Thursday, January 3, 2019

Art Relief after the Eruption, it's a Wrap!

Final Report Art Relief after the Volcano Eruption

The Day of the Eruption
The Fuego volcano had been pretty active for months. There was nothing unusual about its constant puffs and deep rumble, so nobody paid close attention. Not even when a black rain started that noon. That was unusual, but not exceptional either. It had happened before, in different places, depending on which way the wind blows.

That Sunday, the 3rd of June of 2018, the area around the volcano, up to 100km away, was quickly covered in a soft layer of ashes. It was like walking through black snow, all sounds muffled. My neighbourhood had transformed into apocalyptic scene from a SF movie. People wandered around in astonishment and awe before picking up a broom to start cleaning up.

A few hours of sweeping later, with blisters on my hands, I took a break and turned on the computer. That’s when I learned this disaster went way beyond blisters from sweeping…

If I recall correctly, the first shocking news was that the golf resort and luxury hotel La Reunión was completely devastated. Nobody was hurt, all guests and personal were evacuated on time. (Later a rumour went around that CONRED, the Guatemalan emergency management agency, had warned the staff at the golf resort but not the people in surrounding villages. This was denied both by CONRED as well as the manager of the resort. That is likely the truth, but it does show how yet again money matters: the safety of the guests was after all the manager’s responsibility and the resort had the resources to evacuate whereas the residents of the village were hesitant to leave their meagre possessions behind and didn’t have how to leave or where to go.)

Then the first deaths were reported. Grim images of people covered in ash being rescued. The volunteer firemen and women were the heroes of the hour, working tirelessly while the soles melted off their boots. The government  conspicuous by its absence.

A live video on Facebook: a dozen or so people stand near a bridge on highway RN14, a huge cloud of grey ashes approaching. Towards the bridge a truck with two fire fighters, stopping the people from getting any closer. The cloud comes closer and closer, faster than anyone expected. People start to run. The cloud takes over the highway. The footage stops. 
Later it became clear that everybody who had been standing there had perished. No bodies were recovered.

The cloud, it turned out, was pyroclastic flow. Nothing to do with the slowly descending streams of lava, this current of hot gas and volcanic matter can reach speeds and temperatures into the hundreds. It’s fast, hot and deadly. It came down as a fatal surprise, through riverbeds and valleys, burying everything in its way. Whole neighbourhoods where covered. Very few people who were surprised by the flow managed to survive.

Everybody Wants to Help
Schools and churches were opened as impromptu shelters while donations started to pour in. It seemed everybody in Guatemala (and beyond) want to help, give, do something. But for President Jimmy Morales who announced that not a penny was available for this kind of emergencies.

Relief efforts started to get organized. Donations at collection centres were being classified by hundreds of volunteers. The First Lady helped too. The goods she handled weren’t even donated by her or the president, but it did look good on Twitter. 
Cooking stations were set up to feed the people in the shelters as well as the fire fighters and other volunteers.  

Within days after the disaster, the municipalities of Alotenango and Escuintla, the towns which communities had been hit hardest, had taken over the operation of the shelters and donations. Although some sort of organization was desperately needed, by now the shelters had turned into semi prisons where hardly anyone was allowed in or out.

At a national level, the president announced that no international help was needed. Later he changed his tune and said that all financial aid should be channelled to one bank account, to be managed by the government. Meanwhile, dozens of trucks full of goods collected by solidary people in Honduras and El Salvador were stuck at the border.

I Want to Help Too!
This disaster really struck home. The volcano, so near by; the town of Alotenango, settled on the slopes of three volcanoes, so familiar. Of course I wanted to help too, but how? I had no spare money to give and doubted very much that I’d make anybody happy with a bag of old clothes or food from my kitchen. So besides fostering a puppy that was rescued from Zone 0, I decided that the best thing I had to offer were art workshops. Not formal classes, but, for starters, a bit of painting, drawing, crafts, story telling and yoga. To distract the kids, to keep them busy, and to provide them with a bit of entertainment. Maybe later I’d be able to offer more structured activities focused on art therapy, in collaboration with other artists.

I announced my plans on Facebook and soon received some donations towards materials. So far so good. Getting into the shelter for the actual workshop turned out to me a whole different matter. A special permission was needed but the coordinator to grant that permission seemed to be a different person every week with no one ever answering any calls or messages. But thanks to the perseverance and contacts of Abi Ruíz, administrator at the Carpentry project Alotenango, we got in!

