An Unlikely Partnership

It seemed like a simple project to help a village get clean water. Things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

Ed Shearer, left, and Samantha Rahmani measure water depth in one of the holding tanks above the village of Chaguitón.

Story by Amy Whitesall. Photos and video by Marcin Szczepanski

On an August morning in the Guatemalan village of Chaguitón, a group pulls plastic chairs into a large circle in the shade of a school building. Three University of Michigan students, members of an engineering student team called BLUElab, have come to Chaguitón to learn more about the village’s reported water problems and perhaps design a solution. They’re flanked by Michigan Engineering alumnus Ed Shearer and his wife, Gayle, who’ve been doing church mission work in Chaguitón for two years.

About 20 people have gathered, but the the action centers on two of them — an old-school construction manager named Ramiro Peñate and BLUElab team leader Samantha Rahmani.

Peñate, head of Guatemalan operations for the U.S.-based Central American Lutheran Mission Society (CALMS), leans back in his chair with his elbows planted on the armrests and squints across the empty space at these visitors.

Michigan Engineering BLUElab team teams up with an engineering alumnus to develop a water filtration system in a Guatemalan village. Once there, they face some unexpected challenges and learn an important life lesson.

He has decades of experience running construction projects, and water infrastructure is his specialty. He’s not a local, but he is a Guatemalan, and the people of Chaguitón respect him; they know he gets things done. In Peñate’s opinion, Chaguitón needs a large, central filtration unit to clean its water supply. The students, however, want to know more. If they’re going to build anything, it needs to be environmentally and economically sustainable. It needs to actually work for the community, and they’re not convinced what he’s proposing will do that.

Peñate is not accustomed to having his opinion questioned.

Across the circle, Rahmani, a chemical engineering junior, chooses her words very carefully. She’s not sure exactly who this man is, but she senses that he has a lot of influence. She explains through an interpreter that her team isn’t convinced the water in Chaguitón is as bad as they were led to believe. In addition to possibly being unnecessary, the project Peñate is proposing would be expensive. The village has no money to afford it, and neither do the students.

The annoyance in Peñate’s response needs no translation. There are lots of organizations in the U.S. with money to give to water projects, he says, growing indignant. His voice gains volume as he insinuates that those donors — and maybe the students, too — seem to care more about causes on other continents than the needs of the people sitting around this circle.

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A girl pauses for a drink at the faucet that provides water to her school.
“The Shearers are very blunt and straightforward people,” Rahmani said. “I’ve never felt like they’ve tried to go over my head or influence my actions in any way. I’d much rather work with someone I don’t see eye-to-eye with who is honest than with someone I can’t figure out.”

In this moment, a lot rides on the negotiating skills of a 21-year-old. The Shearers arranged this meeting between the students, Chaguitón’s “cocode,” or village council, and representatives from CALMS, an organization that oversees mission work in the village. They brought these students to Chaguitón and vouched for them. Their enthusiasm for partnering with Michigan students has also raised both hopes and funds at their church back home near Houston.

The cocode, worried about water quality and keenly aware of Chaguitón’s standing as a leader among its neighboring villages, doesn’t have the money to solve this problem itself.

The students have already put in dozens of hours of work to prepare for the trip. They’ve given up two weeks of their summer break and spent their own money to get to Chaguitón. They’ve come to tease out the nuances of the problem for themselves, not to be assigned a solution.

Portraits of the residents of Chaguitón.

No one wants to go backward, but the way forward isn’t clear either. A lot of people have a lot at stake — reputation, credibility, health — but for the first time since the partnership began, its future hangs in question. It will only work if they can work together.

When the Shearers started taking mission trips 10 years ago, doing good was simple. They got on a plane in Houston, landed a couple hours later in Guatemala and spent a week mixing cement and hauling block. At the end of that week, a family had a new house.

The work was physically exhausting and spiritually rewarding, but over time they recognized that the good they thought they were doing contributed to an unhealthy dynamic. The locals began to rely on the charity of outsiders, to ask for things rather than work for them.

CALMS noticed some unhealthy dynamics, too, and shifted its model from hit-and-run humanitarian projects to longer-term partnerships with the cocodes in proactive communities like Chaguitón.

Rahmani and BLUElab team member Sara León measure the dimensions of an overflow tank on the water supply line to the village while two cocode members cover the access point for the dam.

But BLUElab teaches students to build genuine relationships and mutual trust in the communities where they work. There are no shortcuts, even if you arrive with familiar faces or with the blessing of local authorities. Once they’ve reached the point on a project where honest answers replace polite ones, the students work with locals to identify problems and come up with solutions the community can sustain. Success for BLUElab is a project that spreads through the community on its own because people see it and decide it’s worth their while.

