How are you doing ? On our side, we are really excited! 🙂 Thanks to the advice of Brooke, one of my colleagues who lived in Guatemala, we left with my sister Marine and my brother Quentin for new adventures with the NGO Los Amigos de Santa Cruz located on the shores of the Atitlan Lake in Guatemala.
Although we had our sanitary pass, we weren’t relaxed at customs when one of the Guatemalan inspectors went 3 times to verify it. After a first night in the capital, Jorge – taxi driver and a close friend of the NGO came to pick us up and we headed to Lake Atitlan. Barely an hour after our departure, we discovered a first common point between French and Guatemalan people: the strike. Blocked for 4 hours in the middle of the highway, sellers of ice cream and tortillas appeared out of nowhere. The driver of the truck in front of us even started selling his melons before taking a good nap, lying down on his cargo. 🙂
#The Atitlan lake and its multiple « Pueblos »
In order to access the village of Santa Cruz (2000 inhabitants), we ended our boat trip by taking a “lancha” – ensuring the shuttles between the villages around the lake. We were stunned by the beauty of Lake Atitlan located at 1600m altitude and bordered by 3 volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro. For hundreds of years, dozens of villages of Mayan origin have developed along the water’s edge. Every morning, we have a magnificent view of the lake and its volcanoes. A little corner of paradise ! 🙂
To give you an overview, we left one morning around 4:30 am equipped with flashlights and a young guide who took us to the heights of the village through the steep paths used by farmers to cultivate their fields or collect wood. .
#Los Amigos de Santa Cruz
After several weeks of discussions ahead of the trip, we got to know Jessie – the director of the NGO Los Amigos de Santa Cruz who introduced us to the teams and showed us around. The welcome was very warm and the teams are extremely attentive. For example, not being able to find a SIM card in the village, one of the directors bent over backwards to find us one from her sister.
For 20 years, their mission has been to improve the lives of the indigenous people of Santa Cruz and the surrounding villages through education and financial independence. Los Amigos does not want to do charity. They seek to develop skills and self-confidence so that their participants improve their own livelihoods and their community in the long term. As such, we quickly noticed that almost all of the staff were locals, including many former beneficiaries who in turn wanted to give back to the community.
Knowing that access to education is the key to lasting change, they adopted not only a holistic approach ranging from reading aid programs, scholarships to university, vocational training programs but also numerous programs to support women in launching their businesses and asserting their rights within the community. Estella, the director of the “Women Empowerment” program, explained to us that the role of women is essential in their mission. In general, a woman in Santa Cruz will reinvest 100% of her salary in the family home (education, food and clothing) while a man will contribute between 10% and 30% on average.
#The sad reality of Covid
The closure of the borders during the covid had a dramatic impact on the village of Santa Cruz, whose economy depends largely on tourism. Many hotels, restaurants, organized tours… have had to close their doors. More than 50% of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, that is to say a thousand people, lost their jobs. The food stores sat empty for several months. The price of certain products having increased by 50%, the poorest families found themselves in a situation of famine. While jogging with Alex and Jake, two friends of the NGO, we noticed that some tourist trails looked brand new. They explained to us that in order to face this unprecedented crisis, Los Amigos had suspended most of their programs in order to put in place emergency initiatives. They were thus able to ensure that families had food, create emergency jobs, support health centers and carry out prevention campaigns. They have created more than 600 temporary jobs linked to 34 initiatives of general interest (renovation of trails, waste collection, upgrading of schools to disabled standards, etc.). On the issue of the vaccine, it is free, but residents have so little confidence in the government that most do not want to hear about it.
The average salary in the country is € 324 per month and it drops to around € 130 (1200 Quetzales) for the poorest families in Santa Cruz. So far, we have not encountered any beggars. Everyone works, including many children. Some men in search of work during covid find themselves clearing land at high altitudes or lowering huge sacks of wood for miles. For ten hours of work, they were paid about € 6.5 (60 Quetzales).
#One Day One Meeting: Herminia – President of the Ruk’U’X Keem Women’s Association
Before leaving we have been introduced to Herminia – the President of a cooperative of women working in textiles. In Guatemala, it is not uncommon for a husband to forbid his wife to work outside the home. In addition, many single women with dependent children must find opportunities that allow them to generate income while looking after their children. This is why Herminia started one of the oldest cooperatives in her village. 37 women can thus generate a satisfactory income while working from home.
