AK-TENAMIT, Guatemala– While walking through the NGO school of Ak-Tenamit, which sits around the confluence of the Rios Dulce and Tatin in the eastern jungles of Guatemala, I kept noticing these odd assemblages of two white five galleon buckets stacked on top of each other. Upon further inspection, it became obvious that they were for cleaning drinking water.
The top five bucket is filled with river water and it is then placed on top of the bottom bucket, whereupon the water gradually goes through a filtering process and drips into the receiving bucket with the force of gravity. The bottom bucket has a spiket to realease the clean water into a cup or pot. Inside of the top bucket are two rods that looked to be made of some sort of sponge like material. They soak up the water, filter it, and release it into the bottom bucket.
Bucket filtration system used in Ak-Tenamit NGO in Guatemala
On the buckets are printed the directions for their use in English. It said clearly that the cleaning process takes 12 hours to complete. I was curious if the people here really waited this long, so I asked two different people how long it took to filter a bucket of water. One person told me 4 hours, another said that it could be done in only an hour.
These buckets also had big labels on them that said that they were donated by Rotary, complete with the organization’s gear like logo.
Bottom bucket of filtration system
It is my impression that for an NGO, volunteer, or any other initiative that has to do with one culture teaching their own values for the intended betterment of another to be successful it needs to find a middle ground — a point of reference where both cultures can mutually understand each other. I have always delighted in the stories of how well meaning Eastern European governments once gave Gypsies brand new houses just to find them stabling their horses in them, or how the Nemadi just hunted and ate the flocks of sheep that the government of Mauritania gave to them in an attempt to make them sedentarized editorialist, or how when the Peace Corps supplied rural villages in El Salvador with proper toilets, just to find them filled with trash.
You cannot beat culture, even with common sense, ingenuity, force, or guile. As Halliburton would say, “Culture is king.”
Water filtration bucket in Ak-Tenamit NGO Guatemala
It is very difficult to change a culture, it is almost impossible to break the material usaged patterns of any people. If someone came up to me and said that I should pound in nails with the side, rather than the head, of a hammer I would think they were nuts. “But I have always used a hammer this way, I do not have any problems with how it works.”
It is difficult to make people understand that their culture is essentially defunct, that they are harming themselves by doing things the way they always have done it. People who are use to just scooping water out of a river to drink are going to be hard pressed to go through a complicated process for no other reason than some foreigner told them to do it that way.
My friend Pablo at the Finca Tatin once said to me something to the effect of, “Without solutions there are no problems.” Likewise, there are so solutions unless a problem can be identified. If someone does not know they have a problem, then there is no problem. People who know no other way are hard to learn other ways.
ALL cultures know no other way.
I remember when I was around 10 years old a guy showed up at the front door of my family’s home and told us that our well water was tested and that it was not safe for us to drink. We had always just drank our well water straight from the tap, we never got sick from it — there was no problem. Even if we did know that there was a problem, what would be the solution — only drink bottled water? I grew up in the countryside, during my childhood years the idea of municiple water out where we lived would have been a joke.
After an adjustment period my mother began buying bottled water, but my father and sister continued drinking the well water. The bottled water alternative was too awkward and top heavy of a process to be regularly institued — it would have required a change in our living pattern, a change that only worked half the time at best. Though a few years later municiple water lines were dug out to my house, and my family opted to tap into the system. We could now get drinking water from the tap — just as we had always done.
Water filtration system in Ak-Tenamit NGO in Guatemala
There needs to be a cross over point between old technologies and new ones — new technologies often need to mask themselves as the old to be used effectively. There has to be a need to upgrade technologies, a problem identified to force even the slightest change in a person’s living patterns.
There needs to be a middle ground for an NGO, or another do-gooder project to be successful. If you try to put up cross walks in an Albania village and tell people that they can now only cross the street where the white stripes are, and that cars need to stop for people in the white lines, they are just going to looked at you cross eyed.
It is my impression that the Maya in this part of Guatemala are use to scooping water out of the river with buckets. Maybe by providing them with a water filtration system that is devoid of any complicated procedure, that uses equipment that is more or less common in the community for the intended purposes of use, the people may utilyze it as intended.
I do not know how widely these water bucket filters are in use in Ak-Tenemit or in eastern Guatemala. This seems like a good overlap of technology — people are use to scooping water out of a river with a bucket, now they only need to put the bucket ontop of another and wait a few hours to get clean drinking water. It seems as if this project could have been instituted successfully.
Though I only saw these buckets in use in the formal institutional buildings of Ak-Tenamit. I observed a local woman outside of the Ak-Tenamit institutional buildings using this filtration system only once: she was using one of the buckets to wash her laundry in.
Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. Wade Shepard has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
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