Art Relief
That first day, June 8th we went in with Abi, three of her friends, and plenty of supplies for several activities. The shelter we were assigned to was the smaller annex of the public elementary school and housed around 120 people, of which 70 were children (about half of them babies and toddlers). We set up in the courtyard and were soon at work. Around 40 kids painted on the big sheets, the volcano being a favourite subject. The older ones, including some of the mothers liked the adult colouring pages. It was a bit of a surreal experience. The kids were just kids, laughing, running and having fun, completely oblivious of the fact that in one corner coffins were stacked up till the ceiling and a steady flow of donations being stored away. Residents crossed the patio on their way to the makeshift showers or to hang up laundry.
It turned out that besides the activities organized by a group of psychologists of Save the Children, there wasn’t much going on for the kids. Except for piñatas and plenty of candy. Somehow people think that that’s what kids need in times of distress. The kids were actually so saturated with candy that they left their half eaten lollipops and bags of crisps all over the place. They were barely interested when another church group with more candy or cheap toys would come in. But they were very much into the art activities and storytelling. And they themselves had some stories to tell too. Oh my, how hair raising it is to hear a four-year-old tell you about how he and his mum ran for their lives while grandpa decided to stay behind, trying to convince them that nothing would happen… 

The Surreal World of the Aftermath
For the next three months a visit to the shelter in Alotenango became part of my agenda, but never a routine. Wandering around Alotenango was a surreal experience… For starters, the busses didn’t drive all the way into town, but dropped its passengers off at the entrance, quite a walk from the town’s centre. That made sense right after the disaster with so much extra traffic, but three months later?
A huge tent was set up in the Central Park where wakes were held for the victims, their coffins lined up on stage. The first week there were dozens of funerals. In the weeks to come the number went down, as did the number of attendants, but still, almost daily the saddening tones of a Catholic funeral march or Evangelical hymn would set the tone and became daily life for those in Alotenango. Every time a funeral left from the Central Park on the way to the cemetery, a solemn silence would descend, to be quickly replaced by the hubbub of life-goes-on, the annoying tinkling of the ice-cream vendor’s bell, the yells of the guy selling sugar candy as well as kids, dogs and traffic, as soon as the last mourner was out of sight.

Always busy too was the big tent where food was prepared and distributed to the people in the shelters and volunteers. Next to it, three yellow tents of Scientology. And lots of traffic. People kept coming with donations. Some of them refused to drop their donations off at the Municipality and instead wanted to give their donations directly, not taking in account that the people on the receiving end shared a limited space with other families and didn’t really have any space to store anything but the most needed.

It was great that the tragedy created (initially) such an outpour of generosity but maybe we really should wait and think hard, next time disaster strikes. I’ve seen tons, literally tons of donations at the municipality, enough to supply half the town and that was just at one recollection centre. I also saw, only weeks ago, a lot of those donations been thrown away. Nothing worthy, just stuff that didn’t survive or got mouldy, such as boxes of milk and noodle soups. But more than ever I’m convinced that donating goods in the spur of the moment is not a solution at all, it is a logistic nightmare. Why not give those people cash? That way they can buy the goods they want or need and support the local economy at the same time.

Getting our permission slip and then our tags wasn’t as routine either and despite the fact that we reserved a timeslot a week beforehand, it often coincided with other activities or a change of, yet again, the coordinator of the agenda. So we never really knew how many kids to expect or where we could set up, Flexibility became the main  rule to prepare our workshops by.

The stream of visitors didn’t slow down after the first few weeks. The shelters had become sort of a tourist attraction. Visitors from different organizations, churches and enterprises came in, sometimes in big numbers, to... to do what, actually? I saw a few groups doing fun games with the kids, educational activities or group prayers with the adults. Others came in and just handed out bags of candy, leaving with a blissful smile on their faces. Some visitors rudely interrupted our activities, even our storytelling, by handing out their donation right there and then, rather than waiting two minutes till the story was finished. And some people gave really stupid donations too. Besides the candy, what about cheap knock-off Crocs, for only half the number children present??? Or brand new soccer balls while the only place to play was the tiny yard that also doubled as laundry area, classroom and dining hall? But I was most baffled when a group of Scientology volunteers swarmed in (all in the same blue shirt) and set down at our activity table, without even asking or presenting themselves. The children got up one by one and soon I was left with a group of grown-up volunteers who didn’t speak any Spanish but had apparently quite fun doing the art activity of the day.

