Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intern Report: Meredith Davis 2005 - 2006

Originally posted October 2006

By Meredith Davis (2005 -2006 Intern)

I spent seven months of the past year living and working in the Pop Atz’iaq Association’s headquarters, located outside of Quetzaltenango in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. I was fortunate to be placed in the women’s program of the organization through the Tatamagouche Centre. Located in rural Nova Scotia, the Tatamagouche Centre promotes social justice through an array of programs, offers training workshops in participatory adult education, and provides a quiet space for individual and group retreats. It has also maintained a vibrant solidarity network between individuals in the Maritimes and in Guatemala since the early years of the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980’s. Part of the Maritimes-Guatemala “Breaking the Silence” program, as it is called, involves sending six CIDA-funded youth interns each year to various partner organizations in Guatemala, after providing them with an in-depth orientation on a variety of current and historical issues in the country and introductory training in participatory development methods and popular education facilitation.

During my time with Pop Atz’iaq I learned much about microcredit, or small loans, distributed to individuals who are typically excluded from the normal banking system due to a lack of collateral. The microcredit movement is generating much buzz among international development practitioners, and I was able to witness how it is touching the lives of fifteen women and their families from villages surrounding the Pop Atz’iaq office. These women are busy managing small businesses that they started or expanded with a loan from the women’s program, managed by Catarina Gomez Ixmata. I would like to share a bit about one of these women, who is perhaps the most inspiring individual I have ever met.

Manuela is the mother of seven, adoptive mother of one, grandmother of four, and a budding entrepreneur. After receiving her loan, totalling around $800 CAN, she built a stone oven and purchased the other necessary materials to open a neighbourhood bakery. She now makes cakes and donuts by the dozen to sell out of the tiny shop that she created in the front of her house and at the local school during break time. Occasionally her family will lend a hand, when they are not studying, working, or taking care of their own children. The income from her business is used to send three of the younger children to school (the eldest to an excellent journalism program in the city), to pay for their school room and board, and to help feed the rest of the very large clan.

My fondest memory of the whole internship occurred in Manuela’s cozy little bakery. I had offered to help with the baking on the day before Christmas Eve since the holiday season is the busiest time of year and the orders for cakes were piling up. However, I’m not sure if my presence was more of help or a nuisance in the end! Within an hour of my arrival, I succeeded in breaking the electric beater -- a very expensive (and thus difficult to replace) piece of machinery -- while trying to cream some very tough butter. I also accidentally dropped an egg yolk into the bowl of whites that we had oh-so-carefully separated to be whipped into frosting. Without the slightest hint of annoyance, Manuela assured me that the machine was old and bound to break any day, then scooped out the yellow intruder and proceeded to whip those egg whites for about half an hour with just a fork and some serious elbow grease until they were as thick as cement.

On that special day, I was able to share my own 96 year-old grandmother’s recipes for icing and sugar cookies (which thrilled her immensely upon report!) and to learn much from Manuela about the art of donut making and cooking with a wood stove. At the end of many hours spent on our feet baking, I was spoiled rotten with a bath in their traditional Mayan sauna, or temazcal. Aside from the giant spider that decided to join me, it was definitely one of the most luxurious treats I have ever experienced. And to top it all off, there was a delicious dinner of sopa y tortillas served around the fire with the whole family.

Throughout the rest of my stay, I would return often to Manuela’s home and bakery. While the sweets were in the oven, I would run outside to play soccer in the yard with her grandchildren. Or I might indulge in a cup of coffee with Manuela or her daughters while discussing life in Guatemala and Canada, and the differences and similarities of being a woman in the two cultures. We would listen to one another’s woes on difficult days, and share much laughter on gladder ones. I witnessed many new chicks and puppies come into the world, and even a beautiful new baby boy near the end of my internship! While saying a very teary goodbye to Manuela on one of my last few days in Guatemala she told me that she had begun to think of me like a family member. I realized I felt exactly the same way. Our relationship had crossed borders, cultures and language and truly represented to me the philosophy of solidarity that the Tatamagouche Centre espouses. I can’t wait to return again to that bakery, filled with the glorious aroma of cakes baking and wood burning, and find myself surrounded by such loving and incredibly kind people.