We set off at 4 AM for our first visit to Concepción Actelá, a small village in the mountains of Alta Verapaz. It took 40 minutes for an all-terrain vehicle to climb the path to the village from the nearest town. We travelled with the staff of World Renew in Guatemala and a staff member of ADIP, a local partner group. There was one passenger seat in the truck, everyone else was bouncing around precariously in the back of the pickup.
We arrived at about 5am and as we got to the village, smoke was rising from every house, women and girls were cooking, men were chopping firewood and walking to work in the fields. Children were bathing with the cool water from barrels at the back of their houses or setting off for school in Santa Catarina de la Tinta, a two hour walk down the mountains. And it was hot. Within a couple of hours I’d find it unbearably hot.
Over several days, every house we visited offered us food and drink, and every bite and every drop was the result of the sort of hard work we are unfamiliar with.
The village is a Q’eqchi village, one of the 26 languages spoken in Guatemala. I quickly became aware of how fundamental it was to have a Q’eqchi speaker working there, my Spanish wasn’t very useful. Our first visit was to Cristobal Coc, an indigenous farmer. As we spoke about life in the village he invited us to drink coffee. He had grown the coffee, it was roasted on a earthenware griddle over an open fire by his wife, ground with a wooden pestle and mortar by his daughter, sweetened with panela, a rustic sugar made from local sugar cane. We ate tortillas made from black corn, and a fried egg from a household hen. Later, as we were special guests, they killed a chicken and made soup for us. Over several days, every house we visited offered us food and drink, and every bite and every drop was the result of the sort of hard work we are unfamiliar with.
The terrain is all steep inclines and the soil is poor and rocky, in many places if you miss a step you can fall 20 metres. The temperature and humidity is so aggressive, it’s physically uncomfortable even to make a short walk. As I ate each bite of food we were offered, I was aware of the generosity and sacrifice it was for them. And I became aware of why many families might find even it attractive to move to a marginal, poor and violent area of one of Guatemala's cities.
The farmers here don’t own the land, they have no security of tenure, they pay rents that have just been doubled. In order to eat they depend on rain for harvests but because of climate change it is increasingly unreliable. There is no running water, no clean water, so there is a lot of water-borne disease like diarrhoea. There is no doctor. Women and babies die in childbirth more often than they should. There is no dental treatment, this causes a lot of suffering. There is a school, but only up to a certain level; secondary school is a two hour walk away, a four-hour round trip.
Family livelihoods depend on supplementing the subsistence farming with income from farm labouring, or work as a security guard; this means that men are often away from the house for months at a time. They are routinely treated badly, as indigenous people; some return from a long trip with little, some with nothing… and some don’t return.
World Renew works in many challenging situations around the globe. As it begins its work in Concepción Actelá, talking with the villagers and figuring out strategies to improve their lives and change their story, I felt moved with compassion for the difficult lives of the Q’eqchi indigenous people there, and moved with admiration for the work of the staff of World Renew and their partners.
Author and photo credit: Sean Hawkey