Two young girls from San Antonio Palopo look out as women from their pueblo collect their leña – wood – from a truck outside the cooperative where our campaign was based. One of the best things about our estufas mejoradas – improved cookstoves – is that increased wood-burning efficiency will save families so much time and money in purchasing and transporting wood.
This week with my students, I’ve been working on a fair price calculation project – a project that’s been both challenging and frustrating, but one that I’ve really enjoyed working with. The project is focused on Juana’s weaving cooperative, Sanik – “worker ants,” in their native language of Kachiquel. Sanik sells many of their products abroad through my friend Alyssa’s tipico export website, Hiptipico, as well as wholesale to boutiques in the states, with help from my two predecessors, Alli and Michelle, but my concern was that despite these markets (which are – quite importantly – are currently providing near consistent work for all of the artisans in the cooperative), the artisans are still not receiving a fair price for their products, and my hope was that we could address this by helping Juana design a simple, adaptable system for calculating prices for Sanik’s products that are fair and just but will not prohibit market access.
Soluciones Comunitarias: Cambiando los obstaculos a oportunidades (changing obstacles into opportunities). This is one of our company slogans and really an important part of our model. Each of the products that we offer represent a “solution” to a key “problem” – reading glasses for those who are unable to read, weave, or work on detailed projects; protective eyewear to prevent “carnocidad,” a painful condition that occurs when the eye begins to grow a protective coating in light of increased exposure to dust, smoke, or UV rays; improved cookstoves as a more environmentally and financially sustainable solution to cooking (as compared to cooking over open fires on the floor), and water filters as a more economical and safe manner of obtaining clean water. Each of our product offerings were derived from the recognition of a specific problem, and the understanding that by increasing access to a specific, life-changing product, the initial investment (which, for many products, we subsidize as much as possible) will “pay it forward” far into the future, with increased work productivity, better health, or simply a way to save money on consistent costs such as firewood, electricity, and water.
Yesterday, my coworkers gave a wonderful presentation on Guatemalan history to give our incoming students some much-needed context for the work that we’ll be doing. The country’s history is long and complicated, but I’ll try to summarize a bit and draw a few connections between the country’s historical past, contemporary situation, and the work that I’m doing here today.
I’ll start with the Civil War, which lasted for over 30 years – from 1960 -1996. The war was prompted by a slow-brewing guerilla resistance force, which began in pockets of the Western highlands and slowly spread around the country in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the conflict exploded under the military government’s “Scorched Earth Campaign,” during which the government sought to brutally and forcibly eradicate all guerilla resistance and opposition. All in all, over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and 400 communities were completely destroyed – the majority of which were indigenous Mayan communities in the ixil triangle (a trio of three towns including the town where our organization was founded, Nebaj).
This weekend, as always, was jam-packed. Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early for a campaign in Pana – the first campaign I personally coordinated! It was not a particularly successful campaign sales-wise, but we were able to generate a lot of awareness about SolCom and about the existence of the SolCom Centro in Solola, which is always good.
The rest of the afternoon was one of those perfect Guatemalan afternoons where things just work out as they should. After a delayed fourth of july celebratory barbecue lunch, Bo and I hopped on a pick-up around the lake, heading to San Antonio. I’d never been before but I’m now convinced that the tiny town boasts some of the most beautiful views of the lake I’ve seen yet. San Antonio is known for their handcrafted and handpainted ceramics, so I bought a pair of gorgeous blue mugs to start outfitting my still relatively bare apartment. After returning from San Antonio, we stopped off at the famous Crossroads coffee and then went to a belated fourth of july barbecue at a friend’s house.
The last time I was in San Juan I described it as muy tranquilo. But as we arrived here yesterday afternoon during the pueblo’s feria – the street festival held each year by Guatemalan towns in honor of their patron saints – the pueblo was anything but quiet. The streets were lined with vendors – food vendors selling freshly grilled ears of elote (corn with salt and lime), hot dogs, tacos, sweet, caramelized fried bananas, cotton candy, and Chomino’s (get it?) pizza. Impromptu carnival games are set up everywhere, many of which are familiar from the Maryland county fairs I used to go to growing up, but many of which are new for me. At least three ferris wheels are set up – the smallest of which is run manually, with the attendant pushing the wheel around with his hand. Bo and I decided to pay 10Q to ride the biggest ferris wheel – how scary could it be, with hordes of young Guatemalan couples, small children, and families in line ahead of us? Let’s just say that in my month in Guatemala so far, it was one of the scariest experiences I’ve had so far. Those of you at home know that I’m not a roller coaster person, or any sort of thrill ride person, but who would have thought that a simple carnival ferris wheel could go so fast… Luckily, it was only a short ride and the views of the lake and mountains from the top were well worth it.
The lakeside town of San Juan la Laguna, where the Lema’ weaving cooperative is located, is known for its beautiful, mulch-colored murals representative of Mayan culture and tradition. This mural in particular like depicts the traditional Mayan practice of bathing in the lake at the start of each rainy season.
On Monday, Michelle, Bo, and I loaded up a micro-bus with our group of ten students and traveled down to the lake for our first two field weeks. This week, we’re in San Juan, working on projects with the weaving cooperative Lema’ – helping them to formulate plans for opening up a cafe and to create a marketing plan for the cooperative’s homestay program, their weaving products, and ultimately the cafe as well. We’re also working on some projects for SolCom itself, specifically, beginning a marketing campaign to attract new entrepreneurs for the region, as there are large areas that we currently are not able to reach. Finally, tomorrow, the students will be conducting two additional SolCom campaigns as we did last week, helping our regional entrepreneurs sell reading glasses, filters, solar products, and more in San Juan itself and in San Pablo, a neighboring town.
Made it out to the Solola office for the first time on Friday! We hopped on a chicken bus around 8:30 and I spent a few hours getting to know Juana, the regional coordinator for Solola and her adorable son Jonathan. The office is really just a tiny storefront in an alleyway in Solola; it’s pretty much a small room where we store our products and we have intermittent (though growing) walk-in sales. Juana went over all of the products with me again – glasses, filters, stoves, lightbulbs – I’d seen them over Skype but it was great to see them in person. We also did some practice eye exams – Michelle showed me how to give them and then I gave a practice exam to Juana! Then, we did a mini filter campaign. We took one of our 5 gallon filters and set it outside on the main street, passing out free glasses of water to passersby and telling them both about the filters and about our work in general. The idea was to generate a buzz and ultimately drive traffic into the store, so people would come in, get eye exams, and purchase other products.