Next month will mark my one year anniversary of living in Guatemala! I am able to be here thanks to a Christianson grant from the InterExchange foundation. This grant has been like a bridge for me, providing support in a pivotal time and allowing me to transition from an idealistic youth to an effective and experienced employee.
In the summer of 2010, I finished a six month volunteer period with Semilla Nueva. The experience was eye opening, to say the least—a crash course in the world of development. Even though six months may seem lengthy, I felt as though I had only dabbled. As I flew home, I lacked closure. I had left at a key time for both myself and the NGO. I believed in the model, the philosophy of the organization, and the potential of the projects, and I wanted to continue to participate and contribute.
As is usually the case in circumstances like these, however, funds were an issue. Thus, I began scouring the web, and searching through my personal networks to find a means of support. A stroke of luck occurred when a close friend from my hometown clued me in to the Christianson grant (he had been a recipient in 2010, for work in the Guatemalan highlands). It seemed like a perfect fit, so I began the electronic application process.
That September, thanks to the InterExchange foundation, I was able to pick up where I had left off. Building from our previous experience and the relationships formed in early 2010, the projects have been picking up momentum. I have been working with local community leaders to bring together small groups of farmers. These groups are made up of friends, neighbors, and community members who are all interested in learning alternatives to the conventional and intensive method of farming. My role is as an extensionist, providing essential technical assistance for sustainable agriculture practices like no-till, agroforestry, and green manures—ways farmers can greatly increase their income while rebuilding their soils. The participants have been receptive, embracing the opportunity to educate themselves, experiment with these new growing techniques, and share the results with their community. Currently I am representing Semilla Nueva for groups of farmers in six communities. The impacts of the work could influence the growing methods of over 600 families that live in the project areas. I have also been responsible for managing the small teams of foreign volunteers that come to help Semilla Nueva. It has been wonderful to help lead volunteers who are in similar places to where I was the year before.
However, more than the role I play is the opportunity it provides to be immersed in a different country—to live with people and see from their perspective, revealing the simple truths that bring us all together.
When the tsunami hit Japan, I was on the southern coast of Guatemala, working with a group near Tulate. The message reached us rapidly. Rumors started flying about a 400 meter wave, that the Earth’s axis was off, and that el fin de mundo had come. In reality, the ocean would likely hiccup, nothing more. Even so, that night you could feel a tension in the air, and the wind refused to rest. “Ya va a pasar en el aire,” said Hugo, a member of the family I was staying with, “It’s going to happen in the air”. A sudden gust of wind blew sparks from the fire which scattered in the air. I looked up nervously at the palm thatch roof. Thunder rumbled. As the first drops of rain hit the ground the large family acted in unison, as if on cue, gathering the baby chicks inside, pulling out kerosene lanterns and candles and flashlights, running soaking out in the darkness to tie or cover or stow something away. The first crack of thunder felt like it was right on top of us, bringing with it a strong, hot wind that rustled the house loudly. We huddled in silence, in the main room, as the rain began to pound. Grace, one of the younger sisters, was degraning corn anxiously —the candle flickered out— and she asked me if I was afraid of the dark. I had to admit that, at that exact moment, I was. Humbled by the storm, we shared the darkness and the silence and comforted in each others presence. It dawned on me that, in the end, we are all the inhabitants of this world, and we share it like we were sharing the room. The storm passed as quickly as it had come.
Living a different way has helped me see my own life with more clarity. I see people living simply and happily. It is a harsh reality that the livelihoods of most rural farmers are fragile and unsure, but people don’t seem to worry. I have been consistently amazed at the will, resilience, and humor of Guatemalan people; their perspective is truly unique.
As it happens, my work with Semilla Nueva will continue past the end of my grant period in June, as I take on the full-time role of Field Director. It is certain that this opportunity would’ve remained at a distance without the support of the Christianson grant. What’s more, the effect reaches beyond the benefits I have received. By supporting my presence here, the InterExchange foundation has also supported an important and innovative non-profit and the sustainable agriculture work it does. The most valuable resource we have for realizing change —what gives it life— is the will and inspiration of the people involved. But, as they say in Guatemala, a hungry tummy does not ponder revolution, only the empty plate. The support provided to me by the Christianson grant has given me the freedom to work uninhibited, to focus, and ultimately, to ensure a sustainable future for our grassroots organization and those it serves.