By Mike Paddock, PE, PS
On June 3, Volcano Fuego located just east of Antigua, Guatemala, erupted without warning – belching smoke, raining down ash and sending rivers of lava onto the communities below. When all was said and done, 194 lives were lost, more than 200 people are still missing and as many as 1.7 million people were impacted. Our Rotary Friends in Guatemala have been on the front lines responding with assistance to clinics, schools and bridges with the support of many clubs around the globe, including the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.
We arrived in Socorro, a community that is in the heart of sugar cane country, who’s people make a living by chopping cane in near 100 degree humid weather. They told of the loud explosions and the ground shaking from the lahar flowing in the river. They stood on the banks of the river and watched the lahar flow and turn their once clean, friendly stream into an ugly and threatening foe – killing all the fish and vegetation that once thrived within its banks. The lahar was so hot that it burned anyone who dared to touch it.
Soon the footbridge over the river was overcome and destroyed – eliminating this important evacuation route to safety. This is what brought me and the Rotary / EWB team to this community. We were there to replace this important connection for the people to education, markets, healthcare – and safety.
It was cane harvesting time in the area. The fields are first burned and then the cane is chopped by the workers, stacked and put into large trucks to be taken to the sugar mill. When the fields are burned, the iguana’s flee and the local people pounce on them like cats. Iguana is a welcome source of protein for the families here and we were no different. Cata, our reliable cook, made a wonderful stew, or “caldo de iguana”. The cane harvest went on seven days a week without pause. This made it difficult to find the 40 men to volunteer to work on the bridge that were needed. A community meeting was called to discuss the challenge.
The Women of Socorro Step Forward
Most talked about how the task was impossible. Then, Audry, the leader from Socorro, asked if women might be able to help. Mincho, our construction foreman immediately said “yes” and we would show them how. So, the next morning at 6:30 am, 25 mothers and grandmothers, many with children in toe, came to work. They worked tirelessly carrying rocks the size of volleyballs, mixing and carrying concrete. Doing this work is a challenge for even an hour or two, but these ladies kept up the pace all day long. Just when I thought that they must give out, Audry started to sing and the rest of the group all joined in, now with renewed energy. The following day, 25 teenaged girls also came ready to pitch in. They were eager to show their fathers, brothers and boyfriends that they too could do a day’s work. I was amazed watching the work, which now progressed rapidly. The women were always socializing – talking about their families and urging each other on.
The excitement grew as the bridge took shape – in the evening, a crowd would now gather at the site to track the progress of the work, as the women workers were pointing and waving, showing their men the days progress.
A Christmas Present to Remember
When we started construction in November, the goal of a community Christmas present was set and people scoffed not thinking it could be done. As the bridge was completed a few days before Christmas, the tears of joy and prayers of thanks now flowed as safe passage over the river was again a reality.
As I looked at the bridge, I remembered Audry’s courage and determination at the community meeting and how it made all the difference in the project. She did not look outside for help to the problem – but within. She did not fear the construction work, but knew that if the women worked together, all things are possible. She tackled the impossible task with a song on her lips, joy in her heart and never complained.
What a wonderful lesson and gift she had given me this Christmas.