The Water System—Against All Odds
At last, after nearly four years of problems and delays, Ajoya has a pure water system. For the first two years the struggle centered on raising 15,000 pesos, which the village had to contribute to get government assistance. But the wealthy land barons were adamant that rich and poor contribute equally, which was impossible. This stalemate lasted until a year and a half ago when Mrs. Mary Kerschner, determined that the water project succeed, donated half the required money on condition that the villagers contribute the other half. At last “los ricos” rallied, raised the money, and a committee from Ajoya, together with the Municipal President and myself, presented the funds to the Water Commission in the State Capital. The Commission promised that the water project would begin at once: the government agreed to provide engineers, masons, pipe, and pumping system; the villagers to provide crude materials and manual labor.
Then came the big put-off. The old government, on its way out, had apparently squandered all funds designated for village projects. We would have to wait until the following November, when, with the new government, new funds would be available. In November, 1968, when the new government entered, we were again put off, month by month. In Ajoya the disillusioned villagers began to kid me wryly for my stubborn confidence in eventual success. “We’ll all be dead first!” they insisted.
Then, one day last June, at the start of the rainy season, the engineers arrived, planned the layout, and the project began. But again there ware endless setbacks. The first supply truck, climbing one of the steep hills on the dreadful road to Ajoya, tipped backwards, on end, spilling eight tons of pipe, cement, well forms, etc. into the roadbed.
The first supply truck tipped backwards, on end, spilling eight tons of pipe, cement, well forms, etc. into the roadbed.
A greater problem resulted from bad timing of the project. The rainy season is the planting season, when all able-bodied males over six years old work from dawn to dusk in the cornfields. Many of the campesinos were reluctant to give even one day a week to the water project, for in one day during the tropical monsoons the weeds can take over. A further discouragement was the fact that a section of three foot deep ditch which took all day to dig would, when a tropical storm hit, fill up again with mud in half an hour. Were it not for an unusual dry spell of nearly two weeks in July, the ditches might still not be completed. Even this calm spell, however, caused dissension among the villagers, we feared for their crops. Word was passed that Dona Nacha, an intelligent and spirited old widow who has been one of the strongest promoters of the water system, was using black magic to make the rains stop and thereby expedite the digging. She did this, it was whispered, by hanging a small effigy of San Gerónimo (patron saint of Ajoya) by the feet in a dark corner. Had the rains held off a few days longer, Dona Nacha might have fared badly.
The biggest problem of all, one which almost caused the government to shut down the whole project, was the difficulty in getting rock and sand from the river to the hilltop where the storage tank was being constructed. This water tank, the walls of which are six feet thick at the base, required over 100 tons of rock alone. It was more than half a mile to a spot where good rocks were available, and the prospect of moving all that stone on mule back—while less formidable than building the Pyramids—was sufficient to discourage the villagers. What was more, mules were in as great demand in the fields as were men, and, at best, four or five mules could be counted on each day. The team of masons, who worked by contract, could lay in half an hour the rocks it took the mules all day to bring. Finally the masons became so disgruntled they left. Days later, a government lawyer arrived to break the contract. We begged for another chance and were granted it.
We decided the only feasible way to get the rock and sand to the hilltop was by truck. This required building a road, which, with a spurt of cooperation by the Villagers, was completed in a week. 1,000 pesos were raised among wealthy families most interested in the water, and paid to a truck owner in San Ignacio to shuttle the sick. However the truck broke an axle on its first ascent. The truck owner spent the 1,000 pesos on repairs and vanished, leaving the village with neither vehicle nor funds.
It was then that the children of Ajoya saved the day. We decided to use my own Jeep pick-up. I was too busy in the dispensary to spend much time driving, and the only other person in the village able and available to drive my Jeep was 15 year old Miguel Angel Mánjarrez, one of the boys for whom I arranged studies in the United States. On back roads I had often given Miguel a chance at the wheel, and he had become quite proficient. Miguel tackled the job with unbelievable perseverance. He shuttled rock and sand for up to 16 hours a day, creeping back and forth over the rough track in temperatures reaching 110º in the shade and 20º to 30º hotter in the cab. His first assistant in rock-loading was a strong and energetic worker named Jose. But unfortunately, after two days José put a bullet through his own hand and was disabled. Miguel had to turn to his young friends for help. From then on, child labor took over. Work gained a festive quality as more and more children pitched in. They fought with each other for the right to go in the truck. Sometimes in the evening hours when the children were all back from the fields, as many as 30 crammed inside and on top of the camper on return trips from the hilltop. In all, Miguel and his young comrades made over 100 trips, and completed in 10 days what the men of Ajoya with their mules might not have completed in ten months.
Today, from a 25 foot deep well far enough from the river to insure adequate filterage, water is pumped to the massive storage tank overlooking the village, from which it flows by gravity to public taps distributed through the main streets. Last mouth, when Dr. Donald Laub and his fellow surgeons revisited Ajoya two years after their last surgical mission to the area, it gave me a good feeling to hear Dr. Laub comment that the village was visibly healthier than before. With the new pure water system, the village has promise of greater health to come. And, to a large extent, the children are to be thanked.