By associating, members pool their production and take turns to ensure the sale of their product. By selling to an intermediary, they can expect to receive 15% of the selling price, while by working with the cooperative, they receive 85% of the latter. The remaining 15% is used to pay store rent and running expenses. Herminia explained to us that to join her cooperative, you have to respect 3 rules: be hardworking, be punctual and speak a minimum of Spanish. All decisions are made under a democratic model where the president, secretary and treasurer are elected by the members. If at the end of the year there is money left over – dividends are shared among all participants. The model is fair and sustainable!
Before leaving, Herminia offered to meet her mother and her children. Very smiling, welcoming and well-dressed, we were surprised by the simplicity of her house, made up of a few concrete walls, corrugated iron for the roof and furniture placed on the floor. Without complaint, she explained to us how difficult the covid period had been because it had been necessary to last several months with only a few bags of corn.
#Maximon for Latinos and San Simon for Spaniards
This weekend, we went for a walk in the village of Santiago located on the other side of Lake. There, we had an unlikely meeting with Maximon – a deity revered throughout the region at the crossroads between Mayan, Spanish and Catholic cultures. Every year, the human-sized effigy is received by a resident of the village, so it is impossible to have a precise address. Two policemen gently escorted us through the narrow little alleys to visit Maximon. Flowers, candles and incense smoke accompanied the offerings. We notably saw a young man on his knees offering a vial of Vodka which was emptied into the mouth of the deity. Improbable! 🙂
Absolutely brilliant first week with los amigos. More info next week! 🙂
Have a great week,
Quentin, Marine and Romain
How are you doing ? On our side, the weeks go by quickly. We joined the Los Amigos de Santa Cruz teams two weeks ago already. Sarah having arrived on Wednesday to strengthen the teams, we now have various projects underway that will have to be delivered before we leave! Let’s start with a little overview of our missions.
#Our mission – from data collection to analysis
One of the point in common among my six adventures with NGOs is their growing need to have a more in-depth knowledge of their beneficiaries and the performance of their programs in order to measure the impact of their organization. As such, the collection of data as well as the analysis of the latter has become a critical issue for most non-profit organizations.
Alex, one of our contacts at los Amigos explained to us that the NGO had invested in the development of a software called Medida in which it is possible to record all the information relating to their beneficiaries as well as the follow-up of their programs. Each staff has access to information relating to beneficiaries such as their contact details, their family situation, household income, the number of brothers and sisters, etc. as well as program monitoring data such as their participation rate, their exam scores, the amount of scholarships allocated …
As volunteers, our mission is to help them improve their data collection and impact measurement processes. For example, within their “Women Empowerment” program where they support women in launching their businesses, it would be very interesting to measure over time the evolution of the financial contribution of these women entrepreneurs in relation to their total household income, changes in the budget allocated to children’s education or to what extent the Amigos program has an impact on gender equality within the household.
With Quentin, we are working on the “Women Empowerment” and “Formal Education” programs in order to identify the data to be collected upstream, to set up a digital data collection process and then to familiarize the teams with the creation of impact reports automatically generated via Medida. Our meetings sometimes take on fun turns when Spanish, French, Kaqchiquel and English are mixed. For their part, Marine and Sarah give English lessons every afternoon to different groups of young people in the village. At the same time, we are also working on a signage project aimed at promoting tourism in Santa Cruz and its surroundings.
#Life in the villages around Santa Cruz
The place of women in the community: the community operates on a still very patriarchal model. Men are expected to work and women are expected to stay at home to look after the children and cook. As the education of women is unfortunately not the norm, this considerably limits the participation of women in decision-making within the village and the family, their financial independence … while it is often they who contribute the most to household income. Tomasa, one of the leaders of the Women Empowerment program, told us that she was one of the exceptions because her father was in favor of her studying and had given her financial assistance. She told us about a promising initiative launched by two Argentines bringing together 37 women. Through early morning swimming lessons, they have created a space where these women feel safe. Discussion topics on their rights, their role within the community, etc. are thus discussed.
