Central America Guatemala Photo Essays

The Key to Community Development | Guatemala

October 17, 2018

by Sarah O’Leary

“I look out at the town and see so many houses with smoke coming out of the chimneys!”, says Margarita Chocon. One year ago, this wasn’t the case in El Rejón, the community where Margarita lives. El Rejón is a town in the department of Chimaltenango in central Guatemala. 3,025 people live in the community and the predominant language spoken is Kaqchikel, with Spanish being the second language of many. Over the past year, Habitat for Humanity Guatemala has collaborated with Margarita to build 113 smokeless stoves in El Rejón.

“Life is difficult here,” says Margarita. “During the summer months, people suffer because there is no work. During rainy season people work in the fields growing crops. The best crops are sent to the United States and the lower quality produce is sold here, in markets. So, in the summer, some people gather and sell wood, others cut down trees and make them into posts to sell.” When Margarita says summer, she is referring to Guatemala’s dry season, which lasts from November until April. During half of the year, the weather is warm and dry–and not suited for growing produce.

Hugo taught Margarita how to make the adobe blocks for the smokeless stove and, after her stove was finished, asked if she would volunteer with Habitat Guatemala to connect him with women in El Rejón who would benefit from a smokeless stove. “I asked Margarita to help me and so she began to work with us,” Hugo explains.

“Right now we are building stoves with people. We are hoping to make stoves first and then start building latrines,” continues Hugo. “We hold training on how to build the adobe blocks for the stoves at Margarita’s house and we also store supplies there,” Hugo says that working with a community member is la llave (the key) to being able to connect with people and successfully complete a project in communities. This is because many indigenous communities are suspicious of outsiders, due to Guatemala’s history of discrimination against indigenous peoples and the Civil War that lasted from 1960 until 1996.

“I like doing this project,” says Margarita. She continues, talking about how her smokeless stove has affected her daily life. “For me, my stove has changed things. My home used to be smoky, but not now. And a bundle of wood lasts me much longer. It changed everything.”

When asked about what it was like to begin the smokeless stove project in El Rejón, Margarita says: “At first it was difficult to start this project. People didn’t understand how to make the adobe blocks. But if they want a new stove, they have to make them! We tell the community when we are going to build more stoves and they come to my house to sign up. Right now we have thirty-five families waiting to build their stove. And I hope that with time, more families will have stoves!”

Sarah O’Leary is a photographer and storyteller based in Sitka, Alaska. In 2018, her work took her to Guatemala where she spent many days riding around rural communities on the back of a motorbike. You can follow her work on Instagram @_saraholeary.

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