Does it REALLY Matter What they Wear?

The participants in all their glory!

The participants in all their glory!

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:

This is what we got to deal with and hopefully does not come back to haunt Project Somos

Cleavage and short shorts were a challenge

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


17 Responses

  1. Pamela Truscott-White says:

    I have been following Somos for many years from afar. Having traveled in Latin America many years ago, I applaud your views. The arrogant, self-centered, entitled attitude of many of our North American youth makes me so sad. They have no idea how shallow and crippled they are.
    Take good care and keep up the good work.

    • Greg Kemp says:

      Hello Pamela,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately the culture has enabled these kid’s entitlement attitude. It seems to be embedded in the society and our familial and formal educational system does not bring this view into balance. We all deserve the basics of life and that is why we are in Guatemala, but entitlement to the luxuries are a negative attitude which does not bring any happiness in the long term.
      You are correct that there is no self-inventory to observe they have a serious and pervasive character dysfunction and thus justify their less than courteous behaviours. My trust that life experience will school our youth, although it will be a very painful awakening and I hope that someone will be there to guide them through it.
      All the Best,

  2. Amelia says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you Greg…If you are in Rome …

    • Jan says:

      It is insensitive and RUDE. I hope the mission is a success and the local people can forgive and not judge all
      To the sponsors and creators LOVE the premise.

  3. Allyson says:

    Wow – what a far-reaching undertaking. When I learned of the volunteer/TV opportunity for Project Somos I imagined a world of benefits, but I guess I really should not be surprised by the bumps in the road, now being negotiated. I am a wee bit dismayed that the “cast” was not more “roots” oriented.
    Nevertheless I know that you and Heather are leading by marvelous example and the outcome will be in its own way perfect.
    I find the blog fascinating Greg.
    Wishing all involved growth and blessings, I am…

    • Greg Kemp says:

      Thanks, it was quite a tedious ride over the course of the filming. I believe the participants did receive some benefits, but only time will tell how it affects their lives, world views and future altruism.

  4. Allyson says:

    PS – It does matter what you wear>>>

    As my son recently posted…
    *I learned something today.
    The saying “Dress for the job you want” does not apply if the job you want is ‘underwear model’.
    It will be some time before I can go back to Target.*

    always good to share a laff

  5. Clark says:

    Thank you, Greg. Something else to consider is that we have strict dress codes on construction sites in the “developed world”. Besides, the sun is much stronger there so it only makes sense to cover up. Congrats on all the progress you have made :)

    • Greg Kemp says:

      We have strict volunteer requirements for our work site – sun screen, hats, gloves, staying hydrated, and sunglasses. Unfortunately the TV participants weren’t really there because they wanted to be, so their appearance in front of the camera because the focus, not their wellbeing. Thanks…

  6. Rene says:

    Well said, Greg! I fully agree and support your views about respecting the host country’s culture and practices.

  7. Greg Kemp says:

    Thanks for your support.

  8. Lois Atkinson (your cousin in Calgary) says:

    What I find most interesting after the second episode is how they are still focused on how it affects them. I was shocked by the clothes situation, nowhere was it stated wow these women do this every week, there was more of a concern over $200 underwear, meanwhile other groups had $40 to feed the group for 3 days. I hope the learning comes, but it is so sad that there was no recognition into what others go through and despite the language a crying meltdown over a tank top must have been shocking to the women of Guatemala who do this every day. Mia saying she’s worked hard for everything she has is funny, cause she’s struggling with the “hard work” that is a daily, lifelong task for the natives

    • Greg Kemp says:

      There’s definitely a different cultural perspective on what is “valuable”. Often when one visits a different culture, what one takes for granted, shifts and becomes valuable.

  9. Sheila says:

    My husband and I lived and worked in Guatemala for more than 2 years, hosting work teams from Canada as we helped build a vocational high school in Guatemala City. We had a few small issues with clothing, but everyone cooperated when we explained the reasons. One of the best ways to get things done is to show respect for the locals by eating their food and following their cultural traditions, and that includes dress.
    Although participating in the project was a surprise to the cast of this show, their constant use of foul language and personal expections was appalling. I hope that this experience helps them to focus on the really important things in life.

    • Greg Kemp says:

      Hola Sheila, thanks for taking the time to respond. It is my hope as well that the cast received some paradigm shifts in their world view. Unfortunately, as global as our communication is, citizens still can be provincial in the knowledge of other cultures and traditions. I suppose, considering Canada is such a multicultural country that I had the delusion that young people are more global in their outlook and behaviour.
      If you come to Guatemala again, please visit us.



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