Jealousy: one of the most difficult “challenges” for an NGO with a strong involvement in a community to overcome is dealing with the jealousy of neighbors. Indeed, when a program works and benefits certain members of the village, the jealousy of the neighbors can quickly be felt and disrupt the dynamics of the village. For example, Tomasa explained to us that she had accompanied a group of 7 women from a neighboring village in the development of an organic egg business involving more than a hundred hens.
With an above-average income, some neighbors began by stealing chickens and throwing stones at this group of women. Los Amigos finally had to close this profitable activity. The secret: to have a strong integration within the village in order to sensitize its inhabitants.
Corruption: Corruption is unfortunately omnipresent in Guatemala. Numerous demonstrations are currently taking place. One of the latest demands: the disappearance of $ 80M in international aid linked to Covid-19. Among the villages around Lake Atitlan, the village of Santa Cruz is unfortunately no exception. He has lagged behind on education and economic development issues. As the level of education has always been very low, local elected officials often themselves have gone to school very little. In addition, small projects that can have a strong impact within the village (renovation of roads, education, promotion of local culture, etc.) are often neglected in favor of more profitable projects such as luxury hotels on which it is easier to take a “cut” in the pocket.
#The unforgettable volcanic eruptions of El Fuego volcano
This weekend will be etched in our memories for the rest of our lives. We set off to explore the Acatenango (4000m) and Fuego (3800m) Volcanoes located in the vicinity of Antigua. As the temperatures can go down to negative, we had to rent some equipment before leaving.
Accompanied by Luis – our local guide, we started with a 4 hour trek to Acatenango base camp located in front of the Fuego Volcano. Once there, we were completely in the clouds… Bad luck… However, a guide told us about the local saying: “Todo es posible, nada es seguro”. A little disappointed, we had settled down to sleep until a thunderclap sounded accompanied by screams of excitement. The clouds were gone, revealing a magnificent explosion of lava coming out of the Fuego which began to flow along the volcano. It was wonderful ! At the stroke of 11 p.m., the guide in charge cleared a night approach to the Fuego in order to explore the eruption more closely. With Quentin and the guide, the 3 of us went to the front for 4 hours of additional trek to descend part of the Acatenango and climb the Fuego to a mountain ridge serving as an observatory located a few hundred meters from the Fuego crater.
Arriving around 1:30 am in total darkness, we huddled in a hollow sheltered from the freezing wind, waiting for another thunderclap.
Each lava explosion revealed the insane power of this natural phenomenon. Here is a little preview:
#One Day One Meeting: Guillermo and Lola from San Juan la Laguna
Unable to accommodate us at her home in San Juan, Herminia kindly offered to go and sleep with the locals, what are known locally as the posadas. We were thus received by Guillermo and Lola, a couple of Herminia’s friends. Guillermo was keen to share with us his Mayan culture over a good meal accompanied by their traditional tortillas.
I was especially marked by their son who was a Spanish teacher. The Covid-19 period was very difficult for many professors who did not want to let their students down. For many weeks, he had to go door to door to drop off lessons for his students. Whenever he could, he also made extensive use of new technologies. For example, he used Youtube videos a lot to explain concepts of distance learning courses. On the Los Amigos side, they mainly used group calls on Whatsapp to continue their reading assistance program. For families participating in the program and having a smartphone, Los Amigos offered to fund internet subscription cards.
This year again, an exceptional adventure alongside an incredible NGO!
We hope you are all well,
Have a beautiful day,
Marine, Sarah, Quentin and Romain
How are you doing ? Marine and Quentin returned to Paris end of the week while Sarah and I extended a few more days until the delivery of our various deliverables to the NGO Los Amigos de Santa Cruz. This week again, great news to share. 🙂
#The challenges of our mission
In order to better understand the challenges of the NGO los Amigos, Estella, the director of the Women Empowerment program, suggested that we take a pick-up to meet different groups of women entrepreneurs living in remote communities where no tourists venture.
Our meeting with Ruth particularly marked me. She received us in her Kombucha workshop, a natural energy drink. While having her baby wrapped in a tight sheet around his neck, you could tell he was a hard worker. To succeed, it only needed a helping hand with a little equipment and training. By emphasizing entrepreneurship among women, Los Amigos knows very well that this is a major lever for promoting the economic development of the household as well as improving gender equity.