It was clear that the people in the shelters were beginning to get tired of being on the receiving end and of having to be grateful. It was also clear that the kids had become rather used to the fact that everything was a donation, considering the ridiculous amount of art supplies we lost every week.

Rather than having a blissful smile on my face I’d feel frustrated and sometimes downright appalled by the things I saw. Many a time I felt completely out of place and useless, swearing I’d never be back. But as soon as the kids saw us and asked what we were going to do this week or if I would read that specific story again, I was, yet again, completely sold. We might not have contributed greatly to the emotional wellbeing of these children, or whatever benefits the arts can provide, we were a constant factor and a familiar face in an ocean of strangers and uncertainties. And that’s why I kept going back.

Art Relief in Other Shelters
Since it was rather hard to get in the shelters in Alotenango right after the eruption and also because we thought that other shelters might receive less attention all around, me and my friend Jessica Hoult went to Escuintla a few times to see if we could set up something over there. The first shelter we visited was evacuated soon after. At the second shelter we visited we had a great experience with the kids, but we also had to be realistic: at the time highway RN14 to Escuintla was still inaccessible and to go “the other way around” was quite gruesome. Once it took us 4 hours to get back, by car. That’s a lot of driving for a 2 hour activity! So that was one of the reasons to decide to stick to Alotenango.
I also taught a workshop at the main building of the school, but decided it was more fruitful to keep working with the same group of kids.

Art Workshops in the Transition Shelter
By late August, the people moved out of the public schools, into what are called ATUs (Albergue de Transición Unifamiliar). The one in Alotenango, located at the infamous but now repaired highway RN14 (which after being fixed for millions of Quetzales will sooner or later, but rather sooner, be covered by volcanic debris again), houses 147 families, about 650 people total. Each wooden barrack is divided in 4 and is home to 4 or less families, depending on the family’s size. There are 2 areas with showers, toilets and pilas, sinks for laundry. Because of the fire hazard, people are not allowed to cook in their unit and receive three meals a day. 

  This transition coincided with my trip to Europe, and by the time I came back, people had settled in. Although far from ideal, the situation is an improvement. Not only for the families that now have a tad bit more of privacy, but also for the youth in Alotenango that can go back to school again.

In the meantime, coordinators had changed, of course, but I got a new contact at the Municipality, Sandra Barragán, who proved to be very helpful. I was asked to come by the shelter with a written proposal and was actually officially granted permission, not in the least because we had already been present for months. In order to get started I had to write a detailed plan of what activities I intended to do and after that I was ready to go. I got the Tuesday afternoons, 2-5pm and we decided on two workshops per week, one for the little ones, the other for age 9+.
So far we had mostly worked with the little ones (some as young as 2 years old!), so I was excited to work with (pre-) teens. I suggested art activities centred on the history of art, which was approved. We even got our ”own” space to work in, one of the wooden sheds that could fit, with a bit of squeezing here and there, about 20 kids. Not ideal, but it would give me the opportunity to work on a different, more personal level with the kids now that we had the privacy of four walls.

I was excited to get started and enjoyed spending money on new supplies. I also officially hired Henry Navarijo, my sometimes mural assistant, to help out with the classes and mostly for crowd control. For the first workshop I prepared 40 folders that the little ones would paint and the older ones would create prehistoric art on, the theme of the first workshop. It was a lot of work, but the idea a practical one, since the kids could keep their future artwork in that folder. I thought that would be a fun activity. Except that things went a bit different than planned.

That first workshop there was no furniture in “our” shed, so we had to set up in the dining area. An open and much transited space due to the fact that it is what I call The Centre of the Universe, the place where mobiles can be charged.  We had about 25 kids, mostly tiny ones. None of the older kids showed up at 3pm for my well prepared lecture on prehistoric art.  Well, maybe next week.

The next week, there was furniture, but since the shed is a bit secluded, only 15 kids showed up. Things didn’t improve over the next two weeks, so we decided to go back to the refectory. There we always had between 20 and 30 kids, albeit usually the little ones, almost all of them from the shelter we had previously worked at. All together we had a lot of fun and made some great art and crafts.

