El Salvador: The Stories Part III

8 coconuts and 5 mangoes

by Hannah Wiest

CAMPENARO NUMERO DOS, EL SALVADOR -- All Jorge has is eight coconuts and five mangoes. It is not enough. But it will have to do.

He raises his machete, deftly slicing the hairy fruits in half and urging us to eat. He plucks five mangoes -- lime green and crunchy like an apple -- from his mango tree. None remain on his branches for later.

He apologizes: “It is not enough.” He knows we gave $1,700 and a week of vacation time to bring his village clean water.

If only Jorge could hear our thoughts.

To me, the moment is surreal. As drops of coconut juice slide down my chin, I know Jorge has given everything to thank us. It makes our sacrifice seem small, like the story in the Gospel of Mark about the woman who gives two pennies and is considered more generous than those giving large sums that are only tiny portions of their wealth.

To me, this is the capstone on a week of learning that living in an impoverished state does not impoverish one’s spirit. As I sit with my teammates in the shade of these coconut and mango trees, the week’s events click through my mind like a slideshow:

The dedication: The people of Campenaro Numero Dos have waited 240 days for this moment. In November of 2008, village leader Jorge Ceren Ramos saw a television advertisement about Agua Viva Internacional drilling new wells in El Salvador. His people used an Agua Viva well at a school 2 kilometers away, but the 30-minute walk each way was hard, especially when carrying heavy water jugs. He called and asked for help drilling in his own village. Then he waited.

“Because we are here and have dug our own hand-dug wells, we knew the ground was hard, we knew it would be hard to drill the well,” Jorge says. “But praise God we found water quickly. Now we know that our children, our elders, all of us will start drinking pure water. We are eternally thankful for this blessing.”

Nearly 50 villagers show up for the dedication -- every one of them dressed in their finest skirts and shirts. I am touched by the contrast: the Americans covered in mud and sweat, the Salvadorans shiny and clean for this momentous occasion. Their wide smiles would have been shimmer enough.

The children read a letter of thanks: “We are a family with not much money needing help. We know you came from a great distance. We are grateful.”

Maria reads one for the women. I don’t remember what it says, but I will never forget the sense of joy in her voice.

Village leader Jorge Ramos says a few words: “To us, this is a big meaning, a big benefit that you give us that will always be in our hearts. Every time we come to drink from this well, we will remember the two Davids, the two Sarahs, Hannah, Barbara, Brandon, Juan and Ali.”

I think the two Davids, the two Sarahs, Hannah, Barbara, Brandon, Juan and Ali could say the same. Whenever we drink a glass of water, we will remember the people of Campenaro Numero Dos.

The teamwork: I grew up in Wyoming, a place where fierce individualism earns one respect. Cowboys ride alone. But here (and in life, I’m learning), fellow cowpokes are vitally important. We need to ride together.

Salvadorans already know this. That is why, I think, I can never tell who, exactly, belongs to whom. And that is why, again and again, our team has been invited to “sit a spell” on the only chairs these people own. Never mind we can’t communicate very well; it is the closeness that matters.

My teammate, Dave Fox, says it best: “One of the biggest lessons for me on this trip has been people working together to solve problems and improve people’s lives. There is us with each other on the rig, us with Living Water to make the trip happen, us with the community, and the community with us to get a stuck truck out of the mud and feed us and show hospitality.”

The first customer: We have seen the brown, sludgy water these people pull from their hand-dug wells and know it causes diarrhea and other health problems. We have visited the Living Water well they walk to and from every day. We have watched men, women and children fill their hands and drink at the dedication. But it is watching our first customer fill his jugs later in the afternoon that touches me most.

We are saying our goodbyes to the people of Campenaro Numero Dos when a young boy pushes his wheelbarrow next to the well. I watch him fold and unfold to pump the shiny new pump and notice that his water jugs are blue. And I remember meetinghis grandmother a few days ago. Her wrists were bony and her eyes were hooded by lids that seemed to flow into her crowsfeet wrinkles like a river fanning into a delta.

When we visited her she said, simply, “God bless you for coming.”

The downpour: When it rains in El Salvador, it pours -- and I’m not talking about salt. Wave after wave of rain slams upon gardens, farmers, tin huts and roads. I see more rain in one hour than Wyoming sees in one year.

One night the rain and wind are so forceful, the power to our guesthouse is cut. As I lie in bed, sweltering without the air conditioning, I realize a few things. One, losing power is not a problem for the people of Campenaro Numero Dos -- because they don’t have any. And two, a rainstorm like this one could easily wash away their roads, their crops and the floors -- or more -- of their houses.

In the rain, my mind turns to American worship songs involving water, and I am struck by how silly they would sound here. So often we sing of drowning in God’s grace, of His love raining down, of His waves of mercy. But here water is dirty, angry, destructive and deadly. It does not satisfy. I can only pray the idea of God’s salvation being a fresh well of living water within them will be all the more sweet.

The beauty: My preconceived notion of the Salvadorans and their villages was all wrong. I’d like to blame the fact that I’m a journalist and skeptical by nature, but I think I’m just a fallible human being who needs a lot of God’s work in my life.

Before coming to El Salvador, I believed Latinos tended to be lazy folk looking for a handout. I am humbled many a time when the people of Campenaro Numero Dos pick up a shovel or wrench to help with the work, and when they invite us into their homes with hospitality so genuine and warm, it would shame most Americans.

When I arrived in El Salvador, I was struck by the poverty displayed in rusted tin -- or grass and black plastic -- huts, in sickly dogs and in garbage strewn about the land. When I arrived in El Salvador, I thought poverty was ugly.

I was wrong. And it took a bunch of children to show me my mistake.

At health and hygiene training on the first day, we have the women and kids split into four groups and draw a map of their community. I expect them to draw muddy roads and ratty huts and garbage piles. Instead, they draw simple houses and vibrant gardens -- alive with brilliant flowers (flores) and fluttering butterflies (mariposas).

I see a land torn by poverty and an all-too-recent civil war. They see butterflies.

“I am surprised by the joy of a people who just came out of a civil war,” says my teammate Ali Fraze. “They seem to know that chapter of their lives is closed. I expected to see a lot more brokenness, but I see beauty."

The coconuts: All Jorge has is eight coconuts and five mangoes. It is way more than enough.

1 comment:

Kat said...

Thanks for sharing these bits and pieces. It makes me sad to think how often I get engulfed by only the world I see every day and forget their are people in need of normal drinking water.