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Reflection by Matthew Volta
Chitepey, Guatemala—September 2012: The path we take…
In the high valley, corn—twice as tall as any I have ever seen in eastern Washington—stalks the steep hillsides in a tightly planted phalanx surrounding the remote village community of Chitepey. The tasseled ears are a month away from harvest. As we walk through the fields, the sound of rain on the corn’s broad leaves is a meditation like none I have ever heard. There would be many lessons for me in Guatemala--what corn means to a family is only one. Everything you see tells you something, tells the story of the land, the people, the challenges of poverty and marginalization.
Snaking the fields are slippery pathways, up and down with hand-hoed stairs in red clay and brown soil, usually wide enough for single-file procession from our base at the village schoolhouse to the homes of families where we install stoves. These stoves are externally-vented, which will reduce the risk of acute respiratory infection common here in infants and young children.
At five years-old, Lydia is one such child; no different, and yet so different from many other kids her age. She is bare-footed, full of vibrant energy, curious, playful; she is shy, yet eager to interact with the strangers. She is one of two girls in a family of five children, and our team has time to play games that make the kids laugh and jump around. The children are remarkable and their smiles (as they tell me their names over and over again so I remember and pronounce them correctly) leap from their faces and explode in my heart like bright and colorful roman candles.
As it does for most of the children in the community, Lydia’s education will end after sixth grade. I wonder what would have happened if my schooling, which has been so rich and diverse, ended at sixth grade. How do you channel your innate ability and drive for learning at that age? Where does it go?
There are no cars, no money for bus fare in this family to take kids to the secondary school--nor the health clinic--as they are both about an hour away. How will the possibilities of Lydia’s young life unfold? Yet, how much of what I think about is rooted in my own preconceptions (what I want and believe should happen for Lydia) and the tacit privilege that I take for granted?
In Lydia’s home, there are two beds. The stove we installed is heating up. It will lower the health hazards of smoke and soot, burn less wood than an open fire in the kitchen, and just as important, reduce the amount of firewood needed. Another lesson: Just because you are in the rain forest does not mean that wood is an abundant resource. Land is needed to plant corn—the fundamental staple upon which a family depends for survival. Besides the corn, the family may plant some beans, a few coffee bushes, but not trees. The fruit-bearing trees we do see seem to be random, solitary. Another lesson: You do not cut down a tree that provides food. However, on these steep slopes, where rain cascades in torrents at times, the hillsides lack the benefits of many trees, whose roots would help to keep the threat of mudslides at bay.
Lydia’s mother forms a tortilla from masa ground on a sloped stone. This is how she feeds her family. It doesn’t take but a moment to see the bigger picture, although the full and desperate impact of this realization comes much later for me: There is no electricity, no running water…. I look around but cannot find food beyond the corn being boiled to make masa. There is no pantry hiding dry and canned goods, no refrigerated or frozen foods, no cache secreted away for hard times.
Besides the masa, I see just a handful of plastic utensils and plates for a family of seven; a small jar of oil for the cook top, a few pots. It is not quaint, not some romantic ideal of a simpler life that one may choose or wish for. It is poverty. The question of nutrition is secondary to hunger. Malnutrition is a critical problem that plagues children in these communities. While the government supplies the village with fortified porridge that the kids receive each day at school, it is unclear how this is anything but treading water in the middle of a wide sea.
What happens to a family if the corn crop is poor? Some families have chickens, but in the end, a chicken a day or week to feed a family of seven is not sustainable. The plain truth is that sufficient food is not the only issue. The barriers confronting Lydia’s community are complex, ranging from economic and political systems and structures that perpetuate marginalization and isolation, to truncated opportunities that perpetuate the lack of basic infrastructure (for instance, building a road that doesn’t get washed out), and to severely limited access to healthcare, education, and the basic goods of the earth. Overcoming these barriers, in the vocabulary of Catholic Social Teaching, would respect and uphold fundamental rights tied directly to the dignity of the human person. Moreover, it would recognize the absolute and intrinsic value of life, of every child like Lyida, every member of the community.
The stoves are an important component in the strategic plan of our partner, Medical Teams International, and are a driver of transformation to address high rates of pediatric respiratory infection in a region where young child mortality ranks 32nd in the world, where 14,000 children under age five die each year, and where 48% of children suffer from moderate to severe “stunting” from malnutrition (UNICEF). Following the “hopes and aspirations” of our Sisters of Providence, the work that our own Providence Health International is doing and will continue to do in Guatemala is the kind of work to which our pioneering Foundresses committed the energy and passion of their lives.
I see Lydia a few more times before we leave the community. She is there when the whole community, which has turned out to thank us and bless us, sings us safely on our way home. They talk about the stoves and how far we have come to do this work, telling us although we are different, we come from one God. My final memory of Chitepey is of Lydia, running along a small ridge as our bus pulls away, calling my name, “Mateo, Mateo, Mateo,” and me calling back, “Lydia, Lydia, Lydia.” This is the moment I remember, far away and home in Seattle, which causes me to cry through the confusion of joy and sadness, beauty and terror that this experience has broken open in me.
And so, when asked to write something brief about my experience and how it has helped me as a Mission leader, I find no easy response. This service trip, so deeply resonant with our Mission as people of Providence, does not lend itself to a condensed message, but overflows and resists every attempt to distill a key lesson that can be passed on or catalogued. It is not a question of “having the experience but missing the meaning” (T.S. Eliot), but of a disruption, or a meaning that continues to arrive, unfold and multiply, like the many unanswered questions that were raised in our team’s evening reflection time and sharing. The unexpected truth for me is that this experience defies integration in the way to which I am accustomed, yet it carries the weight of an obligation, a responsibility. Integration in this sense forces me out into the opening of a new awareness, fundamentally dis-integrating and reshaping my understanding of community, human dignity, poverty, vulnerability, hope, generosity, and charity…
The path we take rises and falls before us beyond our control. Through cornfields in Guatemala, or to love, friendship, career, family, the path is never a straight line; there are many turns, returns and detours in a journey where the end is simultaneously known yet hidden from us. Often on faith, we wind our way in life through the beauty and terror of so many endings and beginnings—openings to the deeper meaning of our own humanity which are abrupt, painful, quiet, joyful: the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, a first kiss, a sacred calling, successes and failures. These are events that wake us up, throw us back into ourselves, and ask us who we are. Isn’t this what it means to be called? To be woken up by a voice in the night of your everyday, called by your name?
A profound waking moment for me was having my name called by a little girl named Lydia.
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