The number of Mayan widows FFF has to select from is longer than the financial resources to assist them with, but we moved Ana to the top of the list quickly. The need for suitable housing for her six children was acute, and the malnutrition indicators demonstrated by the small stature of her children were alarming. At the time she entered our program, Ana was sleeping on her in-law’s dirt floor and sharing what food they had to offer her, when they were in the mood to do so.
We worked quickly and well. Land was purchased and legally deeded to her name; Ana even worked hard to learn how to write her name for the lawyer’s contract, (at the age of 27 she has never been to school). Volunteers pooled resources and Finding Freedom hired local builders to create a waterproof home perched on a beautiful mountainside that was eons better than what Ana had been raised in and could ever dream of owning without assistance. The steel windows and door were sturdy, the bunk beds designed to optimize floor space and the new wood efficient stove would keep the children safe from open flames. It was our 25th donated house and we were thrilled to gift it to this fragile family.
When the giver assumes to know more about the receiver’s needs than they rightfully should, the giver deserves the issues that arise. Twenty-five houses later, we are still learning, and if we are the credible organization that we know ourselves to be, we will continue that learning curve. Ana didn’t verbally decline our gift of her new house, she simply hasn’t moved into it yet. Four months later it sits empty.
The hillside we carved out to create a level building site started to erode, and caused the interior of the house to flood. The new stovepipe was not sealed properly and water trickled down into the stove, creating rust. Ana’s newly donated sink didn’t drain well and her toddler insisted on playing in the mud puddles that collected at the base. The beautiful new steel windows that opened into the interior of the house were a safety risk to little ones who walked under their sharp edges. In other words, Ana didn’t feel any safer, and in fact less so, then she did in the emotionally toxic household of her in-laws.
We soon realized that Ana’s needs for shelter were more than physical. As a young uneducated widow of six small children, Ana’s need for emotional refuge was just as acute. Being a new homeowner with a structure that felt unsafe and isolated, no matter how beautiful the surroundings, was not a joyful experience for her, and in fact was the opposite. In a culture that dampens the voices of women, Ana showed her concerns by her actions rather than words. The house stood empty, and the family still slept on dirt floors in their grandparent’s house. It didn’t matter that we thought she needed a new house for her children.
Like most of our experiences helping our widows, the story will have many interesting nuances before it comes to closure. Builders are on their way to the site as I write this, and we will correct the structural problems. A retaining wall will be built, the stovepipe calked, the pila (sink) moved. Beds will be rearranged and the house painted with a water-repellent. But the harder work will be up to Ana, who must then declare emotional ownership of a house that doesn’t feel like home, because her deceased parents and husband can never be there to fill it with memories of family…she has to do that for herself. The woman who is no bigger than a child but is the mother of six dependents must find the strength to create a household in a space that has no memories mixed in the mortar.
There is evidence of the beginnings of ownership of her future in this scrappy flower garden Ana planted at the edge of her new yard… native flowers in the soil and in rusted discarded cans, all a sign of belief in herself and her ability to grow into this gift and make it her own. She is receptive to help in setting up the household, an offer given from the heart of a missionary who loves her more than Ana knows how to love herself. When our builder returns to make the wrongs right, Ana will help with the decision on whether to build a chicken coop or a garden bed.
Life for Ana has looked much like this soil…scrappy and void of nutrients; her parents died when she was a child and she was consigned to labor in the fields until she became a very young bride. She might not have the ability to stand on this mountain and make it feel like home. The story is still unfolding and we are all still learning. If she can make it work, it will be a seed worth planting.