Installing Water Filters in Xejuyu, Solola, Guatemala

Posing with the UVA-GI in-country lake team.  Pictured from left to right: Marcos, Gaby(e), Felipa and Leticia
Posing with the UVA-GI in-country lake team.
Pictured from left to right: Marcos, Gaby(e), Felipa and Leticia

¡Hola! With the mentorship of Dr. David Burt, with sponsorship from the Center for Global Health, and through guidance of countless others such as Dr. Aaron Mills, I have been afforded the opportunity to travel to Guatemala this summer to work on creating a water potability testing system in indigenous communities that have received water filters from the University of Virginia’s Guatemala Initiative.

During my fourth week in-country, after Spanish lessons, cultural immersion, and material delivery, the literal down and dirty work of my project began with filter instillations in Colonia Xejuyu, Sololá, Guatemala. Some people might actually call it unlucky that I arrived at the lake just in time for filter instillations, since they only happen about once per year and involve heavy sand bags and a lot of endless standing in the hot sun, but since I learned so much about the process and the community, I’m very happy I was there.

To give some background, women in the community participate in a 4-month long program in which they attend a weekly class that teaches them about general hygiene, nutrition, bacteria, and filter composition and maintenance. If women fail to attend more than 3 of these classes, they don’t receive a filter. Because the filters are donated and don’t cost any money to the families, the classes aim to provide value to the filters because ultimately the women spend over 16 hours in class time earning their filter.

Marcos and Felipa with the help of local women inserting the 100 lb bags of sand.
Marcos and Felipa with the help of local women inserting the 100 lb bags of sand.

Mornings with the UVA GI in-country lake team, Marcos, Felipa and Leticia, began at 8 am. We averaged about 13 filter installations per day and time spent at each install ranged from 15 minutes to an hour, based on many factors. To prepare for our arrival and speed up the process, the team had asked all participants to prepare a few items. First, a base to hold the filter above floor level; four concrete blocks cemented together are recommended to all of the women but, for some, even the cost of 20 Quetzales, around $3 USD, is too much to bear. The team also requested 9 gallons of chlorinated water at the installation to ensure the gravel and sand added to the filter didn’t contain any unwanted bacteria. The chlorinated water, however, was often not present for two reasons. First, the townspeople’s hesitation to chlorinate their drinking water. In fact, water chlorination would be a simple solution to making the water potable by killing all the bacteria, but most people dislike the smell and taste, and therefore refuse it as a solution to bacterial or fecal contamination. Second, the citizens of Xejuyu can go up to 5 days without receiving tap water and therefore many of them had very little water to spare for the install. This is another reason why the filter will be useful for these families, because even when the water does finally arrive, it only lasts for about a few hours, forcing the women to frantically fill up as many containers of water as possible. Many of these water containers stay uncovered and ultimately become contaminated.

A filter after installation.
A filter after installation.

Between the hot sun, the smoke coming from burning wood, and dragging 100 lb. bags of sand across many rooms, after every day, I needed a long shower. I had some serious lower back pain and my legs still could use a nice massage. However, the whole experience was so rewarding. At every house the residents looked on at the install with amazement and excitement. Often we made a muddy mess all over the floor with the water and sand mixing together but they didn’t care. In fact, at most homes, people offered us fruit, drinks, crackers, and even lunch! It was completely unnecessary but the team explained it was their way of being thankful and that we could not refuse their food. On one of the occasions in which they served us lunch they served frijoles (beans) which I don’t eat, so Marcos, while they weren’t watching, kindly took them off my plate. It was a close call. By the end of the week, I had around 25 cans of juice, 10 packs of crackers and countless bananas, oranges and pitayas.

The biggest take away I’ve had during my time in Guatemala is to learn to value what is important rather than material things. These gifts meant so much more than a snack or a meal. I felt incredibly grateful to the families that provided them and even those who couldn’t, because everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and hospitable. The families have created relationships with Marcos, Felipa and Leticia but many of them couldn’t ever remember my name yet each day they opened their doors and welcomed me in. Overall, I felt very underserving but I’m starting to think the best way to repay them is to return to the U.S. and share what a beautiful country Guatemala is. Its people are amazing and I’m so lucky to be here.

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