Growing up with 10 other brothers in rural Guatemala, Victor Racancój learned firsthand the challenges of making a living and simply surviving. His parents worked hard as subsistence farmers, but each day was a struggle.
The only one of his siblings to go to college, Racancój, a native Mayan, worked his way through the ranks to become dean of the School of Economics at the University of San Carlos.
Racancój traveled from Guatemala to Furman University last week to share his personal story and some of his life’s work with 90 students Thursday, at Patrick Lecture Hall. The guest lecture, part of Furman’s Cultural Life Program sponsored by the Global Sustainability Club, was presented in Spanish with translation by business professor Bruce Clemens, Ph.D. and Club co-president Jose Bailey ’17.
Speaking in front of a massive Guatemalan national flag, Racancój offered students an overview of living and economic conditions in his home country.
“The biggest problems in Guatemala are poverty and hunger,” he said.
In a country where two percent of people own 65 percent of the land, multitudes live hand-to-mouth. The typical house with a thatched roof is the size of a Furman classroom, a space usually shared by a family of six.
Forty-one percent of the population doesn’t have access to running water, a statistic that the non-profit technical assistance firm Agua del Pueblo is working to change, said Racancój, the organization’s president.
Since its beginning in the 1970s, Agua del Pueblo (AdP), co-founded by Clemens, has worked with Guatemalan communities to design potable water systems which can be maintained by residents without the help of government or other organizations. AdP has completed more than 800 potable water projects, bringing water to more than twenty percent of Guatemala’s rural population. While the provision of water and sanitation is an excellent outcome, AdP treats water and sanitation as a means to the end. AdP’s ultimate goal is to relieve poverty and increase community consciousness.
Racancój explained that AdP developed an integrated methodology including village self-financing, health education, reforestation, and sanitation. It has found that communities that follow the methodology progress to build schools, clinics, and roads to further development.
Clemens has continued to stay active with the organization, taking groups of Furman students to the remotest parts of Guatemala to meet local residents and provide a helping hand to communities who have pledged to work together to fund and construct water lines. Last year, students assisted families with moving rocks and boulders to build a mountain road to the new villages of Sanik-Ya and Chitulul on the slopes of the Tolimán volcano.
“While you need to think globally, acting locally can develop communities, one project at a time,” said Clemens.
By presenting “the reality of a country like Guatemala,” Racancój said he hopes to help students to see the importance of social work for the common good.
It was a message that resonated with McKenzie Woolley ’15, a health sciences major who took Clemens’ entrepreneurship class and wanted to learn more from Racancój about needs in Guatemala. She plans to enroll in the Peace Corps in August.
“We really need to think more about ways to give back and help families in those kinds of situations,” she said.
Clemens is scheduled to return to Guatemala with the help of Rotary Clubs from California. He will help Rotary install a potable water treatment system to a local hospital. Clemens said he would welcome any Furman students to join him.
The Global Sustainability Club plans a number of additional activities next semester to both raise consciousness of students as well as to raise money to complete the Sanik-Ya and Chitulul water project. The highpoint of the effort will be Furman’s fourth annual Water Walk from 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 28.
The Global Sustainability Club anticipates that more than 700 students, faculty, staff and local residents will carry more than two gallons of water more than two miles around Furman Lake. Participants will carry the water to help raise awareness that access to clean water demands immediate attention.
The Water Walk is a mass simulation of the multi-mile-long trek that billions throughout the developing world experience in their quest for water. A local Guatemalan village leader will provide opening comments and cut the ribbon to start the walk.
The main goal is to engage the campus and local community in addressing the challenges of an increasingly globalized world. Students will ask participants for a donation and sponsorships of $5.00 to help complete a domestic water project in Guatemala.
To donate to the water project for the communities of Sanik-Ya and Chitulul, visit http://peopleswater.org/