Compared to the simplicity of showing up and building houses, BLUElab’s process is slow, messy and unpredictable. But if it leads to something that lasts in Chaguitón, it’ll be worth it.

At first, bringing BLUElab to the village seemed an odd collision of the Shearers’ worlds — a public university working with a religious mission organization. But it made so much sense in other ways — a village in need, a group of eager students, an experienced in-country organization to handle the logistics — that the potential gain outweighed the awkwardness.

Rahmani lends a hand at the sink to Oralia Israel Montoya to better understand village residents’ day-to-day lives.

But sometimes the differences do matter. Guatemala has a long history with well-intentioned white people coming in and causing more problems than they solve. Chaguitón is no different.

A residential outpost of (mostly) independent coffee growers and their families. The village has a church, a health clinic and school buildings, but no businesses. Coffee plants occupy nearly every bit of arable land, all the way up the mountain to about 5,000 feet.

Years ago, a team from the Netherlands built the village a coffee processing plant. The expensive equipment was supposed to enable the villagers to process their coffee and presumably sell it at a premium. The Dutch team didn’t consider, however, that the farmers in Chaguitón take out a loan each year to buy their fertilizer, and that loan contractually obliges them to sell their pre-processed coffee to the people who sold them the fertilizer. The plant sits unused.

“The old engineer was the problem-solver,” said BLUElab faculty advisor Steve Skerlos, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “The BLUElab student and engineer understands that solving the problem is really the easy part. Defining the problem is the hard part, and it actually takes a lot of effort, interaction and time in the community to make sure you’re working on the right problems.”

The best coffee grows up high. As more and more of the high-altitude forests are cleared for coffee production, people and animals work closer to the spring that provides the community’s water and fecal contamination has become a growing problem.

Above the nearby village of L’avanzada sits another example of engineering know-how gone awry. A large concrete filtration unit, built 20 years ago by Peñate, filters sediment out of the water that comes down the mountain. The filter also has a chlorination tank — designed to accomplish the important second task of killing microorganisms that could make people sick. The chlorine hasn’t been used in 19 years because the people in the village don’t like the idea of having chemicals added to their water.

BLUElab team members, including Alex Mattia (center), collect organic samples at the village’s water source.

The students learned that much over the course of a week in the village, but Rahmani appreciates how easy it is to lock onto what looks like an obvious problem, only to find it’s a mirage. She was part of the group that made a short visit to the village in March 2015. What they were told at the time suggested a solution much like Peñate’s.

It wasn’t until the student team started visiting homes in the village and hearing mixed reports — the water was good; the water was bad; the water made some people sick, sometimes — that the team began to suspect they didn’t have the whole story.

“I was very naive in terms of how BLUElab worked and how we worked in different communities,” said Rahmani. “On the first trip, we went for three days and we were told very quickly that water quality was their primary interest. I thought, ‘Oh! Well, that was easy! We figured that out and it’s only been two days. Everyone kept telling me this was difficult.”

The trail to the water source.
The Shearers and the BLUElab team sit down to breakfast.

Gayle Shearer’s first career was in education. She still has her “teacher voice” and she’s not afraid to use it in the event of indecision or inactivity. If Gayle doesn’t have a plan, she will have one soon, and unless you have a better one, it’s easier to go along than to argue.

But she balances that drive with a genuine kindness, a softer, quieter Gayle who sensed Rahmani’s frustration after that puzzling first day of interviews in the village. Gayle took Rahmani’s arm on the walk back from dinner, gently steering her up the dark street, past skinny stray dogs lounging on the cracked pavement.

“You just say the word,” she said. “We’re here to support you in whatever way you need.”

What Rahmani and the team needed, however, was something the Shearers couldn’t provide — a clear sign that Chaguitón needed the kind of help BLUElab offers.

Ed Shearer (left) helps BLUElab members measure the dimensions of a small dam on the water supply line.

Because the water supply comes from higher up the mountain, the students headed uphill in search of answers. Ed Shearer (BSE NAME ’67, MSE NAME ’74) pulled on a pair of worn blue Shearer and Associates coveralls, stuffed a pair of leather work gloves into the back pocket and trudged up the path behind students, interpreters, cocode members and assorted other locals. As the group straggled out along the trail, Ed kept pace, pausing to pick a red tropical flower that he tucked into his breast pocket to give to Gayle. When the group reached the point where spring water flows into the first of a series of holding tanks, Ed, 71, settled onto a discarded crate and leaned hard on his walking stick for a few moments.

