Building community, one stone at a time

Bruce Clemens has always wanted to move mountains.

This year, he enlisted the help of ten Furman students to help him to do just that, literally. Teamed up with an industrious group of local villagers, they moved rocks and boulders using a combination of ropes, levers, and raw manpower. Their mission: to build a road to access a new mountain community being built in Guatemala.

For Clemens, a professor in Furman’s Business and Accounting Department, the long road to Furman began four decades ago in Guatemala. Shortly after graduating from Cornell University with an engineering degree in 1972, Clemens bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala with the goal of eliminating poverty. With the encouragement of a Catholic priest, the late Father Greg Schaeffer, Clemens and a team of volunteer supporters formed a non-profit consulting firm, Agua del Pueblo. Since its beginning in the 1970s, the organization has completed more than 700 potable water projects, bringing water to more than twenty percent of Guatemala’s rural population.

As part of a three-week May Experience course this spring, Clemens and Bill Ranson, a professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, traveled with Furman students to study sustainability issues in the rural communities around San Lucas Tolimán, a city of about 17,000 surrounded by three volcanoes. Part of Furman students’ research included interviews with forty randomly-selected Kaqchikel-speaking families to gather economic and public health data. With the help of translators, they learned firsthand about the challenges faced by local Mayan families.

“We had the opportunity to eat in their homes, converse with them, hold their children, work with the men and learn from their perspective,” said Darby Woodard ’15 of Greenville.

For many women in the city, up to four hours of their daily routine consists of hauling water in tinajas, clay water vessels, back and forth on their heads from the shores of Lake Atitlán to fifty-five-gallon storage drums at their homes. Up to ten people may be living in a single home, some of which are one simple room, fifteen feet wide by fifteen feet long. The average family lives on $100 a month, though some live on as little as $1 a day, said Kristian Hajny ’15 of Mooresville, N.C., who is compiling collected data this summer with the help of Furman Advantage and Hipp grants.

Nearly two hundred families hope to make their way out of San Lucas Tolimán in the near future. They have bought acreage on the slopes of the Tolimán volcano, a few hours’ walk from their current home in the city.
The weekends for these families means volunteering to move rocks and boulders to build a new mountain road to the new villages of Sanik-Ya and Chitulul. They hope the road will mean the beginnings of new lives as coffee farmers. After the road is built, they’ll need water for drinking and other domestic uses. But that’s another mountain to be moved.

The cost of the waterline, a three-inch PVC pipe running two kilometers up the side of the volcano, is a hefty one for the humble community, $100,000. Clemens, Ranson and their Furman students are committed to helping raise the money for the project. Thus far, they’ve collected $26,000 through a Duke Endowment grant and Furman’s annual Water Walks. During the event, participants carried water in various-sized containers along a selected route on campus, much like families in San Lucas Tolimán. Additional fund-raising activities are planned in the future.

Seeing families cope with such challenges on a daily basis, while maintaining their enthusiasm for the future, affected students and faculty deeply.

“It gave me a heart for sustainable projects such as this, where two groups of people can pool their resources to make change happen,” Woodard said.

“The spirit of the people there is just unbelievable,” said Ranson, who was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Allison. “It’s a privilege to be able to help in such a concrete way.”

View Darby Woodard’s video from the trip here.

To donate to the water project on San Lucas Tolimán, visit www.Furmanwaterwalk2013.com.