My first day at the Universidad del Valle – Altiplano in Guatemala was an interesting one for sure.
The students are mostly males between the ages of 14 and 17 who are completing high school and/or two years of technical training in agro-forestry or eco-tourism. They come from all over Sololá (one of the poorest areas of Guatemala) and most receive scholarships to attend.
As I was walking back to the cafeteria, I was stopped by a bold boy of about 17. He noticed that I was the newest gringa on campus and wanted some help with translating words in English.
"Okay," I thought, "I’m happy to oblige."
His first question was, "What is the difference between ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’?" (In Spanish, only ‘libertad’ is used.)
I thought that was a pretty existential question to be asking someone just after lunch. Being a trained political scientist/philosopher, I tried to answer the question diplomatically.
Satisfied with (or more confused by) my response, he then asked, "And, what is the difference between ‘fight’ and ‘struggle’?" (‘Lucha’ for both in Spanish.)
Were these trick questions?
It occurred to me that this young boy on scholarship from Chimaltenango to attend one of the best universities in Guatemala probably knows more about the difference between these words than I do.
By: Amy Finnegan
I arrived in Guatemala five weeks ago to work with a technical training school and gain some experience in the field. I have been tremendously impressed by Universidad del Valle – Altiplano’s agricultural research programs and community outreach projects.
UVG has an expansive campus at the pinnacle of Sololá on what was a military base during the civil war. Now, it has been converted to an agricultural trade school and adult education university with open education and community outreach programs.
The first thing that impressed me was the state-of-the-art greenhouse used for growing tomatoes in the best of best practices. More impressive than this, though, was the greenhouse next door – the second best practice example – where they showed me how, with the proper techniques, my tomatoes could still attain the quality of the first example. But, this still wasn’t affordable for most people. Then, tucked behind the first two examples was the third, and most awesome, greenhouse. In this one, I was shown how to get best-in-show peppers to grow with less than best-in-show housing. The eventual plan of the university is to open a store to sell all of the produce and demonstrate the growing methodologies to the community.
The second stop on my tour was the flower garden. Here, the university had brought in different seed varieties from departments outside of Sololá to see if they would grow in the Sololá climate and soil. The theory is that if other flower varieties will grow in Sololá, farmers can differentiate what is sold in the market and raise incomes. The university is taking the risk so that subsistence farmers don’t have to.
Last on the tour was the most impressive garden in the world. Nutritionists, agriculturalists and various other experts have worked out the calorie count necessary for a family of five to live for one year. That calorie count has been converted to plants which are being tested out in two 12 ft by 6 ft rectangular plots. The plants are being irrigated only with rainwater and grown organically. Guatemala is approaching a food crisis and this is one experiment that hopes to address that. Start up costs are about $400.
My role at UVG, aside from being continually impressed by their programs, is to work with the newly developed Certification in Best Practices for Business Management to provide a summative evaluation and the infrastructure for an impact evaluation. The highlight so far was when the business teacher, while demonstrating how important it is to read the business section of the paper, held up a Prensa Libre (Guatemala’s second leading news daily), explained to the class that they could get one for free at any Pollo Campero (Guatemala’s version of KFC), and proceeded to rip the business section out, fold it up and put it in his pocket.
My other project is to work with a Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance certified coffee association to survey the market for direct trade in Guatemala to Westerners. I hang out on coffee farms, talk to tourists and yesterday I even roasted my own beans.
My final project is global public health oriented. I am working with a public health clinic to see if they can properly diagnose and treat parasites and amoebas that are living in my digestive tract… Field research at its finest.
On Saturday morning, I was driving on a well-travelled road outside of Nairobi to Naivasha, a play ground for Nairobians looking to get out of town for the weekend. It’s where you go for walking safaris with giraffes, camping, and hanging out on the lake. We were four adults and four kids–all four sitting in the back, having fun and looking out the back window.
About five minutes outside of Naivasha town, on the highway, our jeep was banged into by a massive lorry (truck) that was free wheeling down the hill. As we swerved off the road to the ditch, we hit a smaller truck which rolled out of view. In a state of shock, we panicked as we noticed that another white lorry was heading directly our way. By some miracle, he missed us. My first impulse when we turned was to check on the kids. Save some glass in the face and arms, they were ok. A lesson for parents out there: Car seats matter!! The baby was fast asleep in his car seat and only opened his eyes to our screaming.
A crowd of around fifty people from town gathered to help us out of the car and attend to the screaming kids. Standing around in a state of shock, we were just trying to figure out what to do with the child who ended up with some cuts. How would we get to the hospital. As we pondered this question.. a scene out of a freak movie occurred. A blue truck lost control of his vehicle and swerved directly into the crowd, right where we were standing. Another miracle occurred, all of us ran out of the way. But we were the only lucky ones. I witnessed several people run in the wrong direction and we were soon surrounded by death and injury. By my best estimation, 5-10 must have died on the spot. My most vivid memory is of a man with his head split open, being carried away to safety.
The gentlemen who offered us a ride to the hospital were freaked out and shoved us into the car to get away from the “black spot”. We got to the hospital only to find that it was empty… no doctors, no nurses, just plenty of waiting patients. We were lucky enough to have our guardian angels drive us back to Nairobi for medical care, but there were far too many who wouldn’t get that chance.
As we drove past the scene of the accident, I was in shock. Our jeep was finished, it was truly bizarre that we all got away scott free. About forty minutes had passed and there was no sign of any police (despite the fact that the station was a mere fifteen minutes away, and the accident had been reported both in-person and by phone). I had no idea how any injured person would get to the empty hospital. By matatu (bus)? The same matatus whose reckless driving is one of the leading cause of death in Kenya?
I also wonder about all of us, my closest friends and kids who I couldn’t love more if they were my family. If any of us incurred a head injury, we’d have to drive two hours to the nearest facility with equipment to treat us. Only three hospitals in Kenya are equipped to deal with head trauma. And the whole country only has 5000 registered doctors. But you can only be treated if you can get there in time and if they are there.
I think about how I spent my entire life in the Developing World, Pakistan, China, Oman … and am so blessed I never had to experience that. Even with all my privilege, what would I do if I were caught in a similar situation, away from a hospital?
Pakistani law states that accident cases can only be taken to Jinnah Hospital.. So in a city of over 20 million people, only one hospital is authorized to treat trauma.
Driving past the scene, I was reminded of how privileged and lucky I am. The question is, what do we do with this privilege we’ve been given? I have never thought much about health issues in the developing world, that is until I took Karen Grepin’s Health Econ class. But to live out the findings of endless reports on healthcare and doctor abesenteeism felt surreal.
I am still in shock from the whole experience and also a bit loopy from the muscle relaxants for my whip lash! But I know that this experience has changed me and refocused my energies on the issues that are so important in development.