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Michael Stanley Shawcross was born in the late summer of 1941 in Hale, Cheshire, and spent his early life in the north west of England. An adventurous young man, it wasn’t long before he found his way over to the Yorkshire Dales, one of England’s prettiest corners, establishing himself at Hannan Cottage, Horton-in-Ribblesdale. He worked in the local quarry and quickly became involved in the Yorkshire Potholing scene, also more widely known as Caving. This activity took him all over and, literally under, the limestone of the Dales and led to a lifelong interest in Speleology.

Within a few years Mike’s wanderlust had led him to various exotic destinations throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, where he spent time working as an English teacher in Turkey. After returning to the UK, the call of the road beckoned again and he left for Canada, working as a tobacco picker in Ontario before eventually landing the dream job working for the government, looking for, exploring and surveying caves in the far north of Canada. On and off Mike spent thirteen years in Canada, interspersed with caving and mountaineering trips down to the US, Mexico and Latin America. Finally, after living in Mexico for a few years, in 1978 Mike arrived in Guatemala. It was a country that made a profound impression on him, and despite continuing travels throughout his life to Peru, China, and Eastern Europe, it was Guatemala that became his permanent home. Mike explored the mountains and caves of Guatemala for the rest of his life, sharing his enthusiasm and affection for the country with everyone. The depth of his knowledge about Guatemala’s varied peoples and cultures was unsurpassed, and any journalist or writer wishing to imbibe of that beautiful country could hardly do so without first consulting with Mike, the oracle on all things Guatemaltecan. It was only natural that Mike’s love of his adopted country would lead on to his becoming more deeply involved in the welfare of its people, economically, socially and politically, and in 1983 with a group of friends from Antigua, he was a co-founder PAVA, the Programa de Ayudar Los Vecinos del Altiplano, (The Program to help the Neighbours of the Highlands). In 1986 he went on to found his own aid program SAPHI, The Shawcross Aid Program for Highland Indians, which principally worked with returning Mayan refugees to the North West highlands of Guatemala, a particularly troubled and violent region known as the Ixil Triangle. With the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, effectively ending the thirty six year civil war, Mike wound up SAPHI, but he continued his aid work around the mountain town of Joyabaj in Quiche province, often working in conjunction with EWO, Engineers Without Borders, but also working on his own projects. Over the next twelve years Mike achieved a huge amount of successful projects, travelling the arduous track up to Joyabaj in a chicken bus when a driver for his battered old Toyota Landcruiser wasn’t available. Being instantly recognizable with his huge beard and short sleeved checked shirt, he became well known, and it wasn’t uncommon for local people to hail “Don Mike”, and wave a friendly arm, as he passed by on his way to view another potential project.

The year 2010 began badly for Mike, unfortunately, in February, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Being the obstinate fighter that he was, and with the help of his many friends, he made a quite reasonable recovery. In December of that year he was named in the Queens New Year’s Honours list, something which came as a complete surprise and delighted him enormously. In the summer of 2011 Mike travelled to Buckingham Palace for his investiture, and received the OBE, Order of the British Empire, from Prince Charles. The occasion was attended by his sister Erica and good friend Trish Spears. In June, with an old friend and former SAPHI volunteer, Mike formed, Help School Building in Guatemala, aimed at raising the profile of his ongoing work around Joyabaj. Subsequent to this, a further perimeter fence, and new school, was constructed and many school materials provided to his other previous projects in the area.

Mike always had ongoing projects in the Joyabaj area but sadly, in March of 2015, he was taken into the Hospital Santiago de Apostolo, in his adopted home town of Antigua, where he died after a short illness. He was cremated in the capital city and on the 21st March, after a civil ceremony attended by hundreds of local people, his ashes were interned at the municipal cemetery in Joyabaj, Quiche Province, Guatemala. He is greatly missed by his family and many friends all around the world, but nowhere more so than at his usual evening haunt of Dona Luisa’s restaurant in Antigua, where he held nightly court with a constant stream of friends, international visitors, aid workers, and journalists, when not reading a heap of newspapers, joking with the waitresses or doing Suduko.

Though Mike was a complete atheist, it is indeed ironic that he came to be revered as a saint like figure among the rural poor around Joyabaj, where he worked for so long to relieve their extreme poverty. That he should be thought of in this way would doubtless have troubled his naturally modest disposition, but it was a natural consequence of his being a humanitarian, philanthropist and a truly exceptional human being.

the teacher and the children all care deeply about their community, and are anxious to improve themselves any way they can

Mike Shawcross OBE

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