|Guest blogger Rachel McAuley with her co-leaders and|
NGO coordinators in Guatemala, 2014.
Guest blogger Rachel McAuley is a senior health sciences major at James Madison University. She recently coordinated a service abroad trip to Guatemala.
"To hell with good intentions, this is a theological statement. You will not help anybody with your good intentions. The third largest US export is the US idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world; the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer the economic do-gooders."
Ideally these people define their role as "service." Actually they end up "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment instead to bring home to the people of the US the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen is simply not alive enough to be shared.
Suppose you went to a US ghetto this summer to help the poor "help themselves." People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance around the poor, of your status as a middle class college student on summer assignment. You would be roundly rejected no matter if your skin is white, or black or brown.
I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel to Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do NOT come to help."
-Ivan Illich in "To Hell With Good Intentions" an excerpt from a speech to the conference on inter-american student projects in Cuernavaca Mexico
As volunteers walking through the Mayan village I felt more an alien, like we were shiny new toys on display.
Then 923 happened...923 stoves. 400 blocks of cement. 300,000 less trees. 12 volunteers.
923 reasons how I can prove Ivan Illich wrong.
Shards of glass, nails and various debris spawned the surface of cobble stone streets slanted at a steep incline. Walking through this Mayan village was no match for my Nike sneakers, spandex pants, and clean white cotton t-shirt.
"Un ave" she said pushing an armful of trinkets upon me. "Un ave" once more. I cringed as I watched her walk barefoot on the cobblestone. I felt so blonde, so American, so disgustingly exposed and ugly.
She was old, small and worn. You could see her years in her face, smell it in her breath and feel it on her scaly hands as she touched my arm. "She's old," I thought to myself, reflecting on the age of my own grandparents and their good health. What did she do in life to lead her to beg at such an old age? Why doesn't she bathe? Where is her family and home? Does she have a home? What is the government situation like? It saddened me to learn she was only 55. She looked as if she could have been 70.
On mission trips in the past, I've pitied these people, and remember feeling overwhelmingly sad in their presence. This time however I noticed disparities unfolding before me as we walked deeper into the community. Instead of feeling bad, I felt angered and conjured questions I couldn't solve. Clean water? Education? Access to medical care? Death rate? Diet? Who? What? When? Where?
These were questions I was constantly asking myself and Cameron the head of the ONIL stove foundation. He considered himself a native Guatemalan although he was born in America, and having moved to Guatemala when he was 5 he experienced a time of civil war and government strife in this country. His response to most of my questions about this old women were...simply... "she's a women." Thats it? Cameron mentioned her husband had a 3x better chance of survival. Then laughing he said "and if he's still alive, he's either working for $1.50 a day or drinking away the afternoon."
$1.50 a day.
But it wasn't just this old women. I watched as two little girls played jacks in the street, giggling and chasing each other. The second they caught a glimpse of our group it was as if that moment of childhood was broken and they transformed into begging prodding sales women, asking for 1 quetzal in return for a bracelet. (I stupidly couldn't resist.) It was as if the generational gap didn't exist, as if I was looking into the eyes of an old beggar in these little girls. It seems like this life was all these Mayan women were capable of.
|Juanita, happy with her new stove. |
Photo by Rachel
A women named Juanita proved to me they were capable of so much more.
In Ivan Illich's speech, he talks about how American's often take these trips for themselves, for their own realizations and betterment. Sure, it's hard not to reflect on how much we take for granted in our own lives when having experiences like this. Food, water, clothing, shelter all entities we as Americans have in abundance. However the one thing I had never EVER taken for granted or thought about....my kitchen stove.
The number one killer of Mayan women are their stoves. Over 3 million people in developing countries burn traditional biomass fuels as a source of household energy, with no ventilation to remove the smoke. Mayans have the highest rates of emphysema, bronchitis, asthma and lung cancer which are almost never diagnosed until they are too late. This accounts for the largest number of deaths among Mayan women, and it's hidden amid skewed health data in these hard to reach mountain villages.
Juanita's was the first stove we reconstructed.
An overwhelming amount of dust and debris was emitted into the air as we cleared an area for filtration in Juanita's home. 80 year old Juanita stepped in and helped, not fazed by the surrounding smog. "She's used to is" Francisco said. Us volunteers fled the scene in search of fresh air reprieve. How ignorant of us to leave, as 80 year old Juanita stood unflinching, not bothered by the amount of dust.
For several mornings after the stove building was complete we coughed up a grey phlegm, blew black snot out of our noses and had sore throats and coughs. This was after only a few days of being in this work environment, I can't imagine breathing this air for a lifetime.
We proceeded to build 6 stoves, and donated even more to the ONIL stove foundation. After the completion of Juanita's stove we thanked her for her hospitality and turned to proceed to the next home.
"Wait we aren't done yet!" Cameron yelled.
He handed Juanita a thick black marker.
"Tu puedes escribirlo" You can write it! He said.
Slowly, meticulously, in big black thick bold letters Juanita wrote...#.....9.....2......3. Signifying her stove being the 923rd built.
923 healthier lives.
923 less trees.
Did we make an impact?
The problems that are rooted in the Mayan culture are not a quick fix, but that's the ambiguity in the term "make an impact." No one in this world, whether your a college student on a week, or a 6 month long trip has the ability to change the world around. Surely we can paint schools, or build homes and fences that will last a lifetime, but in my opinion the largest impact we can make must be something SUSTAINABLE. It's not us that's going to make a change immediately but rather instill our knowledge to perhaps better the lives of these Mayan women and their community for future generations. We showed Juanita the importance of the filtration system we drilled into her tin roof, encouraged her to spread to word on ONIL stoves to her friends and opened her eyes to the harmful effects these stoves had on her health.
Education is KEY.
Here's what I have to say to YOU Ivan Illich:, we were not "imposing" our American ways, we were not trying to change the way these communities functioned or persuade them to change thousands of years of practice. We were instilling something much more useful. I can communicate with these people fluently, and have studied their culture and way of life. Personally there is something about global health, about that old woman and child begger, about the black phlegm in my lungs, about Juanita's hospitality that captivates me and inspires me to share what I know to try and create a change. Sure there are problems in America just like this, but the magnitude of governmental injustice to these Mayan women and indigenous tribes as a whole made our nation seem sickeningly privileged. Change isn't going to come by reconstructing years of governmental strife, but rather through small individual action.
On this trip we built a fence around a Mayan playground, planted over 2,000 trees, however above all this stove project taught me profound impact something like education can have on these communities. Passion for change extends beyond just a "do gooder" mentality Ivan Illich. Besides, what's wrong with wanting to do good? Perhaps if more people recognized this passion, inside and out of the US, the world would be just a little bit more of a better place.
You have to learn to crawl before you run.
The power in 923, the power in one...can be immense.
"Everything you do in life is insignificant. But it's very important that you do it." -Ghandi