One of the world’s common denominators is poverty. Every continent, every country has its version of it, from South Sudan and Bangladesh to Brasil and, even here in the U.S. On my recent trip to Ixcán, Guatemala, I started one day’s breakfast with a very poor family.
At 7 AM, Carmen, a 14-year-old daughter in the family guided us to her home. It was a beautifully clear morning which promised to be a very hot day. The heavy dew on the grass and dirt path made the steep sections slippery. The home was simple. Five of us sat on wooden or plastic stools at the home-made kitchen table. The dirt floor was hard packed, rough and uneven, so the stools rocked and lurched if not placed just right.
Matilda, the mother, stood before the open fire pressing and cooking tortillas for the day. Poverty shouted from every corner of the kitchen, even before we heard their story. Then, he appeared, Rosendo. A cute little 5-year-old in a red shirt and white shorts. His dimpled smile lit up the room and made me think, “Maybe poverty isn’t so bad.” He had his favorite toy with him, a small yellow and blue train caboose. The toy was tied to a shoestring so that he could pull it around behind him. On the rough floor, the little car bounced and jumped, rarely finding its wheels beneath it. Rosendo was proud to show us his prized toy and even happier when we joined him in play.
Matilda and her husband have 5 children. Carmen, our guide to this home, also has a quick smile, but she was camera-shy and stayed back, only listening. She has finished the 7th grade, but this year she’s not attending school. She liked school, but wasn’t able to go this year because the family couldn’t afford it. One of her younger siblings was taking his turn at school.
As we ate breakfast, one boiled egg each and some rice and tortillas, we learned about the cost of going to school in this community. To send Carmen to junior high school costs less than $100 per year, including money for tuition, use of the computer center, and supplies. Less than a week before, my wife and I, with 3 other friends, had a nice dinner in Guatemala City. It cost just over $100!
There was a great temptation to dig deep into my pockets to help Carmen go to school, but what about her cousins next door or her friends down the trail. This wasn’t an isolated case. This is the way of poverty. It’s endemic here in the Ixcán. This kind of poverty doesn’t end quickly. These people have lived with it for hundreds of years.
It’s ironic that the way out of poverty is through education, the very thing Carmen can’t get because of her family’s poverty. But slowly, things are changing. More students are staying in school longer. Twenty years ago very few students went beyond 6th grade. Now there are many students in high school and even attending college.
Services like those offered by Enfoque Ixcán add to the collective confidence of these people. They see what’s possible. They have access to eye care, something available only to the “rich” a few short years ago.
With handshakes all around and a few photos, we thanked Matilda, Carmen and Rosendo for sharing their home, their food, and their lives with us. Poverty reared its ugly head that morning in Ixcán, but we were able to experience its personal, human side.
February 29, 2016