Not A Waste Of Time At All
We arrived in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, in 1963 in the back of an open jeep—Bonny, Jim, and me—a young man from suburban New York City. Caked with dust from the dirt road, we were part of the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to live in the Guatemalan highlands. Three months of training had given us some Spanish, a general knowledge of cooperatives, and an appetite for adventure. We settled into an old adobe pensión, converting it into a community center. For the next 18 months, we worked in this small village—Comalapa had 6,000 people and 90 percent of them were Mayan Indians. Bonny worked in home economics, Jim was assigned to agriculture, and I was tasked with forming a credit cooperative.
Comalapa sat nestled in a high plain against a set of low mountains. It was cut off from easy access to a highway 16 kilometers away by a forbiddingly deep ravine traversed by a narrow dirt road with wicked switchbacks down and up its length. Despite its relative isolation, however, the village population had a reputation of being hard-working farmers and active traders in the region’s markets. Electricity was available in the town’s urban area, but communication was by telegraph and an unreliable postal system. Urban architecture was mostly one-story adobe and tile-roofed structures, pockmarked by alternating painted and faded dirt facades, spreading out from a main square, which was dominated physically and spiritually by a huge colonial church. Socially, traditional cofradias* were slowly giving way to an emerging evangelical presence, as well as to influences from the modern Catholic Church. Transportation was mainly by buses where passengers would intermingle with animal and produce cargo. Cars were a rare sight. A small group of Indians had started painting primitive scenes of daily life and rites on coffee tin covers to sell that captured the vivid colors of the native hand-woven textiles worn by all the women.
I remember our tremendous expectations as we arrived. Imbued by John Kennedy’s rhetoric, we thought we were going to do all these great things, convinced we would make history. The cooperative development project was meant to help the isolated mountain villages save money and invest in their own economic growth. Unfortunately, cooperatives had been used for political purposes by previous governments, and there was a deep suspicion about starting a new venture. After six months of seeking out community leaders, and with the help of our Indian counterpart, Santiago Xet, I managed to gather and convince a group of farmers to create the San Juan Comalapa Credit Cooperative. I grandiosely made the inaugural deposit of $5. While I hoped that many more deposits would follow, deep in my gut I feared there was little chance of long-term success. We all then traveled to Guatemala City to register the co-op with the banking authorities. For most of the farmers, this was their first time visiting a government office in the capital.
From that beginning, and with a small grant from USAID, we built a small office building on a donated lot and bought office equipment and a safe. I taught basic accounting. By the end of my service, the co-op had about 50 members, and it was making small loans. I thought this was pretty small potatoes and wrote a piece for the Peace Corps magazine called “A Profitable Waste of Time.” In my article, I said that what had been accomplished was not nearly as much as we had expected. I thought that while I had grown personally, Comalapa and its citizens remained largely unaffected.
The next 40 years were not easy on the village of Comalapa. It suffered through a bloody civil war, a devastating earthquake, and uneven harvests. Miles away from the Guatemalan highlands, I had moved on to a successful 30-year career at USAID and then consulting with the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Labor on international devel-opment programs—a life-long legacy of my Peace Corps experience. Yet, part of me was still deeply attached to Comalapa and the co-op I’d helped start with five bucks.
In 2003, almost four decades after I arrived as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I returned to Comalapa. I was somewhat apprehensive and didn’t know what to expect. Certainly the town would be different: our old home was probably razed in the earthquake, old friends probably would have passed on, and the co-op would probably be out of business.
Driving into town, on a lark, I asked a passing Mayan where the credit co-op was located. I had steeled myself to having my worst expectations realized, musing about what had happened to the small steel safe and simple office equipment we had used in the dirt-floored back room. To my surprise he said, “It’s on the main street.” Moving down the street, I was dumbstruck to see a brand-new building with a huge electric sign and wide glass doors. Inside, there was a brightly lit lobby with three teller stations, all with computer terminals connected to the Internet. It was everything I had hoped for, but nothing I had expected. The cooperative, much like the town of Comalapa, had weathered many challenges in the past 40 years, but during that time, it had grown steadily in members and funds. The entire staff was made up of educated local Mayan professionals who were delighted to meet the legen-dary “Don Ron” and learn of the co-op’s early beginnings. I almost fell off my chair when I read in the annual report that the co-op had 3,000 members and $900,000 in capital, much of it from remittances from the United States.
Comalapa has changed somewhat, as well. The main road is now paved, the urban streets have paving blocks, a new church has risen next to the severely damaged colonial structure, and a cell tower now rises out of the main square. The nascent primitive painters’ community has mushroomed into a local industry with galleries and a private art museum, advertised by a 50-foot-tall billboard at the entrance to town. A popular poster on sale throughout Guatemala depicts the interior of a Comalapa bus in all its variety.
So, the co-op that emerged out of a small Peace Corps project and was founded with my $5 deposit had grown into a major local financial intermediary that offered loans and a variety of savings, mortgages, insurance, and checking services, including receiving remittances from Guatemalans living in the U.S. to their families. For almost 40 years, it has faithfully served the people of Comalapa. It recently opened a branch in the nearby town of Tecpan. I thought to myself, “This is much more than I had always hoped for—maybe we did make some history after all.”
In the final analysis, of course, this accomplishment belongs to the village of Comalapa, with its proud and industrious people who knew how to succeed. Forty years of hindsight have also revealed that my work there was indeed profitable and not a waste of time after all.
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