So where is the hope in the story of Guatemala? The statistics, especially for the indigenous population, are bleak. In my previous post I outlined some of the headwinds facing Guatemala, especially within the indigenous population and particularly for females. I didn’t even mention the 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996, and the 200,000 deaths due to that war, 93% of which were indigenous people.
How does change happen, how does one ever move the needle to dismantle entrenched systems of inequality, how do people rise up and out of day-to-day survival to a more sustainable life? The obstacles appear insurmountable. And, yet, I had the opportunity to meet a girl pioneer from the Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now Maia Impact) program and her family in their home. I had the opportunity to tour the newly-built school that will begin to welcome students in the classrooms, using the computer and science labs, reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and Charlotte’s Web, among many others, in the library in January of 2019. I witnessed with my own eyes the families, this caravan of hope, walk through the gates of that school after the ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 3, 2018, and I glimpsed a powerful new narrative and a promising future for Guatemala.
The Colegio Impacto/Maia program in Guatemala provides a model for education and economic development that can and should be replicated. Maia Impact School is a school and mentoring program designed for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women. Maia works with young women from low-income, traditionally marginalized communities who have the talent and desire to succeed but lack access to opportunity. The program’s goal is “to create truly meaningful and long-lasting change” through the core fundamentals of community, academics, and culture. Maia believes in empowerment, equality, and opportunity for all. Check out their website – www.maiaimpact.org – for more information. I can’t do justice to the full scope and impact of their work here. But the work is powerful and they have results and success stories to demonstrate that this model works.
One success story I can share is the example of the girl pioneer, Zonia, who I had the good fortune to meet while I was there. Her grandmother is about 75 years old, was never educated, and cannot read or write. Her mother is in her late 40’s and finished only 6th grade. This level of educational attainment is pretty typical in rural Guatemala. They live in a simple home, a short walk down a dirt path through open fields and corn stalks from a secondary road in their village of Chaquijyá, a division of Sololá. This is an agricultural community and it is the 5th poorest in the country, according to data from WeGuatemala as of 2013. In 2013, 34% of people in their community were surviving on $1USD per day. There are no modern amenities or conveniences in the home. Laundry is cleaned on a scrub board outside and hung to dry. A wood fire heats the stove for cooking. The sink is outside, as is the pit toilet. The ceilings are low, maybe 5’5” at the door. Potable water is a limited resource.
Zonia is 20 years old, petit, quiet, and polite. She finished high school at the Colegio Impacto, and is now in her third year of a six-year nursing program. Her family took a chance on this exceptional young girl. Her family made a commitment to her education, and they broke the mold of the way it has always been. They and all the Maia families had to be unbelievably brave. They had to sacrifice in the present on behalf of their child’s future, giving up the child’s short-term earning potential selling goods, their help caring for other children in the family, their help going to the market, making meals, working in the fields. They had to have the courage, in the face of disapproval from their neighbors, their community, and possibly within their own family, to try something different, something new, and something previously untested.
One of the goals of the Maia program is for the girls to be able to earn a middle class wage when they complete their studies and enter the workforce. This would be approximately $3,500USD per year, an 8 to 9 fold increase from typical wages in this region. Zonia is still studying, but she has already been able to help her community by administering medication and triaging sicknesses to prevent or delay travel to a health clinic. Her family, and their broader community, is already reaping the rewards of Zonia’s hard work and her family’s commitment. Her dream is to finish her studies, which currently require her to travel a fair distance from home, and to return to her family and to work in the Sololá community. She has a high school education, is working towards a professional degree, and speaks two languages (Spanish and her native Kachiquel) while having stayed true to her Mayan roots. Her potential, the horizon for her future, is truly infinite…
And now there is a magnificent, modern, new school building in Sololá in which other girls like Zonia will learn and become leaders for their communities and hope for their country.
The concept of the Colegio Impacto having its own building was a dream; the reality was many years in the making. I can’t imagine the hurdles the Maia team had to overcome to pull all the necessary pieces together to make it happen. But happen it did, and watching the Maia team, the students, and the neighbors marvel at the reality of it during the inauguration ceremony was humbling and powerful.
The building is unique in the Sololá landscape. There isn’t much that compares to it in terms of modernity, sophistication, architecture and sheer size in the whole country. The details are extraordinary, with the architecture suggesting the patterns of Mayan textile weaving, and symbolizing the drawing together of the community, the girls’ families, and the program’s allies as well as the past and the future. This building is a beacon of promise, and a vision of hope for what could be.