Published on May 16, 2014 | by Sara Ouadnouni

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Volunteering in Guatemala: One Student’s Journey

One day I opened my inbox and there was a message from Noemi, an old friend from Italy and the e-mail said she was in Guatemala volunteering.

Guatemala is located in Central America, just below Mexico and is famous for its coffee, one of the best of the world, for its handcrafts, and for its people [bestplacesin.com]

I knew very little about this country in Central America. So it wasn’t until I was in San Francisco sometime later that I rang Noemi to check if she was still in Guatemala. I loved the prospect of leaving civilization for a while so I organised a one-way ticket to Guatemala city for the following week. I also got in contact with a rehabilitative/educational center near La Verbena, located in Guatemala City’s red zone. They were offering me a free apartment and food for one month. I was nervous since I knew next to nothing about the Country, the government, the politics or the ethnography.

I got to talk to some guys from Costa Rica on my connection flight to Guatemala City, and was told I was completely crazy to go to Guatemala on my own. The Mother Superior of the centre I was going to work with gave me clear directions to wait for her just outside the airport.

Guatemala is recognised as the centre of the Mayan world or the land of eternal spring [Stephen Tapply]

I was shocked as I reached the arrivals gate. No one could get into the terminal for security reasons. There were no ‘Love Actually’ style scenes in front of the arrivals’ doors, everybody looked stressed and were standing behind a barrier with policemen pushing them back. After twenty minutes waiting and a quick chat with another tourist, my car finally came.

Noemi had changed so much. She looked more mature and thoughtful. The nuns looked really happy to see a new face. On my first night I was so tired I had a quick dinner with the group and went straight to bed. The following morning my alarm went off at 7am and I went to meet the kids.

These kids were lucky enough to be at Cepco instead of on the streets selling drugs or forced to menace tourists at knifepoint, just to provide an income for their family. I will never forget those little eyes and smiles saying ‘Hola Seno Sara!’ One child who caught my attention was 4 year-old Shakira, who wasn’t jumping around like the other kids. I instantly realised something was not going right with her. So I had a word with Mariangela, the director and she told me her story. Shakira was born with a cardiac disfunction and went through two operations. On top of this, she had endured a terrible home-life and had to leave to escape her abusive uncle. It is a miracle this lovely girl is still alive and had started to rebuild her confidence at the center.

Sightseeing is one of the many activities tourists can do when visiting the country [journeymart.com]

From that very moment I realised I was involved in a vitally important volunteering project. I went with Mariangela to La Verbena- Zone 7, Guatemala City. Or as it’s known locally as, ‘El basurero’ (the trash).
La Verbena is an example of the harsh reality of people living in a country suffering in silence after a war that finished over 17 years ago. La Verbena is a world apart. Those little streets, full of brothels and bars, old cars billowing black smoke, rubbish everywhere.

After the sun goes down if you’re a woman you shouldn’t walk in La Verbena. I have been told several times I was brave. One day I found myself involved in a shooting right outside my front door. Religious people such as Mariangela, who is originally from Brazil and has been a resident in ‘Guate’ for over 20 years, give up their lives to be devoted to those the children that have been left to suffer from violence and continuous injustice.

My role at Cepco was very hands on. Kids were sick, they had allergies and nutrition problems. So I posted a desperate Facebook status asking all my Doctor friends what could be done. The response was amazing. We got a Norwegian doctor to come and help us out with vaccinations and treating the really sick kids.

Many of the children in Guatemala are diabetic since they subsist on ‘chucherias’ (sweets). Their parents do not correct their habits since the parents are just kids themselves. How can a 17 year-old girl, who got pregnant at 12, teach her 4 year-old not to eat sweets when that’s all she can afford to buy.

Central American culture is deeply rooted in religion, and Christianity. Speaking to Don Peppino, an Italian missionary who founded ‘Casa Maria’, a project that protects women against violence and offers them a basic education, said that religious doctrine can come in the way of the women’s safety at times. The project walks a fine line as it tries to teach the women to practice safe sex, but cannot advocate it publicly as a religious institution. Peppino justified this saying Christianity is never going to send those women back to the street and will always welcome them in their community. However as a volunteer I found this frustrating because the women were unable to get the help they needed without being shamed by their community.

Zunil, a typical local town in Guatemala

I taught a group of middle school boys and girls aged between 12 and 15. All my colleagues warned me about their runaway nature and lack of respect. The first class I taught them was anarchy. Everyone was insulting each other and it wasn’t until I called them out on it that they quieted down and paid attention to me. All they wanted is attention and to be loved.

I started an English class with them throughout the month I was there I would talk openly about sex and drugs to them. I will never forget their expressions when I walked into the room with a banana and a condom for a safe sex demonstration. The class burst out laughing. It wasn’t all laughs sadly. I remember Pablo, the most complicated guy in the class was 13, selling drugs for his uncle and already had a baby girl from a girl who was 15 years old. Abandoned and alone, Pablo looked up to role models like Pablo Escobar.

Whilst volunteering I got to meet an anthropologist working for Interred, a Spanish NGO and travel with her to the most remote areas of Guatemala. Those areas where the police and the army committed genocide towards the Indigenous Communities in 1983, and still needs to be recognised by Guatemala and the rest of the world. Deimy explained me how these people are afraid of white people. The communities that live in the mountains in extreme poverty have nothing. International NGOs are collaborating in order to educate the women, who don’t even speak Spanish, but only Ishil and the other Mayan languages, so that they understand what they’re signing at community meetings.

I feel like I have left a piece of my soul in Guatemala and I know one day I will go back. Hopefully the work of volunteers and NGOs will help the people rebuild their country so that when I return things will be better.

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