Choabajito is a small village in Guatemala, surrounded by majestic green mountains, hidden from view by the thick clouds that make the space between the hilltops their permanent home. The majority of the villagers here are subsistence farmers.
Amelia, who is 35, (pictured center), was born here, like her mother and grandmother. She is a member of the village’s women’s health committee, and received training as a community health worker on providing essential care, at the local organization APROSADSE, through GPA’s Small Grants Program. At night, her family gathers to share stories, the only time they have together.
“Before the water filter was installed, we had to boil the water over the fire. The coal starts burning early morning when we prepare the tortillas for breakfast and we kept it burning all day to boil the water to drink, cook lunch, and dinner. Now, since we have clean water, we only light the fire three times a day –to prepare the meals,” says Amelia.
Her arms and back show the toll working in the fields takes on your body. Her strength comes from her experience as a child during the Guatemalan conflict, where she and her mother are the only survivors in their family.
“Life makes you stronger, teaches you to ask for what you need…. I am talking about the basic and most important thing – the right to be healthy. Sounds so simple…Ha! It’s not.
“As a member of the Women’s Health Committee I wanted to ensure our needs were met – that we could express our concerns, share our ideas, provide our community with more information. We made a list of priorities. At the top was our children’s health….Our kids didn’t have enough to eat. They were constantly getting sick. The rainy season saw children with diarrhea, with nausea, swollen stomachs, and fever.
The group realized their children were suffering from contaminated water sources, but boiling water on small stoves for a family’s daily needs is nearly impossible.
They approached their local authorities to ask for water chlorinators to be installed, but their requests fell on deaf ears. “They said, ‘We are women who are exaggerating. We question what has been present in our lives for thousands of years. Rain means problems with our stomachs. That is all.” The group felt deflated but not defeated.
They traveled to the Health Center in San Martín Jilotepeque to inquire about the water project and request support. The health inspector offered to make a presentation to the community.
Amelia stops to carefully place the warm tortillas into a basket. Nine family members gather around the small table. She continues, “We organized the community for the meeting. The women were the most interested, although the talk showed the entire community the extent to which the water from the fields, the animals, our wastes and the trash all contribute to polluting our water. Many people were so surprised when they learned. By the end of the presentation, the local authorities were asking what they could do to get a water chlorinator." Amelia let slip a subtle grin.
The group wrote a petition to the municipality. The entire community participated in the process. Two months later, the water filter had been installed, the local plumbers had been trained on system maintenance and water testing and the community had clean water.
“It is incredible how one decision for one thing can change the lives of so many people,” Amelia says with excitement. “It has been a long time since my son has complained about a stomachache or had diarrhea.” And the same is true with all her neighbors.
The committee has speaking with other communities about their experience. “We want others to know they can do something about their health and the health of their children. They don’t have to accept what is happening as something natural…There is a lot to be done, but I believe it is possible, it just takes time.”