But he couldn’t stay on the sidelines for long. Soon he was standing next to the concrete tanks, helping with measurements, offering an extra hand, reminding the students about a basic flow-rate formula that fit the circumstances better than the more advanced ones they were trying to apply.

Ed Shearer rests after a hike through the jungle.

Ed founded Shearer and Associates, a naval architecture and marine engineering firm that designs the marine equipment used to move cargo along this country’s inland waterways. He’s dealt with plenty of young, freshly-minted naval architects who think they know it all. He’s been that guy himself. Ed got a glimpse of what real labor could be like when his father put him to work doing every dirty job in the family’s shipyard just before he graduated from Michigan. One of the things Ed appreciates about the BLUElab students is they lack that arrogance. They listen.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years,” he said. “You learn a few things.”

As the day wore on, the trailing crowd got hotter, thirstier, bored. But the students pressed on, and so did Ed. This was what they came here for, and it felt good to be doing something.

Mattia and Rahmani examine cultures made from water samples they collected around the village.

For 30 hours, the 20 samples that would either confirm the water was contaminated or throw the whole project into question incubated in petri dishes under the bed in team member Alex Mattia’s room back in La Union.

When some of the samples finally revealed the telltale pink and purple dots that indicate potentially harmful bacteria, Rahmani, beaming from the balcony, made a triumphant announcement to the courtyard below, “We have coliforms in the preschool and the primary school!”

Even months later, the memory of Rahmani’s enthusiasm for pathogens warmed Gayle Shearer’s heart.

“You want things to be good,” she said. “I wanted good water, but part of me also wanted their work not to be in vain. So to see them excited that something was growing, that was a great moment.”

Gayle Shearer (right) and Rhamani shell peas with Heydi, a local resident.

The beauty of working with students, she observed, is that they don’t play by the old rules — they don’t even know the old rules. They question authority not because they want to be disrespectful, but because they really want to understand.

Few people, for example, would have had the courage to confront Peñate the way Rahmani did. Gayle, who’s generally fearless, has done it on a few occasions while leading building projects. She knows it’s not easy.

But sometimes it’s not enough to assume everyone wants to do good. Good means different things to different people.

Ed and Gayle have committed to make at least one trip a year to Chaguitón as representatives of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Nassau Bay, Texas. Just as their relationship with the cocode gave the students a foothold in Chaguitón, they hope the connections the students build there will reflect well on future mission projects.

They have several ongoing projects in the village, and Gayle uses the meeting with Peñate and the cocode to tick through the village’s to-do list: digging latrines, installing new water piping, fixing a washed-out section of road. She records everything in a small notebook, and when she asks about people’s access to eye doctors and dentists, it’s with the prospect of a collaboration with the medical or dental schools at Michigan in mind.

Heydi, a village resident, practices writing.

The Shearers brought BLUElab to Chaguitón in hopes that they could help the village fix its water, and while that hasn’t happened yet, the project seems headed in that direction. But it turned out Chaguitón had a lot to offer the students, too. The lessons weren’t about how to filter water — they could learn that in Ann Arbor — but instead about negotiation, communication, managing expectations and coping with ambiguity.

Rahmani collects a water sample from a local home as León records information about the sample.

Peñate is a proud man committed to his cause, but he’s no fool. Soon he recognizes the gap between his expectations and those of the BLUElab team. There may still be an organization out there willing to build his project, but it won’t be this one.

The students offer an alternate plan — to return in the spring and teach the locals how to build inexpensive biosand filters. That’ll give them the freedom to adopt the technology if they want it, and the ability to share knowledge and clean water with neighboring villages.

In the end, dirty water may not be the community’s biggest problem, but by meeting Peñate halfway with a filter of some sort, the BLUElab team can earn some credibility and build a foundation for future projects.

Cocode member Juan Martinez Diaz, a 30-year-old coffee farmer and father of two, declares the idea “magnificent.” Previous cocodes have worried about the water; he’d like to be part of the group that finally gets something done.

Finally, Peñate nods his approval. He agrees to use his construction contacts to help the team find local materials. Then he stands stiffly and walks away, toward one of the coolers packed with sack lunches. Gayle Shearer closes her notebook.

The meeting is over. The real work is just beginning.

Local schoolchildren hug Ed Shearer.
Ed Shearer and representatives of CALMS and Gloria Dei end the day with a scenic commute.
Gayle was raised Baptist, Ed Presbyterian, but they’ve spent much of their adult lives holding organized religion at arm’s length. Eventually they found friends and fellowship at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church near their home in Seabrook, Texas and started doing mission work. They can afford to, and it feels good. They’re determined to keep going as long as their health allows. “We need to slow down,” Gayle often says. Then she books another trip.