Finding life in the cemetery

Liz Cross, Viva’s Supporter Care Co-ordinator, writes about her recent trip to visit Viva’s partner network in Guatemala City and about finding positive stories in difficult places.

A cemetery is one of the last places I expected to be standing when visiting Viva’s partner network in Guatemala City. However, over 2,000 people live on the edge of La Verbena Cemetery, and of that about 1,200 are children.

People have lived here for as long as the cemetery has existed. The land is free, creating a clear incentive for people to settle. The community is located away from the graves, at the end of the cemetery. Down a steep hill is a maze of houses crowded together, each made from sheets of corrugated iron and concrete. The houses are basic but look stable, at least until the heavy rains come when they could all disappear in a landslide. At the bottom of the hill there is a river which separates this community from the city’s main rubbish dump.

The rubbish dump and the cemetery are the two main sources of income for people who live here. Both adults and children search through the dump to salvage pieces to sell on. One lady tells me that what people look for changes daily, depending on what people in the community need.

Others work in the cemetery; some are grave diggers, others maintain the grounds by cleaning headstones, gardening or making grave fronts for flowers. All these jobs depend on those who come to visit the dead and if they want their services. Either way it’s poorly paid; I learn that they could earn as little as 1 Quetzal (10p) for an hour’s work.

Most of the children don’t go to school but spend their days hanging around the streets or riffling through the rubbish. This gives them little chance for a different future. It also puts them at increased risk of getting involved with drugs, violence or being abused.

We quickly learn that these issues are common in this community. We hear one boy say, “the other day I saw someone get murdered” – as if it was part of normal everyday life. Later on, a mother tells us how her eldest son was killed by his friend just a few months ago. Her youngest boy is now too scared to go out of the house unless his mum is with him.

It’s easy for someone from the outside to dwell on the negatives of this place. Life here is hard. Yet, it is important to remember this is home for people. They have worked hard to build their lives here and, despite the difficulties, there is good and there is a community who look out for one another.

Ten years ago, the community came together to raise funds and to build a communal space which is now used for meetings and for storage during the day.

In this building, for the last year, Viva Guatemala has been running workshops for parents and children. Parents learn about good discipline and how to give their children the best opportunities. Along with sports and games, children learn about their rights, how to keep themselves safe and how to make good life choices.

We meet eleven-year-old José who has attended the workshops for the past year. When José was younger he had respiratory problems and his brain did not get enough oxygen. As a result he is slower than others his age and has regular seizures.

His mother used to be very negative about his condition and stopped him from spending time with other children, out of fear that he would be bullied.

In the last year, Viva Guatemala has been working with José and his mother. They have encouraged him to start integrating with other children and taught her how to relate to José and to change the language she uses towards him, so it is more positive.

José leads our tour around his community. He still has a long way to go, but now has his mother, friends and the Viva Guatemala team supporting him, instilling confidence in him.

Please join us in praying for Viva Guatemala’s work in this community, that their presence and workshops will continue to transform lives.

Pray that as we look in from the outside, our view on life in places like these would be less two-dimensional and we will see the good amongst the challenges.


Photos: Viva Guatemala, Amsler pix,