School Daze At Ak'Tenamit

By Bernadette Bernon
August 3, 2001
At the fork of Río Tatin and Río Dulce, Guatemala
15 46.695 N 88 48.200 W

The number of steps it takes to make a simple corn tortilla is something I'd never thought much about until yesterday morning. For several hours, while painting door trim, I watched four women, two girls, and three children in an open-air kitchen make 1,600 tortillas for the student breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Ak'Tenamit school and clinic here in the Río Dulce. First, there's the grinding of the corn, then the combining of ingredients, the hand-kneading in batches until the right consistency is obtained, the forming of each tortilla ball, the gentle patting out of each ball into a disk. And then, as each tortilla is finished, it's laid on a red-hot griddle-top stove tended by a couple of the women and browned on both sides. The stove and this process goes on from morning to night — hot duty in the Central American jungle.

Photo of an aerial view of Ak'Tenamit
An aerial view of Ak'Tenamit.

Meanwhile, an enormous washtub of soaked black beans is on the outside fire simmering slowly. As noon approaches, the vats of rice finish cooking. At 12:30 the kids pour out of the classroom huts and rush down through the trees to line up at the kitchen for their lunch. Rice, beans, tortillas — as much as they want. It's the same lunch they had the day before. It's the same thing they had for breakfast. And they'll have it again for dinner. Three times a day they eat this meal, seven days a week, and they devour it, as it's far better and more plentiful than what they're accustomed to eating in their Q'eqchi villages.

Douglas and I had heard on the cruising grapevine that Ak' Tenamit won't turn away any patient from its clinic or any student from its school, that this year's enrollment had soared to over 400 and they could use some help to get a couple new classrooms open. We were in the neighborhood, so we stopped to offer a hand. Ithaka now is anchored securely in 15 feet of fresh water, in a spectacular widening of the Río, just off Ak' Tenamit's main facility: clinic, office, primary school, and thatched dorms for volunteers, staff, and student girls. Behind us are the beautiful limestone Río canyons. Surrounding us are swaying palms and verdant hills, and the comings and goings of life on the river as it slowly passes by. Ak' Tenamit's brand-new secondary school, built by the kids themselves, and the boys' dorm, are just a five-minute dinghy ride down a winding side river called Río Tatin.

Every day this week, Douglas and I, and Harold and Diane, have reported to work at the school and taken our places at the bottom of the volunteer food chain. Harold and Douglas have been wiring two new classrooms and fixing a couple of previously dead engines and a generator. Douglas says that, considering his pre-cruising skill level in these areas — he'd never wired more than a stereo — his role as technical support is novel. "They've got to be pretty desperate to trust me with this stuff," he commented on day one. But so far, no one's been electrocuted, nothing's caught fire, lights are going on all over the place, kids are already using the newly wired building at night to read, engines are running, and he and Harold are damn pleased with themselves.

Photo of children at the Ak' Tenamit school and clinic in the Río Dulce, Guatemala

Meanwhile, Diane and I have painted a massive jungle mural on the walls of a huge new thatched-roofed "meeting house" that will be devoted to native craft-making, as well as to a tienda where visitors can see and buy handcrafts and refreshments. The Q'eqchi make exquisite paper and stationery from banana and corn stocks, weave sturdy baskets, and craft household objects from their distinctive native fabrics — tablecloths, napkins, toys, and clothing. All monies from this artisan cooperative go back to the families in the villages. Diane and I also have scrubbed, scraped, sanded, repaired, and repainted the grimy doors of a few buildings here, a dreadful job I wouldn't have touched in a million years back home. ("Time to call a carpenter!") But we're into it now, having a great time with the Q'eqchi women who constantly gather around to watch us paint and through translators chat with us. We're getting to know the good folks who run this non-government organization ("NGO" in the parlance of community development, which means privately run and funded). We've all eaten a lot of rice and beans with the kids and staff and had a rare inside look at the lives of the Q'eqchi Mayans who've lived in this inhospitable jungle since they were forced from their central highland homelands during the brutal political violence of the 1980s.

