Home for a Home chooses to serve Guatemala because over 6 million people live in inadequate housing with dirt floors. Of these, almost a million live in huts with plastic or metal roofs and corn stalks for walls. When we visit villages, we find smiling people often in colorful traditional dress with children playing while fathers and older brothers are off working in nearby coffee and corn fields. Smoke curls up from wood fires under big pots holding delicious meals. The beauty of the people and their culture can mask the difficulties they face.
Life in Guatemala has improved for millions since 1996 when the 36 year guerrilla civil war ended after killing 200,000 people. Over 80% of the dead were indigenous people living in rural areas. Though poverty is declining slightly, Guatemala is still the third poorest country by GDP in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti and Bolivia. The legacy of war and exclusion is difficult to leave behind, especially for indigenous people who make up 52% of the country’s 10 million people living on less than $3.10 USD per day. Guatemala has the 11th highest income inequality in the world, with the top 2% of the population controlling over 50% of the wealth and 50% of the land.
Everyday problems faced by Guatemalan families
In Guatemala, 3.5 million people do not have access to clean water and progress on this issue is very slow. Globally, 1 child dies every 20 seconds due to the water-borne illnesses. Diarrhea due to bacterial infection of the intestines causes 29 children in 1000 die before age 5 and 30% of those are from preventable and treatable diarrhea. This high mortality rate has long been intuitively known and factored into family planning. Studies have shown that high mortality is correlated with large family size. Parents have a lot of kids because the don’t know how many will survive. And, as mortality decreases, remarkably so does fertility rate and family size.
Disease causing parasites are easily transferred via fecal matter which is difficult to detect and clean from dirt floors. Rodents easily move in through corn stalk walls and bring in additional pathogens.
Because huts and informal houses do not have locking doors or real security, families have difficulty holding on to valuables or nice things. To hold assets and prevent theft, someone needs to be at the home on guard instead of at work or school.
Cooking fires are often next to the sleeping area and baby’s hammocks are often in the kitchen where mother can quickly calm the child. According to WHO, household air pollution causes 4.3 million deaths per year via cardiovascular disease, stroke, pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. This is related to the fact that indigenous Guatemalans, disproportionately affected by poverty, have a life expectancy 13 years less than the average citizen. After diarrhea, respiratory illnesses are the second most common cause of death for infants.
Even in the tropics, being cold is a fact of life in the highlands. Shelter is a basic human need and without it health suffers. Each year more people die in the winter than the summer months. Studies on these additional deaths show that over 50% are attributed to cardiovascular conditions arising from indoor cold due to poor insulation and poor heating.
Solutions Implemented by Home for a Home
Safe houses to call home - earthquake safe homes made of concrete block and rebar with concrete floors are secure and warm. After security, many families mention the homes being warm at night as their favorite feature. Studies in Mexico show that concrete floors reduce parasitic infestations by 78%, reduce incidence of diarrhea by 49%, and lead to a 96% increase in cognitive development. Kids read earlier and perform better in school. Hope and pride are powerfully transforming.
Basic sanitation - Homes come with a small bathroom which has a toilet, simple shower, and a door. No frills, but WHO studies show that with hand washing, these simple steps can reduce childhood deaths by 90%.
Water filters - Home for a Home uses Sawyer water filters which remove 99.999% of all bacteria and make great tasting water in an easy to use pot. Mothers have directly told us that their kids are sick less and are more excited to drink water.
Clean burning stoves - Guatemala has the worst air quality in Central America, so Home for a Home shopped for a local made clean stove. We use the Chispa home stove which is locally made and is specifically designed for Guatemalan cooking styles which require a big griddle for tortillas. The stoves reduce smoke particles by 98% and reduce the family wood bill by half - healthy and green.