A tragic story from Ecuador, and a link to 1984…

The New York Times published this story today about a young Ecuadorean girl who died on her way to the US.  It’s a horrific example of what thousands face every day, driven by poverty, in search of freedom from persecution, a better life, or (as in this case) simply to be with family.

Like many, I was shocked at Noemi’s story, a tragedy.  And I found myself somehow connected to her story, when I read that “…in Noemi’s hometown there are clues about the forces at work in her story.  In the district of El Tambo in Cañar province, her maternal grandparents, Mr. Quillay, 57, and María Jesús Guamán, 59, live in an adobe home with no running water…”

Because in 1984 I worked in Cañar as a Peace Corps volunteer, and one of my first tasks as “Project Head” at the Ecuadorean Institute of Sanitary Works was to build a new potable water system for the town of El Tambo.

Here in Australia I don’t have access to photos of that project, but the images are vivid in my mind, 30 years later: trekking two hours into Andean mountains every week, up to the water source, to visit the team building the weir that collected water from a remote lake with Incan ruins at its banks.  Overseeing the construction of the water-treatment facility, with a large storage tank and two sand filters.  Installing 200 water meters in each and every house in El Tambo.  Training Don Ashico, the custodian, how to maintain the sand filters, how to glue PVC tubing, and why water consumption needed to be measured.  Dancing at the inauguration of the system, and recovering from too much “chicha” that day.

So to read that Noemi lived in a house, in El Tambo, without water seemed to add to the tragedy for me, somehow made it a bit clearer why Noemi’s parents had left.  And of course they wanted her to be with them.

But why did the water system not last these 30 years?  Didn’t the maintenance committee function?  Didn’t Don Ashico turn over the system properly when he retired?  Didn’t the local town council administer the system correctly?  Maybe there was a flaw in the construction, though it was working well when I last visited, in 1992.  Or perhaps the town had expanded, and Noemi’s house was far from the water distribution network…?

With small changes in our destinies, any of us could have easily found ourselves in Noemi’s situation – living without water, 12 years old, travelling across the world to be with our parents, dying in a Mexican shelter surrounded by strangers.  Or, if things had gone differently, we could have just as easily been Martha or José, separated from our child and now facing the despair that comes with desperate choices.

What does it mean to us if, in fact, in some way, we are all Noemi Ávarez Quillay?