(Guest Post by Catherine Whitworth, MPA)
Some time ago, my husband Steve and I served as Peace Corps volunteers in the enchanting Central American country ofGuatemala. It is often said that Peace Corps volunteers gain more than they contribute in the countries where they live and work. Some of the most important lessons I have learned in my life were from the children ofGuatemala. One child, Maria, who visited us frequently, taught me the true meaning of giving.
Maria was 12 years old when we met. She was repeating the third grade for the third time in a rural school where I worked. She was desperately poor, owned no shoes, and both of her parents were tragic alcoholics. Maria visited our home frequently to chat or to bathe. She had no clean water in her home. In the indigenous villages of Guatemala, children do not play as much as children here. Each child works and contributes to the survival and well-being of the family. It seemed that many, especially the girls, didn’t even know how to play and were too self-conscious to do so, so when Maria visited, we usually sat around a table sipping coffee and talking.
We answered flurries of questions about North Americans. “Is it true that you steal children?” “Is it true that you only eat canned food?” “You gringos are all rich, right?” “Gringos don’t like tortillas, do they?” “How much do your shoes cost?” “What does it cost to go to the U.S.?” and “Why on earth don’t you have children yet?”
She described how her family was relatively prosperous at one time; they were weavers and operated twelve looms. But they had to sell all but one loom because of her parents’ drinking and they were “pobres.” Maria chatted about such things very matter-of-factly, her expressions conveying neither shame nor sorrow.
Every now and again, we passed along extra items of clothing or food that we did not need to Maria. We had been admonished by Peace Corps administration to avoid “paternalistic giving” and not create a “gift gap” that would make people in our communities feel uncomfortable. So we kept our gifts small.... chicken necks and backs we weren’t going to eat, an old sweater with a hole in it, old calendars from previous years...and we felt generous about this. I recall once giving Maria a cookie to have with her coffee. She broke it into 5 pieces and tucked it into her apron to carry home to her brothers and sisters.
While some who visited us, half-jokingly hinted that we should “gift” them our more flashy belongings such as our radio and toaster oven, Maria never expressed interest in such things. During our last days in Totonicapan, the one material thing Maria very shyly and tentatively asked us about was if we would take our “tinaja” (plastic jug for carrying water on one’s head) back to theU.S.. I told her that we didn’t need tinajas in theU.S.because everyone had running water and asked her if she would like it. She was very pleased with this shabby, battered gift. It meant her family could collect an extra gallon of water during the two hours a day that water was available in the village. Again, I felt generous.
On our last night in Totonicapan, Maria and countless others brought us gifts to remember them by. One boy gave Steve a hat. An old soul in a droopy cowboy hat dropped 5 kernels of dry corn into my hands. Maria brought us some bread and a woven tortilla napkin. We knew this had cost her family either money or time, both in short supply for a struggling family. I explained that we didn’t want her to spend what little they had on us. She just smiled and said it wouldn’t be giving if nothing was given up.
Later, I pondered Maria’s words and thought about the generosity routinely bestowed on us by the people of Guatemala. People who invited us to dinner and served us their best arroz con pollo recipe as they and their children ate only beans and tortillas, or sometimes just tortillas and salt. The ancient ones sporting broad, toothless grins handing us apples, just because we strolled past their adobe homes.
It seemed that what Maria and many other Guatemalan people did without thinking was a foreign concept to us. They gave what they could not spare and we never gave away anything that we would actually miss. Talk about a “gift gap”.
This timely post is by my dear friend, Catherine Whitworth. Catherine Whitworth, MPA, is a tobacco dependence treatment specialist and policy analyst at West VirginiaUniversity. She served in the Peace Corps inGuatemala from 1989 to 1992. There she met and married another volunteer, Stephen DiFazio. Catherine and Steve live inMorgantown with their two teenagers. In her spare time Catherine works to get smoke free laws passed in local communities.