Photo of school children at the Ak' Tenamit in the Río Dulce, Guatemala

Ak' Tenamit, which means "new village" in Q'eqchi, is the invention of Steve Dudenhoefer, an American who founded it in 1992, and who's been its director ever since. Ak' Tenamit and the Q'eqchi have become Steve's mission in life. Guatemala has 700,000 Q'eqchi-speaking Mayans, and Steve believes that by learning Spanish and vocational skills relevant to their rural life, the children in the villages surrounding Ak'Tenamit will be qualified for work sustaining their own villages, rather than flooding to the cities in search of employment that doesn't exist. This, he believes, will help to break the Q'eqchi chain of poverty. The average annual income for a Q'eqchi family of eight is under $500, far below the national average.

"The key is education," he said. "Q'eqchi in the highlands traditionally raised corn as their major food source. But this lowlands jungle soil isn't good for it. We've seen two complete crop failures since Hurricane Mitch, and this has had long-term devastating effects on the tribes — anemia and malnutrition are the most obvious health problems; this has meant a high birth mortality rate, not to mention a loss of their main income. We're working intensively with the Q'eqchi now to develop new marketable crops that work better in these lowlands, such as cacao and cinnamon. We're teaching them how to grow medicinal gardens, vitamin- and nutrient-rich crops, and we're showing them how to replace their slash-and-burn farming techniques. We're also trying to help them build talapia fish ponds in two villages, and we've got a fish pen here in the Río Dulce where we're experimenting with raising endemic species as cash crops."

Photo of parents and children working in the fields Parents and children all contribute their labor to help pay for the program that educates them and takes care of their medical needs.

By all measures, Ak' Tenamit has been a great success, despite the fact that it's always strapped for cash. The clinic, headed for more than four years by Katy Mitchell, MD, an emergency-room physician from Chicago, who receives no pay for her job, treated 5,000 patients last year. At the rate they're going, that number will hit 6,000 this year. The clinic is staffed by international-volunteer doctors, midwives, medical students, and Q'eqchi "health promoters," who are trained by Ak'Tenamit to work with each patient, translate as needed, and deal with the less serious treatments. Depending on the state of their budget, the Ak'Tenamit medical team tries to visit 30 Q‘eqchi villages every six weeks, which sometimes requires long boat rides, and then two- and three-hour treks into the jungle. So far they've trained 32 midwives in 14 villages. Last year, volunteer dentists saw 750 patients on the Ak' Tenamit dental boat.

While Douglas and I were doing projects around the clinic, I stopped into the clinic and asked Katy to take a look at a deep-tissue infection I'd developed in my thumb — nothing heals when you're cruising in the tropics, and although I'd taken two courses of antibiotics, this thumb was beginning to look nasty. While waiting my turn, I noticed a baby in the arms of one of the doctors. I'd seen the baby the day before in the arms of one of the health promoters, and the day before in the arms of Katy. As she lanced and stitched my thumb, Katy told me about Victor, who for the past four months has lived in her office at the clinic. His mother had died in childbirth in her village, and his disoriented father, with five other children to take care of, had fed Victor corn gruel (basically corn water) for three months. He didn't have the money for formula. The newborn couldn't digest this gruel, became deathly sick on this diet, and when the health team visited his village, he was thrust into the arms of one of the doctors by his frightened 12-year-old sister as they were about to shove off in their boat. At three months, the listless baby weighed only nine pounds, had a distended abdomen, and was covered with scabies and sores.

He was rushed to the clinic, and Katy began aggressive treatment and nourishment, then she took him to the hospital in Barios, where he was kept for a month. When she went to pick him up one month later, he weighed no more. She's kept him at the Ak'Tenamit clinic ever since, under her watchful care. Now, five months later, Victor is a bouncing, curious, healthy, and affectionate baby, reaching his developmental milestones. Although Victor's father initially had no interest in his son, everyone was relieved last month when he finally began to visit, and when he offered his labor to the school to repay Ak'Tenamit for their help. Out of her own pocket, Katy also hired a Q'eqchi nanny to live at the clinic and care for the baby. Victor's father is beginning to bond with his only son, has enrolled his 12-year-old daughter in the Ak'Tenamit school, and she's doing well. Victor is scheduled to go home with his dad at the end of this month.

Photo of Victor sleeping in Katy's office at the clinic Until he goes home this month, Victor sleeps in Katy's office at the clinic.

"It'll be a hard day for all of us," said Katy. And for Victor, no doubt. "But also a day we've been hoping for. Victor's been bonding with his dad. We've finally weaned him off formula, and he's beginning to eat regular food now, so he's strong enough to go home."

