Sunday, November 3, 2013
What does it mean to get a JBU education? At the Soderquist College of Business, it means that you’d better have your passport and brace yourself for the experience of a lifetime.
For almost 40 years, a bloody war raged between the National Security Forces and the largely-indigenous guerrilla movement of Guatemala. Close to a quarter of a million people lost their lives in what has been referred to as the most violent and deadly war in the history of Central America. Families were shattered, and more than 400 rural villages were literally wiped from existence. Every Guatemalan experienced painful loss. In 1996, President Alvaro Arzú met with the leaders of the opposition and signed a peace agreement that began the process of peace, restoration, and healing. Such wounds do not heal easily, and nearly 20 years later, individuals and villages still experience the economic, social, and psychological trauma of decades of war.
The Ixil Triangle is located six hours outside of Guatemala City. The area is named for three villages where the native Mayan language of Ixil is spoken. These mountain villages (Nebaj, Cotzal, and Chajul) form a triangle that was caught in one of the deadliest crossfires of the Guatemalan conflict and where some of the worst atrocities were witnessed and recorded. After a couple of hours on the Pan-American Highway out of Guatemala City, the journey to the Ixil Triangle takes you through Chichicastenango, Santa Cruz del Quiché, San Pedro Jocopilas, Sacapulas, and countless aldeas, caserios, and cantones (various names for small villages). After crossing multiple mountain ranges and lowlands, one arrives at Nebaj, the more industrialized corner of the triangle. Beyond Nebaj lie the isolated and forgotten villages of Chajul and Cotzal. Four-wheel drive is a must.
To enter these villages is to go back in time. Homes are built from adobe with clay-tiled roofs. Chickens, dogs, and pigs wander in and out of the open doors and are always welcome on the hard dirt floors of the homes. Smoke from open cooking fires seeps from every building. Poverty is pervasive. Children are everywhere, and the people go about their lives colorfully adorned in fabrics woven in the community. These are villages of farmers, painters, and weavers with a rich cultural heritage that has been marred by memories of massacres and torture. To this day, these villages are all but forgotten by Guatemalans and much of the world, but the people continue to fight on for their daily survival.
For several years now, the faculty and students of JBU’s business and engineering programs have been working to bring something critical to Chajul and Cotzal: clean water. Both villages have water, but it is contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria and has been declared unfit for human consumption. Purified, bottled water is available through the national water monopoly, but very few of these people can afford the price. Consequently, residents go to open, public water sources and fill their containers from the dirty algae-layered plastic pipes.
Establishing an autonomous, sustainable water supply for an isolated, impoverished community that speaks a local Mayan language, has deep emotional and social hurts, does not understand a long-term perspective, and mistrusts the outside world may seem like an ordinary, easy task, but it is not. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Our challenge was to make the technology and the business model work in this place with these people. Graduate and undergraduate students from the Soderquist College of Business at JBU working alongside engineering students undertook this goal, and in collaboration with our leadership teams in these communities, the process began. Both Chajul and Cotzal required changes to the physical structure that would house their respective water purification systems. That “change” in Cotzal actually involved tearing down an old adobe building and constructing a new one. Amazingly, we were able to have Skype meetings with team leaders over time, and we trained them in the concepts of sustainable operations and money management. JBU business and engineering students made multiple trips to both villages and conducted on-site technical and business training.
After months of training, demolition, construction, plumbing, wiring, budgeting, studying, training, and praying, both Chajul and Cotzal saw the day when clean water became a reality in their community. For a small price, community residents became members of a health care cooperative and obtained the right to receive a specific amount of water every month. This small, affordable payment contributed to the sustainability of the overall effort. Village leaders were literally in tears as the first water flowed from the machine and as the group stood together and shared the first drink of clean water.
The Soderquist College of Business has defined several core values, including Christian faith, relationships, teaching and learning, global focus, and intellectual curiosity. We believe that engaging our students in efforts such as this aligns very nicely with our core values. But there is one more. The final value of the Soderquist College is gratitude to God and to each other. We were quite grateful to God for the opportunity to be part of such work, but the people of Cotzal showed us an expression of gratitude that touched us deeply. About 2,500 of the residents of Cotzal, representing a dozen different Evangelical movements and the Catholic Church, all came together in one place to say “thank you.” Each had received a complimentary bottle of water. With great emotion, we watched as the entire group raised their water bottles to God to thank him for the gift of clean water in their community.
A JBU education is not just about the classroom. JBU faculty and students go around the world to share what they know, learn more than they ever expected, and change the lives of others.
Joe Walenciak, PhD
Associate Dean and Professor of Business
Donald G. Soderquist College of Business