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CULTURAL CONNECTIONS: Guatemalan man teaches, learns through hands-on work in Kidron


After earning a degree at Bluffton University and visiting and working in the Dalton and Kidron areas thanks to MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program, Wilmar Gonzalo Caal Botzoc gets ready to return to Guatemala. He learned farming techniques to bring back to his village, and shared with residents here about his culture.


DALTON  Beginning with how they greet each other, much can be gleaned from the indigenous residents of remote villages in Guatemala.

Americans tend to greet each other with a quick but cheerful “Hi, how are you?” They can expect, in return, an equally brief response: “OK,” “good,” “fine,” or “not too bad, how are you?” That’s not how indigenous Guatemalans greet or check in on each other. At least not in Wilmar Gonzalo Caal Botzoc’s experience.
In general, in the village where Caal Botzoc grew up in Alta Verapaz, one of 22 departments in Guatemala, connecting with one another in the community is of utmost importance.

Their warm and friendly exchange when they ask how each other is doing translates closer to: “is your soul comfortable?” or “Is your soul happy?” And they take several minutes or however much time is needed to truly find out how the other person is faring in life.

“Everybody’s so busy they didn’t have time to share,” Caal Botzoc noted about how westerners he met while traveling, volunteering and attending college in the United States greeted him and one another.

“When you ask a question like that you really mean to know about the people,” Caal Botzoc said about his village back home, where he noted time felt more “flexible” and people were more “easygoing” compared to those in fast-paced western society. Families, friendships, neighbors and gathering and communicating with one another in person and spending time to do so takes top priority.

“The people have plenty of time doing just a little conversation,” he said. “Even if you’re just passing by in the path. You do that even if you have an important meeting. Friendship is very important.”

The 32-year-old certainly has not taken a moment for granted during his time in the U.S. and he has been a sponge soaking in the language and culture, as well as all the sights around him so he may be able to make a positive difference when he returns to Guatemala, especially with agricultural practices. That’s where his heart is: back home on his farm with his family in his village in Guatemala. Growing up in a family of 16 children, Caal Botzoc finds comfort when he gets to speak in his native language to his mother over the phone.

Here in the Dalton/Kidron area, he also found comfort in working with Amish farmers, such as Henry Hershberger and his family, who are well-known for the produce stand near the Dalton Dari-ette. Many Amish traditions mirrored that of his native culture, and he plans to take some farming techniques back to his village and explore some possibilities such as using horses, as well as farming equipment and tools that don’t rely on gas or electricity.

“I’m always impacted how in the U.S. there are still communities who hold their tradition like the Amish,” Wilmar said. “Being able to be in their service was a good connection with the type of service because that’s what I remember from back in my church.”

The recent Bluffton University graduate was given a generous scholarship from the university. He now has a degree in social work and spoke this summer during a service at Kidron Mennonite Church about his home and his experiences in the United States. The church helped to support his time in the states, which was made possible thanks to Mennonite Central Committee’s International Volunteer Exchange Program and sponsorship by Steve Steiner.

For 100 years and beginning just two years after MCC was formed, the Steiner family for generations has had a tradition of sponsoring people from other countries as well as providing service in other countries and at home. According to a story on written by Jennifer Steiner in October 2020, MCC connection within the family continues to reach deep. Along with Caal Botzoc, who had his first stint in the U.S. 2011-2012 through MCC’s IVEP, Mizinga Choompa, from Zambia, was placed with the Steiners 2017-2018 and both brought their own skills and experiences to the Steiner farming operations and learned techniques to take back to their home communities. Caal Botzoc also served as a student representative on the MCC Great Lakes board, the story stated. The Steiners also hosted IVEP participants from Ghana and Bolivia in the 1980s.

Caal Botzoc gained not only a college degree in the U.S. but he learned much from working on farms and with local residents such as Steiner, Conrad and Kathy Detweiler, Al and Polly Bottomly, Mike Gerber and Phil Neuenschwander, along with Amish families. Caal Botzoc was welcomed at Phil Neuenschwander’s farm in Kidron and helped with various work tasks including trimming apple trees, weed whacking, moving calves and other handyman work and everyday chores. He earned some extra cash he could use for further traveling and exploring. While enjoying meals at the Neuenschwander family table, Caal Botzoc shared about his family, faith in God and culture.

Neuenschwander summarized Caal Botzoc as a young man with passion and vision to learn about modern technology that could eventually be implemented in his home community in Guatemala.

Caal Botzoc notes that he has his work cut out for him. He has to carefully and smoothly introduce and figure out how to adapt some of the techniques he learned on farms in Northeast Ohio to help improve lives of Guatemalan farmers in villages so they can continue to be self-sustaining on their land if they choose to be. The key is to maintain a balance and also hold onto centuries-old Mayan cultural traditions, values and beliefs.

About the size of the state of Ohio but with a larger population of 16.8 million, the third-world Central American country southeast of Mexico does not have indoor plumbing, not every home has a TV or even electricity, and the indigenous people rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihood. The landscape can be a challenge as Guatemala is known for its volcanoes and the hilly terrain dotted with large rocks and boulders that farmers work around. Some first-world conveniences are beginning to make their way into the country such as smartphones, Wi-Fi and grocery stores. New technology and ways of life can be helpful but also detrimental to the culture; for example, along with the Internet comes cyberbullying and grocery stores and packaged foods take away business from local farmers.

“I want to improve the agriculture system in my village,” he said. “I know we need to move forward but we have to do it carefully so it’s not threatening the practices.”

Read the complete story in the July 6, 2022 edition.


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