Footprints on the Lake

June 09, 2015
Administering a cognitive test to an 8-year old boy in a small village around the Lake Atitlán

By Jaclyn Karasik '16

Can our actions speak louder than rumors? Can our footprints erase past memories?

One of our first tasks in January was to come up with a team name. We settled on Huellas sobre el lago, meaning "footprints on the lake." The real goal of our project was to make a positive impact in the communities of Lake Atitlán with our research. We all have some training in research ethics, and ideas about community relationships and importance of impressions were drilled into us even more with our SRT workshops before the program. I had no doubt in our own ability to conduct the work ethically, but the history of research in some of these communities had already started us off on a bad foot. 

In one of the upper villages, some families wouldn't allow us to collect water samples. Apparently a group of "tourists," as one mother called them, took blood samples from kids in school without the mothers’ knowledge. One child ended up fainting, so now families are distrustful of anyone who wants to collect any kind of sample. Our water collection tubes looked like “vaccines,” what villagers call anything that involves blood or needles. With the help of the translators, we have been able to explain our project well enough to most mothers, in order for them to trust that our study is completely different (it only involves questions, water samples, and puzzle-like tests for kids) and that we are in no way involved with those that took the blood samples.

Even false rumors can turn into truths for some villages. For example, a mother from one of the homes that we had visited had rounded up all the neighborhood mothers to tell them that we were getting paid for every question that mothers answered for us and that we would return in five years to take their children to the United States for adoption. We found this out during our second visit to the village when mothers wouldn’t let us into their homes and started hiding their kids when they heard we were coming around.

We couldn’t understand why this mother has stared this rumor. Our faculty advisor told us that rumors that Americans wanted to kidnap kids from these villages have been around for a long time, due to some bad adoption practices of the past.

It’s not only our job to make sure that our project leaves a good impression, but also to remedy the mistakes that others have made. Our translators not only help us with language, but also with cultural translation – because they are native to this area, the villagers have more trust in them than they do in us. Unfortunately, negative experiences with research can affect villagers more than the good experiences. One of our biggest jobs is to make sure our study leaves good footprints on the villages, and that these interactions can work toward stomping out some of the bad impressions Americans have left through unethical studies. I also hope that our positive actions can speak louder than the rumors.