As for our mission to improve their impact measurement process, we had 3 main objectives: 1) Definition of a roadmap of impact KPIs to be measured 2) Implementation of a data collection process and creation of automated impact reports 3) Training of teams in the use of the software. Even though we have reached the first stage of the project with the setting up of the pilot projects, it will still take months to implement within all the programs. The common denominator between my different assignments over the years is the teams’ initial reluctance to change. For this to work, I understood that it was necessary very quickly to integrate the field teams into the discussions, so that they could share their opinions and above all, that they could perceive the benefits of the software. Nowadays, the question related whether it makes sense to implement a program monitoring software within NGOs is no longer one.
#Experiences within the community of Santa Cruz:
Every morning at sunrise, we saw the few fishermen from Santa Cruz leaving in their Cayuco (canoes).
With Quentin and Sarah, we were overwhelmed with the desire to meet them in order to discover their daily lives. Very kindly, Claudia from the NGO los Amigos helped us organize a fishing trip with 3 of the last 25 fishermen in the village. This is how I got on the canoe of Juan, a fisherman from father to son who introduced me to his fishing techniques.
From several hundreds a few years ago, only few fishermen remain in the sector as they were among the first to witness the pollution of the lake. As many locals got into the habit of dumping their trash into the lake, bacteria grew and it significantly affected the size and number of the fish. Juan explained to me that by selling his fish 4 Quetzales per kilo (€ 0.4), many fishermen found themselves forced to change jobs. The next day, a little tipsy Juan recognized me and hugged me at the village fair. It was very funny because on my side, it took a while before I recognized him! 🙂
In the evening, Claudia invited us to her family to cook the fish and the crabs caught early in the morning. We spent the whole evening with her mother and sister who taught us how to cook good crab soup prepared over a wood fire.
Although Claudia’s mother and sister spoke Kaqchikel (local dialect), we had a lot of laughs when it came to making the traditional tortillas. With a masterful hand, they were able to make 3-4 when we only manage to make a ridiculous ball of dough. This family dinner was authentic. We had an excellent evening !
#A difficult subject: emigration
In France, we talk a lot about immigration with people who come to our territory. In Guatemala, the opposite is true, where many young people leave the country to try their luck in the United States. During our posada in San Juan, Guillermo explained to us that this phenomenon even accelerated during the Covid period when it was almost impossible to find a job. For $ 10,000, many illicit networks and cartels offer to cross the border without any guarantee of success.
Some go so far as to load the migrants with bags to pass the drugs through the tunnels. Others have their passports confiscated before being forcibly hired by a cartel. During our dinner with Claudia, we felt a deep sadness when she spoke of the situation of her brother having emigrated to the United States to work in construction. As an illegal resident, no date of return to Guatemala was foreseen to date …
#The importance of confronting other cultures: the inspiratinoal story of Rosalia
If one day you cross paths with Rosalia – one of the two program directors at los Amigos you will not forget her. She is bursting with energy from morning to night. Passionate about discovering new cultures, Rosalia explained to us how her travels had changed her life. When she was little, she befriended a family of Norwegian descent who knew her dream: to live abroad. One day, the latter offered to spend two months with them in Norway. This trip was a revelation. There she discovered a totally different standard of living from hers and an environment in which women had a say.
When she returned to Santa Cruz, she was convinced: “if the Norwegians can do it, I can do it too”. However, when she sought to get involved in the community of Santa Cruz, it was quickly made clear that her place was at home. One day, when no one knew how to handle the village church renovation project, its residents let Rosalia manage the project successfully. That day she won her place at the decision table. Since then, his opinion has been duly listened to. Regularly solicited by foundations and foreign universities to discuss her fight for women’s rights, she takes the opportunity to travel around the world all expenses paid. Smart, isn’t it? 🙂
We will be on our way home soon! To end this great adventure, we organized a cookie tasting tour of France with the Los Amigos team! Success guaranteed! 🙂 This year again an exceptional adventure which comes to close 6 years of discoveries in Asia, Europe, Africa and America.
Have a great day,
Marine, Quentin, Sarah and Romain