MCC photo/Matthew Lester

Josefa Damián Sosof is president of New Dawn Association of Santiago Atitlán (ANADESA), which grew out of a partnership of local residents, Guatemalan Mennonites and MCC in responding to mudslides that struck Panabaj, Guatemala, in 2005.

After I finished third grade, I started working in the coffee fields, picking beans one by one from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. I was 11 years old then, but this work was normal for children. I really wanted to continue to study, but I had to work alongside my parents. My parents never said it aloud, but I think they didn’t want me to go to school because I was a girl.

I learned to weave, to make tortillas and do beadwork, just like my mother said a Tz’utujil woman should do.

But I dreamed that when I was older I’d become a leader of something, a church or an organization, because I always wanted to carry the voice of the women who want to go to school.

As a child, everyone I knew was Mayan. I spoke Tz’utujil. As I grew older, I learned that if I wore traditional Tz’utujil clothing and did not speak Spanish well, people assumed I didn’t know anything. I became insecure.

In 2005, the year I was 22, it started raining because of Hurricane Stan on Oct. 2. At 1 a.m. on Oct. 5, my brother and neighbours who lived nearby pounded on our door, screaming. My brother was covered in mud. He was saying, “I don’t have a house anymore. My house is destroyed and so are others down the road.”

Mudslides had swept over our town, Panabaj. Some people ran to get ropes to help people who were buried up to their chests in mud. My sister’s house and another brother’s house were destroyed too, and my niece almost died because her head was covered in mud.

At 5 a.m. we heard a big explosion, like a bomb, from rocks from another mudslide. We knew we had to leave. When we stepped outside, the ground was covered with mud and shattered glass. Firefighters held a rope and we walked with our hands above our heads, holding onto the rope.

A relative and friends took us to their houses in areas that weren’t affected by the mudslides, but we were terrified and sad. We didn’t know if people were alive or not. Later we found out around 300 people were killed.

A few days later, when people from the Mennonite churches of Guatemala City arrived, they met my brother-in-law. He asked me to translate for him because I knew some Spanish from reading newspapers and talking with friends.

Josefa Damián Sosof, president of ANADESA, right, with teacher Concepción Esquina Damián at the ANADESA after-school program outside of Santiago Atitlan. MCC photo/Matthew Lester

I realized that day how important education was. I needed to know more Spanish. I needed to know how to write better. As I continued to work with Mennonites in responding to the mudslides, MCC workers encouraged me to get more education. I signed up for literacy school and completed Grade 6 when I was 23.

In the months after the mudslides, I helped a group of women cook for the volunteers who were building 72 houses in the area.

Those same women began meeting to support each other. Before the storm, women were comfortable staying at home, but now, because many had lost relatives, staying at home was sad. Even after the houses were built, the women’s group continued to meet.

Josefa Damián Sosof (left), director at ANADESA, and Juana Chiquival Sosof (right) at a women’s group meeting. Both women were among the original group who helped to cook for with volunteers who came to help rebuild after the 2005 mudslides. MCC photo/Matthew Lester

The women chose me to be their leader because I was the only woman to speak Spanish. I learned about their work and problems at home, especially with husbands who would leave their wives.

With the encouragement of MCC, Juan Ramirez, Micaela Coché and I began to consider creating an organization to work with women and offer an educational program for children. In 2008, ANADESA or New Dawn Association of Santiago Atitlán was formed. I was the women’s coordinator, and Juan was president.

One of the reasons I was motivated to work with the women was to help them gain power. What I want is for women to participate in different things — church and organizations like ours — because sometimes they feel they are not capable of doing that. I want women to become leaders.

Concepción Morales Soloj (left) and Dolores Sosof (right) weave during a women’s group meeting at the ANADESA office. The group meets to sharing ideas and learning from each other. Most of the women support themselves and their families by selling traditional Tz’utujil weaving, beaded jewelry and keychains and embroidery.MCC photo/Matthew Lester

I finished Grade 9 in 2014, and in 2015, I became president of ANADESA.

I meet with the board and handle the paperwork of the organization. I evaluate the staff. I represent the organization, and I work for the people.

One of the ways I’ve changed the most through my experiences with ANADESA is that now I’m able to talk in front of a group, whether small or large. It’s not like I have to stop and think, “Oh, let’s see if I can do this…” I just can. I don’t know where I would be if the brothers and sisters hadn’t come here with support after the storm.

What inspires me is when I see children are continuing with their schooling and that the women also are empowered. In spite of the difficulties we find along the way, I am so inspired to continue working with ANADESA.

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