Before coming to live in Guatemala almost four years ago, I had travelled to various countries like India, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia. I felt I had a strong sense of what poverty looked like, sounded like and smelled like. I didn’t consider myself naïve to the true despair of the abyss of extreme poverty. I thought I saw it close up and personal. Well, I can tell you, I was naïve and I am being schooled about the reality of poverty.
Poverty is an insidious legacy that sucks the very life out of innocent human beings from generation to generation. It is almost impossible to climb out of extreme poverty and if we have any notion that people chose this road or have much opportunity to escape its reach once in its grip, we are uninformed or deluding ourselves. I had also thought every mother wants a better, healthier life, more stable life and an education for her children. Well, I was wrong again.
Consider centuries of oppression with a slave-like existence, without education, (meaning some training in critical and creative thinking), without good nutrition, and living a life under extreme life and death type stress. This seems to have impaired the ability to chose a better road for oneself and one’s children even if you are on the edge of a life-consuming abyss.
Project Somos currently has three mothers with nine children living on the property. Antolin and Nico screen potential family candidates to come and participate in what is being offered here – a safe place to live, nutritious food, capacity building for the mother, education for the children, and vocational training so that the mothers can support their families when they leave Somos. Sounds ideal and you would think there would be a waiting list to live here? Wrong again.
We receive referrals from community leaders and neighbours of mothers and children who are in extreme need and would benefit from what Somos offers. Antolin and Nico go to where they are living, which is usually a shack with no electricity, no plumbing, with a dirt floor. One of the mothers was living with her four children in an animal pen. The severity of their situations is more than sobering.
I will not go into the details of each case, but I will tell you, we have offered 8 abandoned or widowed mothers with children an opportunity to come under the roof of Somos and five rejected the offer and only three have accepted. How is this possible? It is shocking for us –mothers with five or more kids choosing to stay in extreme poverty. I can only offer my perspective, as I am not a trained sociologist or psychologist.
As we know, in our somewhat comfortable lives, fear of change is not uncommon, and so it seems this driving emotional state is not isolated by social or economic position. What we have no experience with or cannot imagine, often makes us fearful and not want to take any risk. But wouldn’t the well-being of your children overcome this fear? Apparently not. In some of the cases, the children said they didn’t want to come to Somos and the mothers followed their children’s lead. Bewildering.
This five to three situation has left us shaking our heads, realizing how much we don’t understand about the harsh conditioning of extreme poverty. We continue to look for widowed and abandoned mothers with children who are willing to take the risk of jumping into the unknown for the benefit of their kids. We are not discouraged, but sobered and trust the right families will find their way to Somos.
Thank you Greg, for your insight to this heart wrenching problem.
These Moms who don’t accept our offer of help, seem unsure, frightened and are staying with the devil they know, it appears.
The fear of the unknown, far outweighing the joy of the promise of Somos. The inability to accept a hand up from strangers, because no one has helped them so far. All seems so foreign to them.
Hopefully the Moms and kids that come through Somos’ gates will show others just what Love and compassion looks like when they leave to live out in the larger community again.
Thank you for you loving work with these families.
I have read about how there is a common program within the psyche of many humans that feels uncomfortable with rising above the status of our family/parents. What this boils down to is that some people, not all, are unable to do better than their parents. The way this plays out is that the person will sabotage their success (generally unconsciously) in order to not make their family or friends feel like they think they are better than them. Anytime they feel themselves pressing against this invisible ceiling, they will do something (or not do something) to make sure they stay within their comfort zone.
I have heard the ladinos in Guatemala say that the indigenous are “conformista” meaning that they are complacent and not willing to do anything to change their lot. I correlate this to the above phenomenon and another, learned helplessness, a term from psychology. Not just humans, but other animals experience learned helplessness.
There is the experiment of the dog that is locked in a cage and electrically shocked. At first she tries to get out until she is conditioned to not try anymore. Then she is put in a cage that is not locked with a clear view of the way out, but will still not try to get out being conditioned to have given up the hope of escaping her predicament.
The same is true of baby elephants that are tied to a stake. When they are fully grown they could easily pull the stake out of the ground or break the thin rope, but they have already been conditioned to accept their predicament without trying anymore.
