FORT WAYNE — For Mike Kiester, the turning point came in trying to decide which machete to buy.
The team of Fort Wayne engineers was in Guatemala helping drill and construct a well so the village of La Vega could have clean, safe water to drink year round, and had been watching the local men use machetes for almost everything they did. So they decided they would buy machetes, too.
“I was trying to decide between two different ones, and I was like, ‘Well how much are they?’ And they were like $2.75 apiece, so I said, ‘I’ll take both,’ ” Kiester recalls. “Then I realized the price of one was about a half-a-day’s wage for them.”
The six from Fort Wayne – four of them were City Utilities employees – had left their comfortable worlds far behind a year ago and found themselves in La Vega, Guatemala, a village of about 900 people with intermittent electricity and only one well to supply clean water – and it was only accessible during the school year. Before that well was installed, children carried water from the river a couple of miles away.
La Vega is hardly an anomaly in Guatemala – 51 percent of the country lives in poverty, said City Utilities Deputy Director Matthew Wirtz. In 2000, only about 25 percent of water systems disinfected the water they delivered to homes and businesses. Only 1 percent of the sewage in Guatemala is treated. Not surprisingly, waterborne disease is rampant.
La Vega had a year-round well before the team got there, but it was a hand-dug well about 25 or 30 feet deep, and only about 50 feet from a latrine. The area frequently floods.
“You have to be careful of where you put the wells in the community, otherwise the local crime boss or warlord or bad guy will extort the entire community or just keep it for themselves,” Wirtz said.
But Living Water International, a religious nonprofit from Houston that builds wells in developing countries, did the research and brought the drill rig. City Utilities – in the form of Wirtz, Kiester, Ben Groeneweg and Ted Nitza – as well as other team members from the United States provided the labor. Not only were they thousands of miles from home in a land beset by poverty, but they were also in an equatorial climate. Villagers had strung up tarps for them to provide some shade, but the heat was intense.
“It was just nuclear,” Wirtz said. “That equatorial sun just beats down. It was brutal.”
The work was hard, but the villagers made it all worth it, team members said. Villagers cooked for them, the church pastor bought bottles of pop for them, and the children treated them like rock stars.
“The public loves us down there,” Groeneweg said.
“The kids loved having their picture taken,” Kiester said. “Especially with an iPhone, so you could flip it around and they could see themselves. That was big time.”
There was another payoff, as well. Also on the team were a couple from Houston, who had lost their 12-week-old son about six months before. They used the donations people made at the boy’s funeral to pay for the well.
“Once in a while, a well project is not successful,” Kiester said. “But this one … it was very emotional. We weren’t leaving till they had a well, whatever it took.”
The team worked 12 hour days, then had an hour-and-a-half drive back to the hotel in Guatemala City – a concrete hotel without air conditioning that had baked in the sun all day.
“There wasn’t a lot to do at the hotel, so you might as well work,” Groeneweg said.
The work paid off: Soon, the team was pumping air down the well to clean the drilling water out of it, sending a spray of water into the street, where the children danced in the torrent, cheering “Agua! Agua!”
For Nitza, the trip helped reinforce the power of giving.
“We were given gifts to be able to do this work professionally, we should give back to those who can’t,” Nitza said. “In addition, my family and friends learned about Guatemala and the situation there, my kids helped pick school supplies and toys to take down.”
Nitza’s son pulled a toy truck from his toy box and asked Nitza to give it to a boy in Guatemala. He did, and the picture of the boy holding the toy shows a boy with a smile worth all the blood and sweat the team gave that week.
The trip apparently had an effect: Wirtz said they’re considering another one next summer, and that City Utilities employees who have heard the Guatemala team talking about their trip are lining up to go themselves.
“As of now, we could fill a whole team,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s good for anyone to do. You come back appreciating a lot of small things.”