February 1, 2003 - Hamilton International Middle School: Our Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: Peace Corps in Guatemala: February 1, 2003 - Hamilton International Middle School: Our Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala

By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, February 01, 2003 - 4:17 pm: Edit Post

Our Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala

Our Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala

Our Peace Corps Volunteer:
The Peace Corps' Coverdell World Wise Schools Program

Hamilton International Middle School has been matched with a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala through the Coverdell World Wise Schools program. Kris Williams serves in the area of Agriculture, Crop Extension, and communicates with us via email.
About Our Volunteer

Kris with her husband ChrisI grew up in Oregon about half an hour southwest of Salem in the country, in between the towns of Monmouth and Dallas. I did an exchange year to Germany my junior year of high school. I went to college at Boston University and studied philosophy, anthropology, and German. After college I worked in Japan as an English teacher at a public high school for 3 years with my husband whom I met in college and who is from Seattle, Chris Oliver. (So I've been to Seattle quite a few times, although I've never lived there). I left Japan in 1999 with the intention of using my savings to buy land and start a permaculture farm, but after a year with no luck finding what I was looking for, I applied to Peace Corps. During the application process I went to Hawaii, reasoning that I should learn something about tropical agriculture if I was going to be in Central or South America (of course I got placed in a temperate area!). I came to Guatemala last year in mid-October, then was placed to Comitancillo, San Marcos, this year at the beginning of February.

ComitancilloComitancillo is both the name of a town and a county. The town has about 2000 people and the county has almost 60,000 people, so it is a largely rural area. We are at 7500 feet above sea level, which means we have cold nights almost all year round, although we only have hard frosts occasionally in December, January, and February. 99% of the people are Mayan, and speak their indigenous language of Mam (there are about 26 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala; Mam is spoken by a large population, but with very varied dialects in different regions). Many people also speak Spanish as a second language, but some, especially the rural women, only speak Mam.

My project goal is to help people grow a larger variety of food to improve their diet. I work with an adult group, a family, and a school. School here is mandatory until the 6th grade, but many students don't make it past the 3rd grade. Many of my 3rd graders were 11 or 12 years old, my 6th graders up to 14 or 15. It's considered a big achievement to graduate middle school, and high school has the same prestige as college with us. Schools are also only in session for half days. It's very interesting, very different.
Our Questions/Her Answers

Do you communicate only in Spanish, or do you speak Mam as well?

Right now I communicate almost entirely in Spanish because I don´t speak Mam yet. I´ve just started classes and can simple things like I have a cat, or it is hot, but I have a ways to go before I can do any real communicating. In the groups I work with, there is always someone that speaks Spanish, so they translate for me when necessary. A lot of times I´ll speak in Spanish with the group, and they´ll speak Spanish to me, but then they discuss things amongst themselves in Mam. I´m really looking forward to being able to at least understand their discussions. So, I can work only in Spanish, but I think I´ll be more effective at my job when I speak Mam.

2. What are you going to grow? What do people eat?

DinnerThe most common vegetables people want to grow are carrots, onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, beets, cilantro, and swiss chard to some extent. People also eat tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers, but those don´t grow well in our climate because of the cold nights. The diet here is based on corn products (tortillas and tamales) accompanied by beans, eggs, and hot chile sauce. Vegetables are often eaten in soups called "caldo" which usually has some meat in it. Meat is usually eaten at lunch with rice or pasta and is the biggest meal of the day. There are also a lot of local greens that grow here almost wild that people eat- verro, a spicy water green, turnip leaves, and some others whose names I don´t know. There´s also an abundance of tropical fruit that comes up from the coast- bananas, pineapple, oranges, watermelon and cantaloupe. Local fruit is peach, apple, apple pear, and prickly pear fruit.

3. What is the school like? How many students go there?

StudentsThe school is 7 concrete block rooms with a small principal´s office, shed, kitchen, and latrines. There are 280 students in the school in grades pre-school to 6th grade. This is heavily weighted towards the lower grades- there were 40 students in third grade versus 17 in 6th grade because a lot of kids drop out after the 3rd or 4th grade. Also, it´s not uncommon for students to get held back, so there are 12 year olds in 3rd grade and 15 year olds in 6th grade (also mixed with younger students that never got held back. Classes start at 8:00 and go to 1:00, with a 15 minute recess and a half hour for the school lunches. Students take turns bringing in firewood to cook the lunches with, and mothers take turns coming in to cook the lunches, but the ingredients are paid for by the government (although teachers and parents work in teams every week to buy the ingredients and plan the menu). Teachers have high school educations and get paid about $240 a month, which is a decent wage for here. There is no money for school supplies, so teachers bring their own markers or chalk, and there are no textbooks- students copy down things in their notebooks. A lot of students work during their vacations, sometimes going far away (7 hours by bus to Guatemala City) and living away from home. The government is trying hard to improve the education system by doing more teacher training and encouraging parents to educate their children, but it´s not easy. One nice thing about the school where I live is that it is bilingual. In the past, often the teachers only spoke Spanish and the students only spoke Mam, so students failed their classes until they picked up Spanish. Now the government is encouraging Mam-speaking teachers, especially in the lower grades, and some subjects are taught in Mam and some in Spanish. This is important because it is overcoming the negative stigma that used to be attatched to speaking an indigenous language and developing pride in Mam.

