Nearly half of Guatemalan children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, according to a report from a U.S. federal agency that provides international aid. That is a startling statistic because, among other things, the country grows nearly every fruit and vegetable under the sun and markets and groceries are stocked with locally grown produce.
But the poverty in Guatemala is stark and that troubling statistic is one of many that underscores the income and education inequalities that have held the country back for decades.
USAID’s nutrition profile for Guatemala says there are places in the country where nearly 70 percent of children under five are malnourished – including the department of Huehuetenango, where farmers grow some of the best coffee in the world. The coffee I brew every morning for my cappuccino comes from there.
Although I’ve known this for years, I seldom think about it. Frankly, I’d rather not. Because it is disturbing and painful. But now and then I’ll read a news story or hear a radio dispatch that reminds me of that and forces me to reflect on that troubling reality.
Today, it was a news story on PRI.
The Latin America expert interviewed for a story about the immigrants arriving at the border from Central America said that the U.S. didn’t have a crisis at the border, but that Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras each have a crisis and that their crises are driving immigration to the U.S. In Guatemala, corruption and malnutrition among children, she reminded us, are just two of the country’s major problems – and have been for generations.
The report reminded me of an essay my father wrote about the way malnutrition affected Guatemalans. It was his essay that made me aware of the problem, how it impacts people throughout their lives, and how little the country’s governments have cared to help generations of children live healthy and productive lives.
The link to it no longer works, but in digging through an old email account, I found what may be the final draft of the column and have pasted it below. It was published by the Miami Herald just weeks before he died, and he titled it “Chains and Stools.”
Chains and Stools
By Enrique Martín-Hidalgo
It has been over twenty years since I worked in one of the towers of what was then a new and modern shopping mall and office complex in the new business center of Guatemala City.
I usually arrived early, and many mornings, after going to my office and dropping off my briefcase, made a quick run to buy pastry and coffee at a bakery. It was the only store open in the mall at that time; the others opened at nine.
My trips to the bakery gave me the opportunity to take a brisk walk through the empty mall. To make the most of it, I walked up and down the three stories of the shopping area. While walking through the dimly lit corridors, I paid little attention to the surroundings, thinking instead of the many things I had to do. But one morning something caught my attention.
Passing by the storefronts, I noticed that each of the large glass doors had a stool hanging by what looked like a bicycle chain, which was in turn wrapped around the door handle. The variety of bicycle chains and stools amazed me. The chains were plastic coated, of many sizes and colors. The child-sized stools were made of bright-colored wood, metal or plastic. I came to think of these unusual arrangements as works of art, which I selfishly believed had no other purpose but for me to admire and enjoy.
My trips to the mall during working hours were rare, but one day, shortly before 9, a co-worker asked me to tag along with him for a short trip to the bank at the mall. When we got off the elevator on the third floor and walked down the same corridors I knew only in another dimension, the first activity of the day was unfolding: the opening of the doors.
At each storefront was a person removing the bicycle chain, or separating it from the stool or stepping on the stool to reach the doors’ upper lock. It was like watching a ritual, but what I was observing were the stages of a process that was a daily drama.
It was a rude awakening: the practical and only purpose of those chained sitting stools was to overcome a physical handicap.
The glass doors, with their lower and upper locks, were designed for a world where people are much taller than the average person in Guatemala. But these chained sitting stools revealed much more.
They were a symbol, at least to me, of serious problems that affronted Guatemalan society: lack of teamwork and leadership.
Though shopkeepers used the same method and equipment to solve a shared problem, they didn’t band together to do it as a group. United, and with a minimum amount of leadership, I thought, they could have bought and shared a few step ladders, which would have been a safer and more practical way to get the job done. Yet individualism prevailed.
The stools also pointed out another serious problem that I was made aware of by a friend to whom I confided my experience. The average Guatemalan didn’t have the means for proper nourishment and was physically underdeveloped.
That was over twenty years ago.
Several years ago, an article published in one of the two local newspapers, mentioned a recent study by an international group that looked at the age, weight and size of average Guatemalan children revealed nutritional problems that lead to the physical underdevelopment of the majority of the population, making Guatemala a country of midgets. Another article stated that poverty related nutritional problems have created a subspecies of physically underdeveloped Guatemalans, who make up the vast majority of the population. According to data from UNICEF, 21.3 percent of children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, and 60 percent of Guatemalan households don’t make enough money to cover the cost of basic foodstuffs.
A society that is still lacking in teamwork and leadership cannot solve a problem of undernourishment.
That’s why the stools are still there, hanging from chains at that aging shopping mall and everywhere in Guatemala one sees stones, crates or whatever is at hand, used to help people reach up.