Have You Felt Hunger?

Have you felt hunger? I am not referring to I am starving because I forgot to eat breakfast, and craving something like warm apple pie and  ice cream.

“Have you ever lacked the money or resources to provide yourself & family meals? Your body is malnourished & dehydrated. Basic staples, like rice or corn, are a luxury, & needs rationing. Even if you were provided the appropriate ingredients, do you have clean water to prepare your meals? Would you know how to cook zucchini, or chard, for example?”

A special farm in Guatemala addresses these issues. There many people in underdeveloped countries that do not have the knowledge or resources for basic necessities to sustain life. 

Mayan Eco Homestead, is an NGO, a non-profit government organization. This group teaches sustainable “seed to plate” farming skills to malnourished locals, the Mayans.

Guatemala is the 4th highest chronically malnourished country in the world & the highest in Latin American. Hard to believe when you look at the locals who may have pudgy round bodies. Most survive on mainly corn, are nutritionally void, & lack basic resources including sanitized water to survive. Children do not have the energy to focus on school when their bodies are broken down.

Let me give you a little context of where this farm is located…a village up in the hills of San Jose Chacaya, the western highlands of Guatemala. In my opinion…the middle of nowhere!

I was staying in the resort town of Panajachel (often termed as Pana) along beautiful Lago Atitlan. I was originally planning to catch 2 chicken buses, a couple towns away, which I estimate to be a 2 hour commute each way. In Guatemala, chicken buses are the oldest yellow school buses that the USA does not want or deem safe anymore, painted psychedelic colors. You can bring live chickens “hence the name”, crates of eggs, & just about anything else.

My Spanish tutor was supposed to accompany me, & even he, as a local, laughed when I showed him my vague instructions.

Follow the houses with agriculture, up the hill, by the big boulders to the small dirt road on the left, go past the gate until you find the second gate on your left,& then the smaller gate on the right

We were supposed to get lost together, but he ditched me.

There are no house numbers or street addresses. I am confident that I would have gotten lost, if I had attempted the journey alone. Thankfully, I did not need to.

I was relieved when Mayan Eco Homestead’s co-founders, Greg & Lucy Jensen (husband & wife), accompanied by Colin, a board member, picked me up in their air-conditioned van. Even they, stay in town on the weekends, as the commute can be cumbersome.

They are Americans, who consciously removed themselves from the rat race, uprooting their children to live in a 3rd world country. Many conclude what a crazy idea to leave the “American dream,” but I applaud their courage, and truly believe that their vision is a both a gift and opportunity. They are privileged to experience a world & culture far away from what we know, nourish their spirits, while servicing others in need.

It was probably a 40-minute drive with traffic, but it passes quickly due to picturesque landscape. My eyes gazed at the topography, a gorgeous winding hill with volcanos and the sparkling lake as the backdrop. My mouth dropped & stomach churned witnessing how people drive. The narrow roads only allow for one way driving despite cars going in both directions.

Now, what are does the farm actually do to help the indigenous people?

Educate Mayans on how to farm & produce food for their families.

The program starts with a home visit and orientation:

Does the family really want to do this, are they committed, do they qualify, do they understand they will be working? Meticulous record taken occurs including information on the family’s background, education, living conditions including how they wash their clothes, what they eat. The data will eventually be used when EcoHomestead evolves into a larger foundation that encompasses many projects.

The curriculum is 10 hours broken into five 2-hour classes. It is hands on; the Mayans learn by working on the existing farm. They discover the various stages of growth, learn when/how to water, and cut the plants to ensure there is re-harvest for future crops.

The students usually consist of women that arrive in groups. At most, these females may only have Grade 2 education, and this setting provides support for them to flourish. Often they come with their babies strapped to their backs & hunch over the soil. Older children are welcome to play on the fields and in the forest while their mother is learning.

The classes usually take place in the afternoon as they find it best suits Mayan’s schedule. Normally, a wife cooks for their husbands in the morning before they depart for work allowing freedom later in the day.