Between babies in the clinic, sick and injured people being brought in at all hours by cayucos — "Lots of machete wounds!" says Katy — and 400 students in school, Ak'Tenamit is a hive of activity from morning till night. Starting at about 7 a.m., kids in the day programs begin arriving in their shallow, beat-up cayucos, the equivalent of bikes here on the river. Meanwhile, the boarding students are already up and washing clothes in the river, studying, or playing soccer; and the paid staff (local Q'eqchi who have been trained), and the 12 volunteers who live at Ak' Tenamit — the latter including doctors, med students, teachers, artists and other professionals — start their day's work. The volunteers work hard, play hard, and receive no remuneration. Most commit for at least a year, some for only a few months. Such temporary volunteers as Douglas and I are eagerly welcome, no matter how briefly we stay. We work alongside the tortilla-making mothers and machete-wielding fathers of the kids; parents and students are asked to provide some volunteer labor in exchange for the opportunity to attend school. The same is true for any Q'eqchi who can't pay for a visit to the clinic. No problema. The philosophy here is that you give some time to the organization instead.

Photo of the morning school bus which brings them from many villages along the river
For local kids who do not board at Ak'Tenamit, this is the morning school bus
which brings them from many villages along the river.

Last December and January, 150 students worked 10-hour days and six-day weeks to erect their school building. There are no roads in this part of the jungle, so materials arrived by boat, and building sites were cleared with machetes. The kids carried every cement bag and cinder block from the boats, through the jungle, up the hill to the site. Today, those same children attend classes and eat their meals in the school and kitchen they built.

Traditionally, most Q'eqchi village children have completed only two years of school before abandoning their studies to work. Ak' Tenamit is trying to change that. Using the Columbian SAT program (Sistemar de Aprendizaje Tutorial), developed by FUNDAEC (the Fundacion Para La Aplicacion y Ensenanza de las Ciencias), Ak' Tenamit teaches courses in sustainable agriculture; health education; and infrastructure construction — houses, latrines, and potable water systems. Traditionally, in the villages, only the boys go to school. At Ak' Tenamit, girls are encouraged to attend, and after a shaky start where the girls had to struggle to make up for lost time, those who do now are thriving in school alongside the boys. All the students must study the SAT program in Spanish, even though they come to the school speaking only Q'eqchi; it's an additional challenge for them, but Ak' Tenamit's philosophy is that while the traditions of the Q'eqchi are paramount, still it's critical for students to become fluent in the tongue of their country if they're to be successful.

The dense rainforest surrounding the Río Dulce is inhabited by Guatemala's poorest people, yet they are people rich in age-old Mayan tradition. Douglas and I feel lucky to have a glimpse into this world, and we're hoping to go with the next medical expedition up into one of the isolated villages. As Ithaka and Sea Camp bob safely at anchor in this beautiful bay of the great river, a natural hot spring is a short dinghy hop along the shoreline. We read about it in our guide book, and found it by tracing the rocky shore in the dinghy, and holding our hand in the river until we felt the rush of hot water. Now, we go there every day after work — with our soap and shampoo—drop the anchor in the shallows, slide from the dinghy into the steamy shallow water, and sit neck-deep on the smooth rocks. There we scrub off the sweat of our labors, soak, relax, and talk about the day. Considering the small part of ourselves we're giving here, Ak' Tenamit is giving us much more in return.


For More Information

Ak' Tenamit sustains itself by recruiting full-time volunteers, by tax-deductible private donations, and by seeking international sponsors to help cover each student's basic costs (about $1/day/student). Many cruisers who visit the Rio Dulce anchor off the facility (a safe, well-trafficked spot) and stop by to offer a hand for a week or more. A hearty hot lunch and a list of chores needing to be done are always available. Ak'Tenamit is also a great resource for cruisers seeking medical attention, as it's staffed by highly-trained physicians.

For info on Ak'Tenamit, log on to

The to contact Ak'Tenamit's American Office:

The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund (a 501-C3 corporation): P.O. Box 3636, Tequesta, FL 33469. Phone: (561) 747-9790, or e-mail:

To contact the Guatemala City Office:

Asociación Ak' Tenamit, Apartado Postal #2675, Zona 1, Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala, Centro América. Phone: (502) 254-1560 (ask for Guillermo, who speaks English)