Can you imagine living a year without electricity? How about a month, a week, or even just a single day? Just last month, Tom Henderson and Steve Rooney, both linemen with Petit Jean Electric Cooperative in Clinton, Arkansas, found out first hand how different life is without the benefits of electricity that most of us have been accustomed to all our lives. They went to the Central American country of Guatemala with 11 other Arkansas electric cooperative linemen to bring a dramatic change to the lives of people in the villages of San Pablo, Bueno Vista and Baloverdre.
Rural electrification has been very successful in the United States and the majority of Americans living today are too young to remember how hard life was without even the most meager electric service. We take it for granted that when we “flip a switch” we will have electric power. When our power goes off for a few hours, we pace and fret and worry about how we’re going to cook dinner or even heat a cup of coffee in the microwave. The “magic” of flipping a switch is not true for most of the world’s rural population and that is where we learn about the NRECA International Program. Since 1962, the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA) has sent more than 400 rural electrification linemen, engineers, managers and other specialists to help rural people in under-developed countries start their own electrification programs.
Anticipating a new life, the villagers work diligently in advance to prepare for the line connections, which include rights-of-ways, erecting poles and other tasks, so when the Arkansas crew arrive, they worked alongside the men to string line and ultimately connect homes for the first time.
According to Bill Conine, President and CEO of Petit Jean Electric, (who observed the project on-site), knew the success of the project depended heavily on donated materials and labor from the Arkansas electric cooperatives as well as donated materials and funds from ERMCO (Electric Research & Manufacturing Cooperative) in Little Rock, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives. They donated oil-filled distribution transformers and transformer components.
With the promise of electricity, the villagers will no longer have to rely on batteries or kerosene to provide light. Wood ovens can be replaced or supplemented by electric models. Wells can be dug and pumps installed to provide potable water, and from an agricultural perspective, the addition of electricity will help the villagers reduce production costs of their principal source of livelihood (growth and export of premium coffee). Diesel generation can cause the coffee to develop a fuel-tainted scent which decreases the value of the beans and the farmers’ profit. So, electricity will increase their profits. The power can also be used to remove the husk and pulp from the beans.
The Petit Jean linemen were chosen to go to Guatemala by their fellow employees from a pool of volunteers who expressed an interest in the trip. The following is the personal story of Tom Henderson and Steve Rooney.
The Arkansas crew flew into Guatemala City (with approximately 4 million people), then prepared to travel, by van, for seven hours on a developed highway. They did not recognize many logos or businesses, but did see a McDonald’s, which offered American food as well as native food. (They chose American). At the end of the seven hour journey, they transferred to a pick-up truck, which could access the rutted, gravel roads. All 13 rode in the back for the two-hour trek, then went on foot for another half-hour to their base camp.
During the 12 days of their project, the weather was rainy, muddy and chilly, but their spirits never dampened. They adjusted to the high altitude, the native food and the dependence on the interpreters for communication, as well as their help in exchanging dollars for quetzal ($1=7 1/2 quetzal). The crew quickly learned to respect the self-sustaining lifestyle of the villagers. Most of the farmers owned a cow, sheep and chickens and some grew pineapple and bananas for export, (although coffee is their prime resource). Many villagers have large families, but no pet dogs or cats. They observed that the country is approximately 90% Christian, with a church building on “almost every corner.” The linemen found the people thin, but healthy, very friendly and above all, appreciative for the hope of a better life through electricity.
At the end of the project, an “Electrification Inauguration” was given for the linemen and specialists connected with the project. They could see the banners and balloons, but were required to wait outside the tent until all preparations were completed to “perfection.” After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the men were honored with prayers and speeches of appreciation from dignitaries and were presented with a “Diploma of Appreciation.” For 90 minutes, the villagers honored the crew with an abundance of food (a lot of chicken and corn tortillas), music by a live band and many, many tears. It was hard to tell which was shining brighter, the faces of the linemen, the lights, or the faces of the homeowners.
The Fairfield Bay NEWS would like to add their thanks to Tom Henderson and Steve Rooney, the other 11 linemen from Arkansas electric cooperatives, the supervisors, managers, specialists, safety inspectors and interpreters for leaving their families to be part of an experience that changed the lives of those 450 people in the three remote villages in Guatemala.
Apparently, the lives of the crew were changed also. According to Tom and Steve, they will cherish their memories of helping those hardworking, giving and loving people and would go back and work again “at the drop of a hat.”