It has been a learning experience for the co-founders…with trial & error tweaking the program.

The last session includes a cooking class. This component was added when the founders discovered that the locals did not know what to do with their crops. Mayans usually do not each fresh produce. When it is available, they may only use it sparsely, and/or overcook it. The older generation were hesitant to try raw vegetables. The concept of a salad was unusual for them, yet their children were openly excited about it.

They used Juan, a local farmer, as their initial guinea pig. He is now the manager of the project, & trusted face to the attendees. It makes more sense for a fellow Guatemalan than a westerner to lead& inspire residents to participate in the farming program.

After graduation, each family receives a complete box installed in their garden, with compost that is collected from the local hills, vegetable seeds, & a wire fence to prevent animals from munching on the vegetation.

There are monthly follow-ups to ensure the family continues planting and the garden survives.

Fast facts (over the last year):

  • Graduates: 38 families
  • Garden Boxes installed: Of the 45 installed, all 45 are functioning (100%)
  • 2 hour classes taught: 52
  • Follow up Visits: 102
  • People Directly impacted by this garden program: 254
  • Number of visitors to Mayan Eco Homestead: 133 (including ME)
  • Volunteers: 46
  • Volunteer hours: 1,160

Originally, there was another family in partnership with the project, but they have moved on to other travelling adventures. They were more ambitious with their vision. Greg & Lucy with their 4 boys have been working on this for over a year. I liked their conservative philosophy. Focus on the project at hand, “sustainable gardening for Mayans,” and slowly implement improvements over a longer duration when it makes sense. Their resources and budget are limited. They nixed purchasing a cow when their partners made arrangements. They sold the lambs that were over-grazing on the hill. The lambs’ clear cutting may lead to mudslides when the tropical rain season hits. They removed the chickens, but kept the rabbits since their waste is used as worm compost. Future plans: a retaining wall & greenhouse for vegetables to grow throughout the year.

They built a composting toilet that eliminates black water for the caretaker couple who lives full time on the farm. It may sound odd that the couple needed to a washroom tutorial. We, in the developing country, take indoor plumbing for granted.  Their waste will compost into manure for trees. I was relieved that it would not be used as manure for the vegetable garden. I was fascinated by the mechanical intricacies, and surprised how clean, odorless, & civilized this composting toilet was.

What can you do to help?

Mayan EcoHomestead offers weekly all-inclusive volun-tourism programs for $800 US plus flight. The package includes 3-star safe accommodations with WIFI in town, transportation to the farm, & food/water. $250 of the registration fee is donated directly to the project. EcoHomestead will make all the arrangements. Arrive Saturday, Sunday is free chill time, followed by 4 full days, Monday to Thursday, of rolling up your sleeves & playing with dirt. Friday is a fun activity day of touring that includes zip lining from the high hills overlooking beautiful Lake Atilan.

Eventually they want to build a big dorm or possibly small cabins for volunteers to stay on the 2-acre property instead of commuting them back & forth to town.

The ideal volunteer expedition team size is 8 to 12 people, but they have accommodated various numbers. They have catered the program to the age & the keenness of the group. For example, a dental association were excited to cut, move, and build the planks for the planter boxes whereas a mother with her young kids could not manage the labour intensive work. Instead, they can focus on seedlings.

Even if you cannot directly help, consider being a donor.  The organization can provide tax receipts by putting one in touch with another Canadian organization that will re-allocate the funds to the farm. I was meticulous in asking questions about finances.

What I love about this NGO is that it is not a handout. They are educating and empowering Mayans to become self-sufficient.

The farm employing locals and they teach some of the classes. Not only are they helping local families, but they are also installing garden boxes at elementary schools & an elderly feeding program.

One thing I have heard & seen while visiting underdeveloped countries is that there is no hope. Only survival instincts take fold; it is a vicious cycle of poverty.

There can be a amazing domino effect when one sees their neighbours thriving. It allows one to think beyond their existing circumstances, that there are possibilities/hope, if one combines dreams, a little bit of luck/support, and strategy.

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