.S. I watched the news- the latest political corruption scandal, the murder of a man in a town I had never heard of, a rally protesting the upcoming presidential elections. I saw the poverty, and the violence and insecurity, with the rose-tinted glasses of someone who had never experienced any of those things before.
One day, I walked into Open Windows and knew something was wrong. There were no children reading books in the library or discussing their math homework by the white board. One of my friends, a teacher there, had red-rimmed eyes and was dressed in black. She told me that her uncle, the brother of the director of Open Windows, and a running candidate for mayor in San Miguel Dueñas, was murdered the previous night. I had never met this man, but I had seen his face all over the town in political banners and flyers for the past several weeks. I was so sorry for their loss, and furthermore, I was frightened. How could someone be capable of such a crime? Had I seen this person, riding their bicycle past me as I helped repaint the windows outside? The violence that I had always been warned about and heard about from afar was suddenly too close, too close to the people that I had grown to care about, and too close to me. That night, I selfishly wondered about what I would do if it were not safe to continue my internship and research in San Miguel Dueñas, and was kept up that night by shadows in the dark. The next day, the staff of Open Windows opened their doors to the line of children waiting outside, their bright, curious eyes bringing life back into the center as they opened their backpacks and looked around the library for a new book to read, and the director, one of the strongest women I know, dressed in black, bravely continued on that day supporting and enriching children’s lives. A week later, life seemed to have gone back to normal, and I then learned another lesson. To give up in the face of violence, or to give in to bitterness and hate, is to allow these horrible things to continue. By opening up the learning center and teaching the children, these women and men are fighting against the structural systems that enable violence and prevent peace.
Clearly, there is much to do in this country. However, nowhere have I met such caring individuals from Guatemala and abroad who are making a difference in their native, or adopted, communities.