Equal but different

For outsiders, our village looks poor. Houses made of sticks and leaves, men in clothes with holes on rubber boots, pigs and chickens roaming free, cook fires, only one pipe for the water supply and so on. There is not much money coming around here and it shows. No wonder that there are outside groups eager to help 'the poor Mayan people' with a project involving education, agriculture, or hygiene/healthcare. They come very frequently, they teach and build and invest and San Miguel welcomes them. 

The objective of these projects is to improve the circumstances that the Kek'chi people live in. The outsiders come with the best of intentions, sharing what they have with the less fortunate. And in spite of all the good intentions, most projects fail miserably in the long run. And then there are complaints about the villagers, they are not willing to do free labour or to maintain the project. They do not seem to be grateful enough and they do not put forward the effort that is needed. Why did this project fail?

Many people say that the Mayans are set in their ways. They distrust anything that brings change. And so they maintain, more or less, their own culture. Now please take a look at their way of life and compare. The houses they have built are not fancy, they do not have the latest fashion in furniture and electronics. But they don't have to pay off the loan, the mortgage or the creditcard.  The houses are sufficient in this hot climate, where life is spent outside. If they lose their job, they don't need to go to the soup kitchen or lose their house. 

If they get sick, there is a clinic in the next village that will help them for free. If they have a serious illness, there is the bush doctor, who will not only cure the physical ailment but also the spiritual problem that is causing it. Medicinal plants are growing everywhere and most people know quite a few of them and use them as well. Over all, there are not many sick people. Maybe because the food is natural, for they grow, raise and catch it themselves. Maybe because they get enough exercise, because most of the work is done by hand. Yes, it is a hard life when you have to do your laundry in the river or carry your bags of corn for miles from the farm to your house. However, it has its benefits. You do not have to pay for the sports school.

If you have children, you need some money for the school uniform and books. So you may want a little job or do some work away from home. Good news is, you do not need to hire a baby sitter, since someone in your large family living close to you will take your kids for a little while. No need to worry too much, everyone will keep an eye on your children so they won't get in trouble. There is no need to buy the latest toys, there is a vast amount of other children, river, rocks, trees and animals to play with. And if you have a little baby, it shouldn't impair your freedom of movement. You just wrap the baby in a cloth, wear it on your back and tie it to your forehead. You will keep a nice upright posture, as well. You can hang the baby in the wrap on a tree branch while you are in the river. And why buy baby formula if you can breast feed your baby?

My point is, what is poverty? If you see poverty as a state of having very little money. then San Miguel is poor. If you see poverty as a lack of means of existence, San Miguel is not poor at all, I would even say we are doing quite well here. The people who don't even have a piece of land to grow their own food, raise their animals or cut their building materials are poor by that standard. They have to buy everything to provide for themselves, creating a dependence on their source of income. People of San Miguel, however, are often proud to say that they don't need to buy anything and have to work for no one but themselves.

So, back to the outsiders and their projects that aim to improve the life in the village. Sadly, the improvement is often only in the eye of the improver. The villagers welcome the projects, because something exciting will happen and it gives them an opportunity to make money. Often there is labour involved, so the men can make a few dollars. They don't want to provide free labour since they never asked for the project, and don't see the need for it either. If they don't get paid, the whole project is missing the point according to them. They don't feel their lives need to be improved. And this is the point where the communication between outsiders and villagers goes wrong.

The outsiders try to change life in San Miguel to be more like their own, with money and jobs and comfort and things to buy and information about the world. Their outlook on life is determined by their culture, and they think because they have more money and things that their way of life is better. In spite of all their good intentions, when you think about it, it is rather disrespectful to the villagers. How would you feel if every week some stranger pops up in your life, who tells you that you have to change your way of life and teaches you how to do it?

The way I see it, life in San Miguel is not bad at all. Everyone eats well, there is affordable (or free) education and healthcare, the life style is healthy, people have a safe roof over their head, there is freedom to do and say anything. Of course there is room for improvement, just as there is in the culture of the outsiders. I just wish there would be less outsiders coming here to teach and more outsiders coming here to learn.

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