The last workshop was conducted on December 18. It was really tough saying goodbye to those kids, but we had to end the project somewhere. The next Tuesday would be Christmas, the week after New Year’s and then the kids go back to school. So it was goodbye, and a tough one it was…

Art Workshops and Mural with the Community Academy’s Students
From the very start I had this idea to do a mural somewhere (I’m a muralist, after all) to commemorate the people (and animals) who lost their lives. Of course that was not something to organize soon after the disaster struck, but I hoped to do something once the people where settled in the Transition Shelter. Like painting the wooden barracks in individual units, giving the place a sense of community as well as individuality….
Alas, the central government didn’t allow any painting done (several paint producers had offered). But, my contact at the Municipality of Alotenango said, why not doing a mural here at the municipal building? And involve the kids that attend the “Community Academy”??? Well, why not. Even though the kids in question were not residents of the villages affected by the volcano eruption, the whole town was affected as such and the disaster was now part of their history too.  Also, the space they wanted to be painted I knew all to well, because it was one of the places where donations were collected and where we got our permission slips to get into the shelters. In normal times, the room is used for marimba classes, so the theme was set…

Painting with those kids was fantastic!!! They did not only do a great job, they were so eager to learn and just couldn’t stop! They were so disappointed when the job was done, so I offered them a special art workshop on Henri Matisse, which went really well, and just because we couldn’t get enough of it, another one on Frida Kahlo too. And this was actually already in their vacation time, the course had already officially ended for the year!

During the Matisse workshop we painted sheets of paper and then made cut-outs. The kids created a volcano but instead of lava and ash they created an eruption of butterflies, representing the souls of the people passed away.
And that’s how the idea was born for yet another mural, this one at the Central park in Alotenango painted together with those kids. The idea was to finish it right before Christmas, and that would be the perfect ending for this project.
Alas… In December pretty much every thing closes down and we couldn’t get permission for the mural (the wall is property of the elementary school). But the wall will still be there in January, so hopefully we can properly finish this project soon…

And Now?
And the people in the shelters? As for now, the free there meals a day have stooped as of January 1. That will mean people have to somehow provide for their own food (communal kitchens will be provided). For some it will be an incentive to leave the shelter and go back to their community, despite constant threats of another eruption. Some might accept one of the 1,000 houses the government is building, although without consent of neither victims nor consultancy by any expert organizations. The 1,000 homes are inadequate and too small (42m² for an entire family) and too many because actually only 416 new homes were needed.
In the meantime, without any governmental help (rather the opposite) people are still looking for their loved ones, hoping to provide them with a proper burial.

The eruption brought out the best and worst in people. The stories -good and bad, heart warming and breaking- are endless, the disaster now a landmark in Guatemala’s history. But the after-effects are far from over. At least not for the people whose lives were shaken to the core.

All in all we have conducted 25 workshops for 550 kids and painted one mural (with one in the making.)
Am I happy about the results? Yes and no. It has been an interesting experience but I would have liked to see more depth in the art classes. I think the children could have profited greatly from a bit of art therapy, individual art sessions or yoga. But the circumstances did not permit it. It was after all emergency art relief, something I just jumped in, not a well thought-through project.
I am absolutely sure the kids enjoyed the art and hopefully it helps them in ways they don’t even realize. I do know that I have become very fond of many of those kids. I will miss them and hope that this awful tragedy will somehow work for them. They are awesome and deserve the very best.

For more information on the workshops and mural, please visit

Thank you….
And of course, all this could not have happened without YOU! There are plenty of you, your donations in time, money or goods were thoughtful and generous.

I’ll donate the remaining of the art supplies to the nursing home Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz in Antigua where the old folks I met when I painted a series of murals there, will surely make excellent use of them.

Thank you all for your tremendous support.
I wish you the very best in the New Year!

Volunteers: Abi Ruíz, Suzan Eleveld, Rudy, Marlon and Otoniel of the Carpentry Project Alotenango; Henry Navarijo; Jessica Hoult, José Carlos Barahona; Sharan Gainor; Donna Jessen; Ana María Ackermans

Sponsors: Wendy Russell; Judy Sadlier, Debbie Pate; Maureen Mack; Jenneca Fevos; Jim Bader; Ineke de Smidt; Lies Joosten; Judith Bardoel; Timmerproject Guatemala; Will & Cees Griffioen, Stichting Colour4Kids; Stichting Uno Más/ Marianne Kiwanis;