When the twenty-four foot boat piloted by Osmundo, water committee chairperson, pushed up on the bank of the estuary, we were greeted by children, men and women holding home-made flags of the United States and Guatemala. Some held signs printed in English welcoming us and thanking God for this partnership in bringing pure water and better health to the remote Guatemalan village of El Chico.
Children from El Chico greeted us as we stepped off the boat
The welcome continued as we entered the village
El Chico is the poorest village we have partnered with to date. The majority of families do not have latrines, and most of the children do not have shoes. At school, all instruction is done by rote on a chalkboard. There are no books, and most of the children do not have access to paper and pencils.
But, oh, the hospitality and warmth we were shown by the teachers and the system installers and operators. The children, who were on vacation from school, also showed much interest in our visit. A few dogs showed their curiosity during our four days, pigs less so, and we were completely ignored by the few hens who strutted by the pavilion where we met each morning with our Guatemalan teachers to plan the afternoon lessons. The teacher team included Yeniker, Antonieta, and Lidia. Yeniker and Antonieta are sisters, ages 23 and 38, and Lidia is their teenage niece.
From left to right are Lidia, me (Rick Johnson), Antonieta, and Yeniker
The teacher team showed great confidence after just two days of teaching community members the LWW health education curriculum. One afternoon, some of us from Illinois had to leave the session early, and some of the attendees thought that meant the lesson was over. Yeniker told us with a mischievous smile, “I told them to stay seated; we weren’t done yet.”
The last afternoon, our teacher team took the attendees to see and hear how the solar power and water purification systems work. El Chico is the first solar powered water system installed in Guatemala. I stayed behind to clean up and organize materials. When I finished I sat down on a plastic chair and looked out upon the church with the white Rotoplas water tank sitting proudly on the roof of the water building that had been constructed before we arrived. The temperature was 97 degrees with at least that much humidity, making me feel like I had a pail of water dumped over me. A mangy dog stopped to look at me and then turned and trotted away. The odor of rotting vegetable and fruit rinds in a pit nearby permeated the air I breathed. I whispered aloud to myself, “Why am I here?”
I tried to come up with the expected answer: Scripture verses tell us to serve the needy as Jesus commanded. I tried to convince myself that as a Christian I vow to try to follow the Way of Jesus. These answers, I admitted to myself, felt hollow. After all, I thought, I can do these things back in McHenry County, IL, with the people in need within a few miles of my home. Why am I here in Guatemala? The only answer I could come up with was this: “I don’t know why I’m here. I just know I have to be!”
Alexandra enjoys her first drink of water from El Chico's LWW system
Maybe it’s because I am embarrassed by what my wife and I have in terms of a two story home, two cars in the garage, air conditioning, and water that I can drink and cook and brush my teeth with and not worry about parasites and diseases. The costs of putting in the water purification system and supplying the materials to educate the community about pure water and hygiene are so great that it is perhaps an obligation on the part of Christians living in the richest nation in the history of world civilization to share their resources with God’s people in need. Whether that’s it or not doesn’t really matter to me. I leave my comfort zone and go to far away Guatemala, because I have to. Our partners there are now dear friends to me. With Facebook and What’s App, I am just seconds away from conversation with such special people as Pablo, Rubenia, Louis, Jhonny, Mishel, Yorbis, Danyi, Loyda, Silvia, Lidia, Yeniker, and Antonieta, to name just a few. In fact, I might have more Facebook friends from Guatemala than the United States. What a blessing!
Rick Johnson is a CWU 102-trained health educator and a member of the Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church in Crystal Lake, IL.