Laying Groundwork for Two Years in Guatemala
Four blocks by five blocks, the town of about 8,000 in southeastern Guatemala sits between a steep mountainside and Lake Atitlán. The only ways in or out are a zig-zagging road up the mountain, or a tuk-tuk to ride 45 minutes along the shore to a larger town with a ferry. It is the rainy season, and the water laps around the stilts of the buildings on the edge of the deepest lake in Central America—and, according to MPH student and Peace Corps volunteer Nikolina Boskovic, the most beautiful lake in the world.
Boskovic is two months into her two-year placement in her lakeside town, as part of the final cohort of Master’s International, a Peace Corps program where public health students spend three semesters at their school and earn the remaining credits for their MPH while working abroad.
Based at the town’s health center, her current role involves capacity building, while also making connections with the organizations working in the community—an informal effort, Boskovic says, often involving home visits and fantastic coffee—and looking out for projects she will take on in the future.
“I’m laying the groundwork right now,” she says. “It’s all been about keeping my eyes open, listening, asking questions—the best things that SPH taught me.”
Boskovic says she appreciates the Peace Corps’ structure giving her the time to see what her community needs. “They train us to take these first two months to really understand the context,” she says, after which she will return to the country headquarters for another two weeks of technical training. “When I come back in mid-August, I’ll have a solid list of projects to present to work partners,” she says.
In the meantime, she has been taking every opportunity to get the lay of the land. “Right now my health center is going through the process of mapping the community,” she says. That will later be used to start mapping out health issues and other important data, but first Boskovic says they need to make sure the map of the town is correct and detailed enough. One day, she says she came into work at the health center and the staff members working on the map invited her along. “They said, ‘Let’s go to this one barrio,’” she says. “’We’ll just double check to make sure these houses are there, that they’re occupied, and then we’ll come back to the health center.’”
Checking on one barrio turned into checking on another, and eventually to a two-hour hike. “We went up the mountain and then we went all the way back down to the lake, and we walked around the lake for a bit,” she says, noting she was dressed for the office. “Now when I go to work I only wear shoes I know I’ll be able to walk in.”
Boskovic is beginning to hit her stride in the community. She studied Spanish in high school, kept it up mostly with Latin American music, recently refreshed it in her Peace Corps training on arrival, and now says the total immersion is moving her toward fluency. When she first got to Guatemala, the Peace Corps training also included background on the Mayan culture and languages of modern Guatemala, and lessons in Tz’utujil, the primary language spoken in her community. She uses both languages to negotiate tuk-tuk prices.
She is also living with a host family in the town. Her host brother plays the marimba, and Boskovic is learning the accordion—they make a decent band. “I wasn’t expecting to feel like I’m part of their family,” she says. “I was expecting to be welcomed, but at this point I am already dreading leaving in two years.”
That is the value of an extended stay, she says: public health work based on a deeper understanding of the community’s needs, and on personal connections that drive change.
Nikolina Boskovic is taking over the SPH Instagram account from July 31 through August 4 to share photos from Guatemala. Follow along at Instagram.com/BUSPH/.