In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.
We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.
I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.
The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.
The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.
I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.
My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.
The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.
It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?