From the Field: Global Perspectives Dispatch 4

Ashlen Nimmo, MSW ‘16 — Reporting from Panajachel, Guatemala

This semester, Innovate@BCSW is following the experiences of four BC Social Work students who have embarked on international field education placements in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. This is the fourth and final installment of the series.


Blog 4: Final Reflections
By Ashlen Nimmo

Learning to make tortillas and also about the sacredness of corn to the Mayan people.

Learning to make tortillas and also about the sacredness of corn to the Mayan people.

When I first came to Guatemala nine years ago, I remember noticing and relishing in the fact that so many people were my size or even shorter. At 5’1” that is not a feeling I experience often. In my ignorance, I just assumed that the people were simply short here. I did not understand that it was not just about genetics, but also related to severe rates of malnutrition. Here in Guatemala, malnutrition manifests itself in the form of stunting, meaning low height for age. In discussions with my colleagues about challenges to addressing malnutrition, a lack of recognition is one of them. For one, there is a misconception that if the child is the correct weight, then he/she is healthy. There is a lack of understanding and education about the different types of malnutrition, and how detrimental not just low weight, but also low height can be.

My colleague dressed me in the typical "traje" of her town for a special event we had for work.

My colleague dressed me in the typical “traje” of her town for a special event we had for work.

It is difficult for people to recognize that stunting is even an issue though, due to its sheer commonness. Statistics show that about half the children in Guatemala are stunted, but that number distorts the reality of indigenous children specifically. A 2008 census showed that in San Juan Atitan 91.4% of the 898 first graders analyzed were chronically malnourished. It is difficult to know that anything is wrong, when nearly every child is stunted. Data from 2015 show a vast improvement in the town, but still 76.9% is extremely high. Rather than the malnourished child being the anomaly, it is the few with normal height that are the outliers. The normalcy of the situation can be dangerous though, because it leads not only to a lack of recognition of the problem, but also a lack of response.

While recognizing the gravity of a situation is an important first step, it does not suffice. Unfortunately, malnutrition is not an issue that can be easily resolved. On my first visit nearly a decade ago, I had no idea that the prevalence of people of short height was actually connected to many other social issues, such as poverty, disempowerment, lack of educational and job opportunities, and discrimination. I also did not understand the ramifications for the well-being of a person and even society, and the irreversible effects past two years old. After spending this semester in Guatemala, I am taking away an understanding of just how complicated and difficult this issue is. However, it is not to say that I am leaving without hope. I have seen through my internship that when taking a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive approach, in partnership with communities, strides can be made. Indeed, this experience has shown me that while these problems are terribly complex, there are many people and organizations that are working tirelessly to address them and create new norms. I was fortunate to be able to be a part of that this semester, resulting in my own personal and professional growth, the attainment of new perspective and inspiration, and a deepened commitment to this work.

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