I have experience these phenomena in my life and seen it in the lives of friends and family. I think if you want to help more people, researching learned helplessness and the ways to overcome it is a good place to start. Much luck and many blessings to you and Project Somos.
Greg Kemp says
The conditioning of poverty is harsh. We take for granted, having a dream, aspiring to greater levels of life and wishing and working for a better life for our kids. Centuries of oppression has dulled the instinct to “yearn for an unknown better”. We have just had another mother with five children, living on the edge of oblivion, pass on the offer to live at Project Somos.
I understand the fear of the unknown, fear of change and staying with what you know, even if it sucks. Nevertheless it is sad what has been done to millions of indigenous Mayans here over the past 500 years. Sadly it is a common global story for first nations peoples.
Please consider that the living conditions that you consider unbearable are part of a tradition and a way of life for some, and may even have advantages that you have not considered. For example, having a cement floor is in any way morally better than having a dirt one. There is something that people gain by being in direct contact with nature. It could be that some people do not want to lose that type of connection with the land… or it could be that, in addition to receiving better living conditions, they are required to undergo medical procedures they don’t agree with. When helping people the first thing to consider is to what degree they wish to be helped; and whether what you consider to be helpful is also what they consider to be helpful. In helping someone we do not have the right to override their personal liberty in defining their own life.
(On the other hand… if they stay “in poverty” someone is going to want to develop the land they are living on; and it would be “in their own best interest” to evacuate themselves into the somos project rather than to go through what everybody else goes through. …. But they don’t know that. And it may be that it is safer to go through something with “everybody else” than to be the poster child of Western aid.)
Re: learned helplessness: It might have some truth to it. I just don’t like he assumption that native people don’t know what’s good for them.
Greg Kemp says
The “living conditions” that you believe may have some advantages are actually extreme disadvantages when you live on the ground and see in first hand. These living conditions are: child malnutrition (50% of children in Guatemala), extreme violence, (15 murders a day), a machismo culture that ignores domestic abuse and femicide, normalization of racism, and rampant governmental corruption. These are not part of any Mayan tradition, never have been, and are all morally repugnant.
Project Somos pays particular attention not to put any northern cultural overlay on what we are doing here and certainly do not judge the plight of our neighbors. As with many conquered peoples, the colonizers have attempted to strip the spiritual and social vitality of the pre-existing culture and unfortunately have had success over the centuries. Most indigenous peoples here have lost their Mayan tradition and adopted some form of Christianity. Most have lost touch with Nature, their spiritual and social Tradition and do not use the natural health protocols. We know this as fact because our foreman is a Kachiquel Maya elder/spiritual guide and this info comes from him and his group of elders, who are are integrated in rural life here.
Project Somos is not a cultural, economic, or social evangelist. We assist those who truly want to shift their situation and never would impose anything on anybody. People are free to come and go and we make no attempt to convince anybody of anything. We respect personal liberty and understand that what we offer is not for everyone and we accept that.
Seeing may be believing – one of our mothers, after being beaten by her alcoholic father, moved out of the family home with her four young children into an animal pen in a field. Her son, 8 years old at the time, went to school and then rode his bike 5km to a thread factory to make $.60 a day to try and support his family. Their diet was tortillas and salt. This was not the dignified life of a Maya family, this is the rotten fruit of colonialism and exploitation of a people who have been oppressed for five centuries. Project Somos does consider this an acceptable “living condition” for anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Another one of our mothers spent months going from door to door of NGO’s and churches seeking help for her impoverished situation. She became so desperate that she went to an orphanage to give over her children because she could no longer care for them. Project Somos offered her a safe place to raise her children, restore their health and offer them a brighter future than an orphanage could offer. We are about family preservation and orphan prevention, not cultural, religious or political conversion.
Does accepting the opportunity with Project Somos teach a mother with children to become helpless? Quite the contrary, it takes courage, initiative and some future vision of a better life for her children. It is empowering and lessens dependency because we assist widows and abandoned mothers to become self -sufficient. We do not assume people don’t know what is good for them, we merely offer mothers with children living in extreme poverty an opportunity to take a different path. A path, no one, in this country has offered them before. Whether they take it or not is up to them.