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November 2, 2005

“Pride is holding your head up when everyone around you has theirs bowed. Courage is what makes you do it. “ - From The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Up until these last two years the first thing I thought of when I heard the word courage was the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. This mental picture, of course, makes me smile. But a new sobering image has replaced the amusing one. Now, my vision of courage comes from the women of Guatemala. Let me give you one portrait out of which this idea evolved.

This July I sat in a windowless stuffy meeting room at the office of CONAVIGUA, an organization for widows in Guatemala. Assembled around the table was a group from the United States. The energy in the room was concentrated at the head of the table. There sat two of the coordinators of the widow’s organization and a boy.

Doña Francisca had her young son in her lap as she told story after story about the pain and struggle that the members of CONAVIGA go through daily. She told of the exhumations that they were supporting in hopes of giving widows and family members a little piece of mind about where their loved ones might be. There are hundreds and hundreds of clandestine graves scattered around the Guatemalan countryside where, during the 36-year civil war especially, bodies were just dumped by those hoping that they would be forgotten. But Guatemala does not forget. She talked of the day-to-day task of finding strength in the midst of despair. Her voice was strong as she spoke though it lost a little of its force in the large room. But since I was sitting right next to her and trying to translate her words into English with the same poetic force that her Spanish conveyed, I heard every word loud and clear.

While she spoke, her head was held high, even as her young son flopped around in her lap. Her arm was wrapped tightly under his arms and around his chest. His head bobbed back and forth, up and down in mechanical motions like a puppet, flailing and falling as the puppet master toyed with the strings. He seemingly had little control over his movements. A line of constant drool escaped his half open mouth and trickled down his mothers arm. She, occasionally, without skipping a beat or looking down, would wipe the waterfall away with a corner of her multi-colored woven apron. More often than not, his eyes were fixed on nothing. They stared off blankly but once in a while he would snap them into focus on something, maybe someone. He was most happy when a tiny red pencil was grasped awkwardly between his fingers but most of the time it slipped away and went bounding away down the floor like a spooked rabbit. It was easy to tell that something was affecting this boy, that his mind wasn’t all there.

In our conversation we never seemed to get just Doña Francisca’s story. Her mouth seemed to speak for all Guatemalan women.  She was a voice track for women who had lost husbands, fathers, children, relatives, and friends during the war. Her words were the scars etched upon the hearts of numerous widows; her tears fell from countless faces. Yet through all this, as a spokeswoman for pain and suffering, she did not pause; she did not hesitate. Even as tears cascaded down her face, she continued on with her stories and she continues on in her struggle minute after minute, day after day. That is where I saw her courage. Here she was, with what sounded like the weight of a thousand worlds on her shoulders and a young son who must have needed constant attention, yet never ceasing her struggle, never stopping and never giving up hope that her words will be heard, that the widows of Guatemala will find some sort of peace. At that moment, courage and strength leapt from her body and her words like a dolphin in slow motion and hung above and around all of us in the air.

This is but a small sketch of the many experiences I have had with the women here in Guatemala where I have been struck by the power of their courage. Where their strength has reduced me into a timid clown who, for example, enters the women’s office at ACG with a shy “con permiso (with permission),” quietly stumbles over my question, and makes a quick getaway, tripping over my own feet. The presence of the women who are half my size is humbling and leaves an enduring effect on any who have the honor of sharing their space.


Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG).  He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.

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