Posted by: Sanette | July 18, 2010

Part 1: No Entrance in Guatemala

Note: As my internship in Guatemala comes to a close, I would like to use my final blog post to reflect on the Social Entrepreneur Corps program and analyze the work in the field. The post will consist of a background piece and three parts. Thanks for reading!

In short, DukeEngage in Guatemala is not a program for everyone, but I can say without hesitation that I do not regret one minute of my summer. I have traveled internationally in the past, but venturing to a developing country gave me a new perspective and intimate understanding about the culture, universal values and myself. Even though I am young and a woman and worked in a machismo culture, I found that the Guatemalans took me seriously and respected my opinions. Our consulting work was well-received, and our assessments during campaigns were valued.

Practically, I learned how to give up many luxuries that I was used to. I resigned myself to a life of perpetual grunge—wearing four or five shirts on rotation, showering only a few times a week (with a bucket bath, naturally) and accepting sweat as my natural perfume. I also learned to eat whatever I am served or go hungry (eggs, tortillas and frijoles are standard). I can nap on chicken buses, feel comfortable with absolutely no personal space and bounce around from city to city, working all the while. The ever present insects hardly faze me (be it 30 flies crawling on my Nebaj kitchen table during lunch or bedbugs in my sheets). I feel equally awkward in English and Spanish, and the lack of internet is a way of life.

But what I gained back from the people was more valuable than anything I gave up. My homestay families emphasized the importance of community and welcomed me as their daughter, giving me the nicest room in the house and their only set of tupperware for lunch. I grew to appreciate a simpler, slower paced way of life—a nice change from my usual busy schedule. I am more flexible and easygoing because of this trip, and for that, I’m grateful.

The program was a wonderful mix of structure and independence, which allowed us to pursue group projects (such as my team’s feasibility study on diabetes). Over the past eight weeks, I dabbled in volunteer work that ranged from physical labor in direct relief efforts to providing the initial groundwork for budding enterprises. Our work was supplemented by cultural experiences as well. I climbed the ruins of Zaculeu, kayaked in Lake Atitlan, wore the traditional garb of my indigenous Mayan family, cooked boxbole and hitchhiked in the back of a pickup truck.

My Spanish improved, my health deteriorated and my perspective on a multitude of issues will never be the same. This is Guatemala.


During the morning of Tuesday, May 25, I waded through three feet of mud that had settled in the streets of Ciudad Vieja, shovel and bucket in hand. Every shop, school and restaurant was closed. And every resident from ages 5 to 80 was outside, hauling rocks, handing out water and digging feeble paths through the hardening sludge. They had been working for days and would continue for months to come, said Beck Pryor, Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC) field leader of Xela.

Our group of 35 university students and several SEC staffers were some of the only gringo volunteers assisting Ciudad Vieja, one of the many Guatemalan towns affected by the mudslides generated by Tropical Storm Agatha. I had never seen such devastation firsthand before, and though we shoveled and hoed and pitched rocks, the town was still in ruins two hours later when we packed up to leave.

I asked Beck how often major disasters, such as Agatha, occurred.

Maybe every couple of years, she answered, but minor catastrophes like mudslides happened frequently. Because neither Guatemalan nor international media covered such events, residents were left to clean up the mess.

“This kind of news, it’s not Paris Hilton, it’s not Katrina—no es sexy,” Beck said, gesturing to the turbid streets. “It’s sad, but it’s reality.”

An unfortunate truth

My program in Guatemala focused primarily on long-term, developmental work, but our labor in Ciudad Vieja influenced my mindset for the rest of the trip. Over the following weeks, I could not forget Beck’s words. Providing direct relief felt necessary but almost futile—after all, a similar mess would happen again in a few short years, and I wanted to create a sustainable difference.

Additionally, although I recognized the truth in Beck’s claim, my idealized vision of the media hinged on its responsibility to give others a voice. Yet, like she said, I knew that traditional news coverage of natural disasters tended to glamorize catastrophes. According to Philip Brown’s 2008 analysis of natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the media focuses on personal stories and sensational images because reporters seek to showcase the most interesting (and thus most profitable) information.

And as a result, many details and events can slip through the cracks. My work in Guatemala focused primarily on people in rural areas. I met orphans, women with cataracts, the blind, the deaf, diabetics. Sometimes the solution for someone was highly feasible and required only a small investment on an individual’s part, had the products and financial support been available. Yet in each of those personal cases, I was forced to realize that—on the micro level—access was limited.



  1. Thank you, Sanette, for sharing your experience with us!


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