Weaving, Working and Hiking at 8000 Feet

Faith Lee
Social Development Studies Major, Spanish Minor, 2006

Faith Lee sitting with two Guatemalan children

When I enrolled in Spanish 101 (not an easy feat, as it appeared that everyone else wanted to as well), I knew I wanted to live and work in Latin America. What I never imagined was that I would spend eight months working with Mayan women in rural Guatemala. In December, I wrapped up an internship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency where I worked with an NGO called CAUSE Canada.

CAUSE works in areas that are underserved, two of which are Comitancillo and Todos Santos Cuchumatán in northwest Guatemala. Currently, CAUSE runs the Women’s Integral Empowerment Program (WIEP), which consists of literacy, leadership development and business development/microcredit components. My role was to support the literacy and leadership branches.

This involved a smorgasbord of tasks, including reports, teaching educational games and hiking up hills (occasionally crossing streams) in the hermosa Guatemalan mountains. And there we the tropical storms, outhouses, weaving lessons and getting excited when I understood even one word of Mam, the local Mayan language. Through it all I saw people who was reserved but friendly, and resourceful despite the challenges they faced.

Guatemalan women reading books in classOur participants included teenage girls, grandmothers and everyone in between. Many women had little or no schooling when they were young, but through the literacy program they can develop basic reading, writing and math skills. This is delivered in conjunction with a government program, which they can continue with to obtain their primary education.

We know that education is not only about letters and numbers, but about learning to respect yourself and those around you. The WIEP pursues holistic development and in both the leadership and literacy classes, participants learn about topics related to their own well‐being, as well as that of their families and communities. These topics include health, human rights, family planning, the environment, financial management and self‐esteem.

Guatemalan women working on a project mapOften, the women I met did not recognize their own strengths. Through our work, we hoped to help them understand they were valuable and capable. People also tend to focus on what their community needs rather than their resources. We started community projects in the leadership
program this year, through which we sought to build the capacity of our participants and local leaders. Through activities such as Appreciative Inquiry and community mapping, we tried to help them recognize what they did have and not only what they lacked as they worked to improve their communities.

Being a city girl, I wasn’t sure how I would do in the Guatemalan countryside, but I loved my time there. The experience allowed me to learn about the strengths and struggles of the people there and to participate in different aspects of development work. The WIEP is designed to address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and many other NGOs are work to help meet these goals. I encourage you to continue educating yourself on issues of poverty and social justice, as well as how the choices you make affect people in Canada and around the world.