Why Language Matters: A Clinic Day in Kaqchikel Maya

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Experience a Day in our Clinic in Kaqchikel Maya:

Medical student intern Nora King, has worked hard to learn Kaqchikel to aid in her work with our patients. Women travel far for their visits and will wait for hours in order to access medical service in their own language, rather than Spanish.

Nora practices Kaqchikel with Magda.
Nora practices Kaqchikel with Magda.

Nora reflects on clinic day… When we arrived to the community, there were about twelve women waiting cheerfully outside the community center where we hold clinic. I was a bit shocked—we’d only scheduled a small handful of prenatal and women’s visits.

These poor women, I thought, they will have to wait all morning! I bashfully walked past the women as the filed into the building and settled onto the wood plank benches.

I greeted them in Kaqchikel, most by name—Xsqër, doña Cata, la ütz awäch? Xpe ri awal awikin? Ütz rub’anon rija’? Xsqër, nana. Katzuye, pues. (Good morning Mrs. Cata, how are you? Is your child with you? How is your child doing? Good morning to you Mam. Please have a seat.)

Clinic went well. As always there were a few frustrations, a few mysteries. We dipped urine, did Pap smears, and listened to heartbeats. Hour after hour, the women waiting to see us sat on the wood plank benches in the next room. The morning settled into a cloudy afternoon, and then a rainstorm started. I was worried they would be upset with us for having to wait for so long. But time and time again, I heard laughter and gleeful voices in Kaqchikel.

I wonder if they enjoy the wait. When else do these hardworking Kaqchikel women get a singular space to gossip and giggle? They have a good excuse to sit and wait rather than wash clothes or sweep the patio or gather firewood or work on a woven guïpil. I suppose it is a rare moment in their life.

Only two or three patients remained when there was a gentle knock on the backroom door around two in the afternoon. It was Juana, a patient who lost an infant son to a terrible disease and recently found out she was pregnant. She had seen us for her prenatal visit earlier in the day, we spoke entirely in Kaqchikel, she shared her difficult loss and uncertain future with us, somewhere in the middle of the long line.

We finished at about four in the afternoon, working straight through. We staggered out into the waiting room to find that Juana had left a plastic basket covered in handwoven napkins. We uncovered the basket and found three fried eggs, tomato sauce and a huge stack of perfectly round tortillas. She had brought us lunch.

Unsolicited, without expectation, this was just what we needed. The three of us were a bit tired and dazed from the long day; nothing could have looked more appetizing. A gesture of kindness, of welcome, possibly of thanks. Matyox! (Thank you)

Ka kikot ustape’ k’o kayewal: “Be happy although there are difficulties”
Ka kikot ustape’ k’o kayewal: “Be happy although there are difficulties”
The road to our community for work...
The road to our community for clinic.