'My grandchildren will be safe': In Guatemala, a family rebuilds

By Tjarda Muller
Manuel Tziquin Warchaj stands with her family in front of their new home, built with the help of Oxfam and its partners after an earthquake destroyed their previous home. Photo by Ana Arellano/Oxfam

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Manuela Tziquin Warchaj is a small 63-year-old woman who lives with a daughter—Antonia—and Antonia’s four children. Tziquin is in charge of the household, while her daughter dedicates most of her time to weaving güipiles—typical Guatemalan women’s clothing—and belts, the family’s only source of income.

In June, Tziquin and her family moved into their new home. The devastating earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.2, that struck Guatemala on Nov. 7, 2012, left Tizquin’s small house of straw and clay in ruins. She had lived there most of her life.

“I was about to go out to fetch wood when it happened. The earth started to shake fiercely and the walls of the house started to break. We were very scared, because we didn’t know what was going to happen and the house was moving so much,” remembers Tziquin. “Thank God it was during the day, so we could run out of the house. It hurt so much to see the damaged house, because, how would we able to build a new one? We don’t have the money to build a new house. And the only thing I was thinking was: ’Where will we live?’”

Tziquin was one of the 54 people in her community who received materials to rebuild their houses. As part of an emergency project, Oxfam together with partners Association for Agricultural Development (ADAM), Association for Education and Development (ASEDE) and Asociación Nuevo Amanecer (ASDENA) constructed 130 houses in 16 communities in the departments of Sololá and Huehuetenango. Through the initiative, approximately 650 members of the most vulnerable groups in the communities—mostly elderly people, single mothers, widows and widowers—who lost their homes in the quake now have new places to live.

In the weeks after the disaster, Oxfam and partners distributed food  and other goods such as blankets, hygiene kits, and kitchen utensils, to families like Tziquin’s The project also included the installation of water tanks, community training on water, sanitation and hygiene, and the organization of civil protection committees.

In disasters, it’s usually the poorest who are hit hardest. Often, they don’t have strong materials with which to build their houses nor can they often get access to the safest locations, being forced, instead, to build on steep ravines or in flood-prone lowlands. And when severe storms hit, wiping out their crops, they have few resources on which to fall back.

Over the years, Tziquin and her husband, who died three years ago, repeatedly had to overcome loss of crops due to excess rain, which severely affected the family’s food security. But they managed to pull through thanks to the income Tziquin was able to earn from her weaving.

Now, Tziquin’s daughter, Antonia, has taken over the task of weaving and Tziquin is pouring her energy into running the household—by no means an easy job. Running a household in the community of Xecaquixcan includes fetching fire wood to cook—40-minute walk—and shopping at the nearest market--a two hour trek away.

Still, Tziquin says life in Xecaquixcan is good, because there is running water from a community water system and the air is not as cold as it is in other communities. And now, with her family’s new house, she has the added comfort of security. Community members and ADAM technical staff worked hard for six months to build it.

“I always dreamt of a better house, but I never had the money to build a house with better materials. Now I have a safe house”, says Tziquin happily. “It is made of concrete and looks very solid. My grandchildren will be safe.”