Living Proof

Our occasional reminder that not all people are bastards

The job sounded simple enough the day the Peace Corps dropped Katherine Carttar off in the highland Mayan town of Sololá, Guatemala.

She was to work with a small lending organization that supported hundreds of indigenous farmers and artisans and, if she succeeded, get them fairer prices for their potatoes, carrots, onions, and handmade goods.

Fresh from a three-month crash course in Spanish and agricultural marketing in a town called Santa LucÃ-a Milpas Altas (Saint Lucy of the High Cornstalks), she arrived hopeful and ready to work.

If the wiser, older Katherine Carttar, recently deposited back in Lawrence with a broken leg and a worldly disposition, were to speak to herself two years ago, she might say: You'll have good days, bad days, bad weeks, bad months. But, in spite of it all, you won't regret it.

Carttar entered the Peace Corps in 2005 after graduating from Boston College with degrees in economics and history. The Peace Corps had been on the back of her mind after a couple mission trips in high school and, after a less-than-exhilarating internship at an investment bank, she made up her mind.

Soon after she arrived in Guatemala, Hurricane Stan hit, killing thousands, destroying roads, and leaving towns covered in mud. Aid organizations descended, tossing around money and supplies, and mixed in with everything was Carttar, dropped off in Sololá with nothing to offer but herself and her willingness to help.

And she was in a town where most of the women and young children and some of the men didn't even speak Spanish-at first she had to speak her rudimentary Spanish to someone who would translate it to their native tongue of Kaqchikel.

She moved in with a family that had six children, a nice house and a motorcycle, and was assigned to an organization that lent money at a miniscule interest rate to local groups.

The organization was so small that it was only composed of a board of directors and one employee. Carttar started setting up presentations through the organization on basic subjects she'd learned in training, like the advantages of hand washing and the importance of not placing a latrine in crop fields. She bribed people to come with lunch and free transportation.

She made herself useful however she could, traveling to the eight neighboring villages the organization supported and asking the people what they needed.


Submitted Photo

Katherine Carttar, the tall one in back (5'4"), helped these women get chickens.

One of her first big projects was to replace a village's primitive wood-burning stoves, which had no ventilation and were making the women sick. She learned what they needed, exactly, and then she learned about stoves. And then she didn't hear anything from the village.

One day she asked around. Instead of going with her stoves, which would have required training and money, the village had asked one of the post-disaster aid organizations and received a mountain of stoves for free. Later on, it turned out that no one used the stoves. They were too flimsy, too small, and didn't come with instructions.

"It was just frequent frustrations of that nature, where you get something going and then, because of all these other aid organizations, they could just go somewhere else for cheaper," she says. "But then it's not going to be a sustainable project, because they don't actually get any instruction along with it. They just get the free stuff."

When she'd been in Sololá for nine months, her organization lost its funding from CARE. With no money to lure people in with free lunches and transportation, Carttar could no longer hold her presentations.

And she was coming to the realization that her objective, to help farmers sell their produce for higher prices by expanding their markets, was impossible. Outside the twice-a-week Sololá market, the farmers simply couldn't grow enough on their half-acre fields to start a bigger operation.

What would happen was if they couldn't sell all their produce at the market, they'd sell it to the "coyotes," men who drove around in trucks and picked up bags of vegetables for an embarrassingly low price. The coyotes would haul their loads to Guatemala City, where the produce would get sold or exported at a much higher price.

"Basically, the local farmer gets nothing," she says. "Subsistence farming, that's what was going on in my area. People really have just enough to survive."

Discouraged, but not to be put out, Carttar started teaching English to 20 junior high-aged students in one of the villages. After that was a success, she started teaching 22 elementary students in Sololá. She held class on Saturdays and didn't even have to bribe them to show up.

She taught both groups a little geography and helped them paint murals of the world. Most of the students knew Guatemala was the one below Mexico, but that was about it. Many had never been outside of the Sololá area.

She started working with a group of eight women who said they wanted to make jelly out of leftover carrots. They could sell it, and Carttar would finally have a product to market. She started writing a grant proposal to send to the United States Agency for International Development, which has a program for Peace Corps initiatives just like this. She felt good.

"And then," she says, "when we were about to submit the grant-and I'd been working on this for about six months-they finally told me that they don't actually like making jelly, and they want to raise chickens."


Contact: Heather Sutter, University of Kansas Campus Peace Corps Representative


No jelly. Chickens. By this time Carttar had learned to adapt. Better they told her now instead of after their jelly kitchen had been built. So she told the women she would meet with them in two weeks. And in that time she would learn everything she could about chickens.

Turning to Peace Corps people and anyone else who might know something about chickens, she learned how to vaccinate a chicken, how to make homemade chicken feed, how to build a chicken coop, how often to feed a chicken, everything.

And then she got to work on a new grant proposal. She asked for $2,000, which would be a huge amount of money. The grant was approved. She took two of the women with her to Guatemala City to sign the check. When they went to the mall for lunch, she had to help them onto the escalator one at a time. Neither of them had seen one before.

Each of the women got 25 egg-laying hens. And they had to go to Carttar's training sessions, where she taught them all the chicken stuff she'd learned.

Soon afterward, her two years were up. The last thing she did, after saying goodbye to Sololá, was to go on a five-week trip to Peru and Bolivia, which is where she broke her leg when she slipped during a rainy hike through the Andes. After all this, a little old broken leg wasn't going to stop her.

"There was no way to get me out of there, so I had to walk," she says. "My foot was like that big (judging by her gesture, it was really big). My ankle all the way extending into my calf was hugely swollen and really painful, but I couldn't really do anything."

She finished the hike, and then kept traveling around for another week before her second cousin in La Paz made her go to the hospital. She returned home with one of those big white plaster casts up to her knee.

She's been back home for a month and a half now and her cast has shrunk. She's applying for non-profit jobs in the area, and planning go to graduate school in business in a couple of years. She has checked up on the chickens, and they're doing fine.


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