Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Learning to say no...

I said no to my first survey/design today. I may be a little late in the game for this. I expect most wat/san volunteers did this 6 months to a year ago, but I’ve been pretty lucky in that all my previous studies were at least physically possible. But I’m also maybe somewhat of a pushover when it comes to surveys. I’ve done surveys that are possible, the water will arrive at the houses, but that have little to no chance of funding because of the cost. But how can you say no to these people? They lead such a hard life, struggling in every manner to survive. How can you not do whatever is in your power, in my case a topographic survey and system design, to give them a better chance?

It’s hard.

Nicki and I live such a privileged life, Honduras, let alone the US. Everyone in the US claims to know how well they have it. But it takes living in a third world country to really know that. We have a wonderful site. We have everything we could ever need to live comfortably, plus a few extras that make life that much more comfortable. We’ve seen other volunteers who live much more sparsely than we do. And we’ve seen local people who live that much more sparsely than volunteers do. If we wanted to, Nicki and I could afford to have cable TV and internet. It would push at our budget, but we could afford it. We have a guaranteed monthly salary. Right now we’re saving to go on a trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

But we work with people from the aldeas, people who live a 3 hours bus ride from town over a dirt road often impassable if it rains. These people don’t have electricity, they don’t have running water. They carry water from the river to their houses, or catch rain water from their roofs. It is possible that some NGO worker one time visited them and taught them that they need to boil the water to make it safe to drink. If they are lucky, that person may have even taught them why that is necessary, why they get sick from drinking unclean water. They live a tough life, struggling to grow enough food to feed their family and themselves. When they get that food, it is often cooked on a wood burning stove lacking any type of ventilation, meaning that the women and children of the family who are sitting in the kitchen all day are constantly breathing in smoke.

They lead such a hard life, and yet they are so generous to you. They will gladly give me the best food for lunch. They will give me a place to sleep if I need to stay overnight. They will pay for my bus to get to the community, or gather enough money for gas for the one car in the community to drive me. I’m there to help them, and they are so gracious, they will do anything to help me. So how can I turn to them and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do a topo survey for you, I can’t give you a design”?

And yet I did. I feel horrible, but not because I’m not helping them. It’s because I can’t. In this case, there are several houses that are too high, higher than the water source, and so is the school. I can’t make water run uphill. I wish I could. And so I said no, I can’t help.

And the people are ok with it. They’ve had a tough life, they will survive. They understand, it’s not always possible.

I wish I could get the American nun who is supporting them to understand. I have no problem with your faith, but God cannot help. He is not going to make the water run uphill. Yeah, you could get a pump, but how will you power it? The municipality won’t electrify this community for years, if ever. A solar panel? Maybe, but that is several thousands of dollars more when there is not even enough money to build the system at this point.

I want to help, I really do, but at this point in time, there is nothing I can do. My time is better spent helping another community. It’s a sort of community/water triage system. And so I said no.


  1. Awww, I can feel the sadness that you portray Nolan. Well written and surely heartfelt.