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Bethel College students spend January in Guatemala

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Student perspective: a country rebuilds from civil war By Heidi Holliday

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Guatemala, "land of eternal spring," conjures up images of towering volcanoes and lush rainforests, or perhaps scenes of a marketplace brimming with fresh produce, intricate weaving and colorful clothing. Spring is also a time of renewal and rebirth. After Guatemala’s protracted civil war that went on through the 1970s and ‘80s into the early ‘90s "a time of healing" perhaps best characterizes Guatemala’s current national mindset.

Despite sharp disparities between classes and races, Guatemala is a place of generous hospitality and open hearts, as six students and two Newton community members discovered on associate professor of sociology Julie Hart’s Poverty and Development Seminar during interterm (January 3-27).

The class began at SEMILLA, the Latin American Mennonite Seminary in Guatemala City. In Spanish, "semilla" means "seed," a fitting metaphor for the work of Mennonites and others during this time of transition.

Our first week centered on exploring the causes of poverty. We heard speakers from a local university and visited non-governmental organizations that deal directly with the effects of poverty on health and other aspects of life.

Highlights of the week included a visit to a banana finca and an immersion experience requiring us gringos with American accents and imperfect Spanish to ask for directions to various monuments and places in downtown Guatemala City. Also downtown, we visited the National Palace and Cathedral, the Central Market and the Eternal Flame, which was lit after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords between the government and rebel forces.

We went to the home of one of the Spanish teachers from CASAS (a language and culture learning program of SEMILLA) in the neighborhood of La Brigada, one of Guatemala City’s poorer neighborhoods, where we were met with unmatched warmth and fresh tortillas.

A weekend visit to the seaside town of Monterrico, famous for its black sand beaches, mangrove swamps and wildlife refuge, gave us a break from the heavy subject matter we were dealing with and a welcome chance for a bunch of Midwesterners to play in the ocean.

We next traveled to the north of Guatemala for a week at the K’ekchi’ Mennonite School, Bezaleel. The school, a project initiated by the K’ekchi’ Mennonite Church, provides needed educational and vocational opportunities for K’ekchi’ students in an area of the country where it is not uncommon to have to travel long distances for even basic schooling.

While at Bezaleel, we learned about land reform struggles, sustainable agriculture practices and the work of the Heifer Project in the region, including visits to two communities benefiting from the program.

One of those communities, Betel, is a land project started by the K’ekchi’ Mennonite Church to give formerly landless peasants the opportunity to own land. When we visited Betel, we got to hike through the cloud forest and see vestiges of Guatemala’s last remaining rainforest.

Traveling farther north, we visited the ruins of the Mayan civilization called Tikal, and we climbed ancient monuments for an incredible view of the rainforest.

From Tikal, we went east to the "returned refugee" community of La Esmeralda, near the border with Belize, for a three-day home stay. Despite the slight inconveniences of wooden planks for beds and the haunting cries of howler monkeys in the mountains surrounding us, the laughter of our host brothers and sisters and hope we saw in the development projects in the community made the experience well worth it.

For the final week, we returned to Guatemala City to study responses to poverty by non-governmental organizations, the United States Agency for International Development, and micro-enterprise initiatives. This week was also a time of processing and introspection.

The experiences we had on this journey will not be soon or easily forgotten, and will continue to affect our lives and decisions for years to come.

Heidi Holliday is a junior global peace and justice studies major from Andover.

Other students participating in the course were senior David Goering, Hesston; juniors Amelia Brandt, Hillsboro, Karey French, Moundridge, Matt Kaiser, Inman, and Bethany Miller, Orrville, Ohio; and sophomore Ross Lehman, Bluffton, Ohio. Jim and Shirley Goering, North Newton, were also on the trip, which was led by Julie and Phil Hart of Newton.

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