I have to confess, when I saw the nine participants step off the bus on that first day of The Project – Guatemala, I seriously revisited the decision to participate in the show. I clearly understood before it would be a lot of work as Project Manager – dealing with 9 self-centred 20-somethings, keeping an ambitious construction schedule with inexperienced, and perhaps unwilling volunteer labourers, but I underestimated the wear and tear it would take on me with my other responsibilities.
One of my ongoing and important tasks is to develop and maintain positive relations with the local community of Chivarabal. This is a rural village, in the central highlands of Guatemala where 900 indigenous Maya live. They are culturally conservative, not particularly worldly and are very aware of everything we do as “gringos”. There is no internet and few have travelled outside of the state in which they reside. My work to establish ongoing good relations with the mayor, council and the four churches is a creative social challenge, for sure.
In the first episode, I am sure you saw the charged conversation between Nina, Nikki, Mia, and Bethany complaining (like spoiled children) about being “told” what to wear while working. The instructions were fairly simple and reasonable for a worksite – no cleavage and no short shorts. These “volunteers” were working with my guys – 14 young Maya men, who never have had much exposure to gringa women except for our previous volunteers, who always abided by the work dress code. Nina’s response to the repeated requests was “I’m not Guatemalan, what does it matter?” The others chimed in, “No one is going to tell me what to wear”, etc., etc. Let me explain how it matters:
We are guests in Guatemala, even though we are offering some form of social assistance to their country and culture, we are still guests. We are not here to spread or impose our culture here. The local Kaqchikel Maya culture deserves our respect and if our dress or behaviour offends their culture, we should either change them or go home. Maya women are very modest in their attire, they are covered from the neck down to the toes. In the global overview, this modesty is not unusual – consider India or any Muslim country.
If the local Village of Chivarabal believes we are a negative influence on their village and children, the work and children of Project Somos could be shut out and shunned, which would be disastrous. Abiding by the cultural rules is a small price to pay for being able to offer orphaned children a future. It is not our place to culturally flaunt anything, but rather, be sensitive, appreciative and curious about the prevailing culture we find ourselves in. It is important to be humble and not believe we “got it right” or have the answers.
We have worked on the ground in this village everyday for the past three years, and there was no way as a Board member, the Co-Founder of Project Somos or the Project Manager that I would allow all of our past work, and future benefits for the orphaned kids here to be jeopardized by a small group of camera focused 20-somethings, who felt they were entitled to express their narcissism. The Guatemala countryside is not the place to force fashion lessons on the local inhabitants, but perhaps a place to be open to learn a life lesson from their culture.
-Greg Kemp, Project Manager