A Day of Joy and Poverty

Maria Sajbochol with her kids
and her chuchito basket

Originally uploaded by refay
Today was full of sights, events and people. We traveled by bus several hours to visit two villages outside of Chimaltenango, El Cojobal and Comalapa . It was a day full of extremes: happiness and complete sadness. I saw the poverty these hard working industrious people have to fight every moment of their lives.

It took us two hours to get to the meeting in the morning. We took a bus, walked 45 minutes up along a mountain ridge and then tromped through a maze of cornfields, farm land and dirt paths. Even though we were 45 minutes late, the women were delighted to see us. No gringos had ever come to visit them in their homes and asked questions about their daily lives. They were all very welcoming and excited to talk with us and have their photos taken. They were also glad to see us because the head of the Chimaltenango office of Friendship Bridge brought the checks for their next 6-month loan. The women were quite happy with this day. The atmosphere was charged with good vibes.

One of the things I remember with fondness is how much the women laughed when we invited them to join us on our bicycle adventure. We explained about our trip and they were truly amazed and inspired, and considered joining us, especially if we could get them into the U.S. Everyone had a good fun imagining 24 Mayan women with their traditional highland lives, dress, and children slung on their backs going on a bicycle trip to the bottom of South America. One women told us she saw us on television and that we where famous which added to the group's delight.

Nancy with Petrona
The women are all weave traditional Mayan textiles, mostly huipiles, the blouse they all wear. Their loans are used to buy yarn and the embroidery thread they use to finish their art. The one thing that really bothered me was seeing the babies and how small they all were. Multiple clients explained that it is a community problem, that all the little ones seem a bit sickly. One woman has a theory that they need some vitamin supplements, but nobody really knows what's going on. When I asked the Friendship Bridge loan officer about this she said she had also seen this sickliness in another similar village not too far distant.

After leaving El Cojobal we headed to the other village of the day, Comalapa. Our job for the afternoon was to post updates on two clients already posted on the Kiva website. They both said the loans were a great help because they finally had some working capital and didn't have to scrounge to buy their raw materials. One woman was a weaver who was able to employ 4 other family members and help support the oldest daughter as she pursues her college education. The other woman bought a year's supply of corn husks for her tamale making at the very best price. She will make and sell tamales and this year will make able to turn a good profit because of the low price she got.

This group is very proud that they always keep current on their payments and all have successfully repaid their first loan. The loan is actually made to the group as a whole, not just to the individual women.

This afternoon's meeting was not attended by half the group because some kind of flu was going around and the women were sick. But all sent their payments with someone to represent them.

One husband in his older years came in and sat down and waited his turn to make the payment. He held a cloth over his left eye. Randy and I had a chance to talk with him one on one. The reason for the cloth is very disturbing. He has lost his eye to cancer, the right side of his face is collapsed in and there is a large festering hole in the side of his nose where is sinus once was. He is dying. He went to the meeting because his wife is sick and he is making the payment on schedule, despite their situation. They currently have very little, and of course he is too sick to work He asked for some help. We gave him some little help to get by for a while. It is not enough and he will die soon.

Women at El Cojobal getting their loan
Women at El Cojobal getting their loan
When we got back to Chimaltenango that night, I was too aware of the problems of the poor. I never want to be that poor, old or alone. I watched so many old people walking barefoot around the plaza with no teeth, no shoes, and no money to buy a little food. I finally could not stand seeing the tiny little old barefoot woman watching us at the taco stand. I invited her to have something to eat with us and I ordered and paid for a taco for my new friend.

It was a day of beauty and sadness. I don't really know how to come to terms with the poverty, but I have so much respect for the wonderful women we meet. You can meet the women of El Cojobal and the women of Comalapa on the Kiva site.