SEC 2012 - Reflections half way through

Blog entry by Tim Hall from the University of Melbourne.

My name’s Tim, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and I suppose this introduction is a tad late. I’ve been in Guatemala for three weeks already, and have already seen and experienced a great deal. It’s been a busy few weeks, so now seems like a good time for reflection. Three things have struck me about Guatemala:

Firstly, the hospitality of the people. I’ve been lucky enough to stay with two home-stay families so far, one in Xela and one a bit more rural just outside of Antigua. Both families have welcomed me – my student-lifestyle habits, my poor grasp of Spanish, and my endless appetite – with open arms. Both have protected me, cared for me, and entertained me. Elsewhere too, Guatemalans have welcomed me into their homes, thanked me for the work our group is doing, and helped me when I’ve been lost.

I came here on the back of numerous readings about Guatemala’s violence, drug trade, and insecurity. But the facts and figures hide the people who I have so far found to be welcoming, hospitable, and kind.

Secondly, the impact of globalization. Being an anthropology student, the social and cultural aspects of everyday life fascinate me, and I’ve been particularly taken by local adaptations and resistance to global forces. Guatemala seems to be a Central American nexus of global economic, social, crime, and cultural flows; complete with a strong Mayan identity, young political system, and from what I’ve observed, unequal distribution of resources.

Finally, a fatalistic irony seems to run through the veins of Guatemala. From the artwork, to magazines and posters, and talking to people on the street, there seems to be an irony around violence, drugs, and corruption, and the history and future of Guatemala.

As for the program, so far it’s been interesting and engaging. Our work has involved assisting small Guatemalan entrepreneurs sell goods with social value – for example, water purifiers, reading glasses, or solar lighting – so that a social need is met and access is provided, while also fostering business entrepreneurship (and in most cases empowering women through a source of income). There are a number of other benefits to this system, but just as many problems. We can test for and provide reading glasses, sunglasses, and protective eyewear, and some remedies like eye drops, but cannot do anything about serious vision problems. Instead, we provide referrals to low-cost optometrists within the region (costing Q 50, roughly $8). But people still come to us to get tested, as we’re free, and they still believe we can help.

Helping on the long vision test as I was on Saturday was heartbreaking: it’s either let them know they have good vision or that they don’t – and sending them away with a referral that most don’t have the means to follow through on. One of the worst things I saw was a young farmer who was rapidly losing all his vision having his four-year-old son walk him to where we were doing the tests, a half-day walk, us then not being able to help him, and his son having to lead him out. The son was quietly crying and trying to read the referral.

It’s a problem we’ll no doubt do much more thinking about. After all, our purpose here isn’t just to help entrepreneurs, but to help find solutions for the people who need help the most. Any ideas would be welcome!