Chiggers and Other Challenges

A Story by a Peace Corps Volunteer

By Joan Heberger - Peace Corps Volunteer: Honduras (2002-2004)

One of my biggest work challenges has been my involvement in the small coffee-growing community of Las Quebradas (the Streams) to develop a proposal for a water system. Of the communities in our county, Quebradas is the farthest from town, isolated by a long, rutted dirt road. The 22 families use water from hose pipes placed between their houses and various streams, most of which are contaminated in the winter and dry in the rainless summer. I began this project when I was fairly new in town. Because of my initial eagerness and desire to "deliver," I did not investigate all the options and understand the social and political environment.

Almost a year ago, I visited the community for the first time to examine the town's potential water source. I explained to the residents that I could help them by providing a topographical study of the land and a design, proposal, and budget for a water system. Over the next few months, I began this process, which involved walking about 10 hours a day in mountainous terrain, looking for a semi-level route back to the houses. Sometimes I was terrified with the responsibility of designing this water system, as I am not an engineer. A nearby Peace Corps engineer helped me in the beginning of the process, but because of the timing and his other commitments, I ended up doing the survey without his presence, which was another mistake. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I kept getting chiggers! For those of you unfamiliar with warm, moist woodsy environments, chiggers are minuscule red mites that dig into your skin and give you itchy red bumps.

While the engineer and I investigated the terrain, we realized that there was another water project in the construction phase close to Quebradas, but on the other side of the county line. From what we could see, this project could easily serve the needs of the 82 people of Quebradas, without the huge expenses of money and time that were needed to build their own private system. From the water tank of the other system, you can see the straight downhill route the pipes would take to arrive at the houses of Quebradas, as opposed to the longer, complicated route from the chosen water source. The other project is a big one that serves six other communities, it draws from a clean water source, and best of all, SANAA, the national water utility, contributed the construction supervision and materials. It seemed like the perfect solution!

Investigating further, I started to feel that no one in Quebradas wanted me to talk to the people over the county line. I realized that Quebradas did not participate in this joint project because there are rivalries between it and one of the other communities. As I tried to understand the rivalries, I became more confused when I learned that people in the other county are practically all relatives of the people in Quebradas—uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins. To me, it is very sad that they can't work together in a situation like this.

I spent another month trying to contact SANAA for their advice and support. I had no luck. I could not figure out whom to talk to; sometimes they just didn't answer the phone. Finally I asked for help from our mayor and was amazed at how quickly he was able to get us an appointment with the SANAA engineer in charge. The SANAA engineer informed us that there were enough materials and water to share the system with Quebradas, but that the decision must be made by the other communities. So I began the struggle of contacting the other communities and persuading them to reconsider these supposed rivalries and work together. Another month passed without success, and when the mayor in the neighboring county told me the people did not want to collaborate, I finally gave up on what I still feel is a technically better solution.

Since then, I have finished the land survey and the proposal for a private system for Quebradas. It is far too expensive for them, and I am not sure that they will be able to find outside funding. One lesson I learned from this challenging experience is that I do not want to be involved in another water-system design unless someone from my town is committed to learning the process. During each phase, I invited people I thought capable of the work to come along, learn what I was doing, and be able to continue this work when I am gone. But no one came, and they remain dependent on outside help.

What have I learned? I have learned to take it slow, that understanding the people, their needs, and their cultural and political relationships is more important than finding a technical solution. I resolved that I will not work on any more projects without a way to teach someone what I am doing. I learned that it is important to involve community leaders from the very beginning, and that chiggers are not deterred by insect repellent. And perhaps most important, I am still learning to have more patience, because working in Honduras (and anywhere!) requires patience. 

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