Do you have your own house?

Kris & Chris' houseI am renting a beautiful house with my husband that has 2 rooms, a kitchen, a latrine but no shower, and a walled-in courtyard. We bathe in the temascal, or chuj, which is the indigenous sauna. It´s a small adobe hut that you heat up by building a fire under rocks. The fire heats up the rocks then goes out; you clear the smoke in, go inside, pour water on the rocks to make steam, then sweat all your dirt away. We also pour cold water on ourselves when we go outside, which is very refreshing, but the locals think we´re crazy- they have warm water inside the chuj that they bathe with. We also have land on our property that we´re planting with gardens, fruit trees, and forestry trees (paying back the firewood that we use in the chuj). We have electricity most of the time, and running water in the form of an outside sink called a pila where we wash hands, dishes, and clothes. But no running water in the kitchen or bathroom. It´s rustic but comfortable, and we love it.

Tell us about a typical day in your life.

Potato washingA typical day for me is not always typical, because I have a different schedule every day, but usually goes something like this: After waking up and breakfasting, I walk 20 or 30 minutes up and down hills to go visit whomever I´m working with, whether it be the school, a family, a group, or the experimental farm. I greet everyone on the road, sometimes stopping to chat with whomever has questions for me (they usually want to know where I´m going and what kind of project I´m working on). When I get to my destination, we look at how our garden is growing, and talk about or do what needs to be done, whether that be weeding, making an organic fertilizer or insecticide, thinning, transplanting, or planting new seeds. At the end, I usually try to find out what they´d like to do or learn the next week. Then I go home and work at home, whether that be the personal necessities of life like doing all my laundry by hand, shopping, cleaning, cooking (although that´s my husband´s department), or something more work-oriented, like planning, making materials, collecting and bagging seeds to sell, or talking with my co-workers in the office to coordinate our schedules. My spare time I use to garden at home, read, listen to music, study Mam, or visit with friends. I´m also learning how to weave from a local woman- Guatemala is famous for it´s hand-woven textiles. I´m usually in bed by 8:00 or 9:00, mostly because it´s dark and cold at night. We have beautiful stars and moons, courtesy of the high altitude and low ambient light. I´m surrounded by beautiful scenery- steep hills patchworked with fields and trees, deep gorges with rivers, clouds lit up by the sun.

Are the people subsistence farmers or do they grow crops to sell as well?

Most farmers here are mostly subsistence farmers, but there are some who sell crops. Often farmers do both. I´ve talked to families who plant all their land in corn and either still need to buy some because they don´t harvest enough to feed their family all year, or that have a little extra and sell it. The other main crops are potato, wheat, beans, peach and apple.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Guatemala



By Ir. A. Hekstra on Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - 3:16 pm: Edit Post

I believe that peace starts with suffcient food, housing and clothing. Sufficient food and income in rural areas of developing nations, means sufficient agricultural production. Sufficient agricultural production, means sustainable management of nutrients in the soils and crops.
Therefore I recommend the use of our software Sustainable Nutrient Management in Agriculture (SNMA) Please visit our website www.snma.nl


Ir A.Hekstra

By Pat Maccarone (c-71-232-72-207.hsd1.ma.comcast.net - on Tuesday, March 20, 2007 - 3:27 pm: Edit Post

I have just returned for a week in Finca Campur. about 1-2 hrs north of Coban. The people there do not Grow nor eat beans. As a nurse, I would like to support the finding of seed to start a village garden for a protein source.They grow corn well and brocolli, and chilis and coffee. The babies eat tortillas and coffee. If any one could give me advice I'd appreciate it greatly. Pat

By Astrid Lopez (cache-ntc-ac07.proxy.aol.com - on Friday, October 05, 2007 - 2:23 pm: Edit Post

well i'm from Guatemala.
and my mom speaks Mam.
i dont but i sure wish i'd learn, maybe i could have learned, but then i came here when i was eight years old..now when i visit i just listen to them discussing thing amongst each other..
but i could still relate to this story.
its true. everything about it is.
it brings back memories of when i was over there
and i wish i were there at this very moment.
i went to school up second grade over there then i came here into third grade.
i would get out at 12 o' clok noon.
My mom had told me about these Temascal things. the "chuj".. but she says that where we are from only pregnant women bathed in them.. she says that it is really really hot..
My great grandma is still alive and i'm so glad. i fell that shes the only one that is keeping our Mayan culture alive. She only speaks Mam and barely any spanish. she wears her huipiles. along with her corte.
well i really enjoyed reading this interview..

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