Since arriving in Guatemala on March 1, Kay Davis, a 71-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Bangor, has been driven to church in a three-wheeled taxi called a tuk-tuk. She has traveled from mountain village to mountain village in a refurbished American school bus packed three to a seat and loaded with chickens, handwoven fabrics and other market goods. And she’s learned to slap together a corn-flour tortilla and bake it over an open fire, eaten beans at almost every meal and picked 43 ripe avocados off the tree in her host family’s front yard.
“The goat herder comes by early, shouting that he has milk and cracking his whip against the street,” Davis wrote on her Facebook page earlier this month. “If you want some, just open your door and he will milk a goat for you. FRESH!”
In the town of about 11,000, where she is completing her training and orientation, Davis has witnessed an organized protest of violence against young girls and watched an elaborate Lenten procession through the streets. She has felt soft ash sifting down from the live volcano less than a mile from the edge of town.
Davis’ real adventure hasn’t even really begun yet. In about two weeks, she’ll leave the relative ease of the Peace Corps’ training center in the province of Sacatepequez and report to a remote mountain village, where she’ll live for the next two years. Her assignment will be to work with village residents and health providers to help reduce rates of childhood malnutrition and maternal deaths.
Davis, born in Skowhegan and raised in Bangor, is no stranger to hands-on service or foreign culture. From 1968 to 1971, as a member of the Dominican order of Maryknoll Sisters, she worked with impoverished women and children in Chile, in the “campamentos” — sprawling shantytowns surrounding the capital city of Santiago. She left the order and returned to the U.S. after meeting and falling in love with missionary brother Leonard Davis. The two married and eventually settled in Maine, raising eight biological and adoptive children.
Kay Davis completed a master’s degree in social work and developed an active career focused on the needs of children and families. After her husband died in 2014, she decided she wasn’t ready to settle into a quiet old age.
“I think I have one more adventure left in me,” she told the Bangor Daily News in an interview last November. “And I want to do some kind of service.”
‘Tortillas and frijoles are not enough’
When Davis contacted the Peace Corps, she learned there is no upper age limit for serving as a volunteer. And so she applied, selecting Guatemala as her service site and maternal and child health as her project. It took about a year to complete the process, which included several personal interviews and a detailed medical work-up to ensure she was physically up to the challenge and a good match for the goals of the health project.
“Sixty percent of children here, especially those in indigenous Mayan areas, have chronic malnutrition,” she said in a recent conversation via a Facebook video link from the courtyard of her host family’s home. That’s largely because the local diet lacks variety.
“I’m going to be teaching people about growing and eating more nutritious foods,” she said, “something besides corn and beans. Tortillas and frijoles are not enough.”
Because of the lack of clean drinking water and the difficulty of boiling it, which requires kindling a woodfire in the smoky home cook stove, products such as powdered infant formula and food supplements may cause life-threatening diarrhea. That makes it all the more important to recommend whole foods that fit into the existing diet, she said, and to encourage mothers to breastfeed their infants as long as possible.
Eating habits are also to blame for widespread deficiency in folic acid and iron during pregnancy, associated with spina bifida and other spinal cord defects. Infants born with these defects may be left to die, as no medical resources are available.
“Some clinics here don’t have access to prenatal vitamins,” Davis said, “so we’re teaching them the importance of adding dark greens to their diets.” Vegetables such as spinach and kale can be hard to grow in arid, high-altitude gardens, so Davis will be helping village women to forage and prepare wild greens such as macuy, berro and chipilin.
Davis is still learning to recognize the different plants and how to prepare them.
“One of my projects here is to get someone who knows all the plants and herbs to take photos,” she said, so she can compile a field guide and kitchen manual.
Davis will also be working with local midwives, who typically learn the vocation from their mothers have little or no clinical training. Babies are almost always delivered at home, she said, and one reason so many women die in childbirth is because midwives fail to call for a doctor or professional nurse until it’s too late.
“They need to learn to recognize the early warning signs that a pregnancy or delivery is running into problems,” she said — signs such as headache or fever that can signal a life-threatening problem. Since most midwives cannot read, they need to attend hands-on classes and workshops to learn new clinical skills.
Davis has been speaking Spanish almost exclusively since her arrival in March and feels confident of her ability to communicate effectively in the village setting. And her age, she said, will likely be an asset. “Those of grandparent age are considered very wise here,” she said.
The next step
Davis doesn’t know yet exactly where she’ll be sent for her permanent placement. On May 5, the day she and the others in her group complete their training and are officially sworn in as volunteers, she’ll find out.
“I’m excited, but I’m nervous at the same time,” she said. She has been assured that her living situation, boarding with a village family, will be safe and will include access to electricity and water.
She has requested that she be within an hours’ ride on the “chicken bus” of another Peace Corps volunteer in a neighboring village.
“It’s part of my mental health strategy to go and hang out with another American and eat something besides beans and tortillas,” she said. And she hopes her daily walk from her host family’s home to the health clinic where she will work includes no more than one steep hill.
“Guatemalans don’t understand because their whole world is up and down,” she said. But the high altitude of the mountain villages — most are between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level — is hard to get used to and could even pose a health challenge. “I’ve been feeling fine,” she said, but she’ll be keeping an eye on her blood pressure and other health indicators that may be affected by the high altitude.
Davis is the oldest volunteer in her group. Most are in their 20s and 30s, she said, though there are two people in their 60s. Unsurprisingly, she finds she doesn’t have energy that the younger members do. “Some do like to go out in the evening and party, but I’m not into that scene,” she said. “And a group is planning to go hike a volcano to celebrate our swearing in. I’ll be skipping that activity.”
But she gets along well with the younger volunteers and joins them on many field trips and other activities. On a recent excursion to a lookout point high above the town where the center is located, “the 20-somethings jogged right up” the 350 steps, she said. “I huffed and puffed my way up and got a big round of applause when I got there.”