Light Up the World
Electric cooperatives of Oklahoma and Colorado electrify remote villages in rural Guatemala
The Energy Trails team and local residents at the village of Pie del Cerro celebrate turning the lights on for the first time. Photos by Daniel Afcha
The atmosphere was festive. Cheerful sights and sounds formed the backdrop for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. An arch of palm tree leaves adorned the entrance of Pie del Cerro, a village nestled near a rainforest in northwestern Guatemala. Music played in the background while a marching band lined up with drums, ready to lead the much-anticipated parade. Villagers wore their best, brightly-colored outfits, kids displayed joyful smiles and the men carried a deep sense of pride. When their heroes arrived, the party started. Oklahoma and Colorado linemen came dressed in matching blue polo shirts bringing smiles, hugs and a sense of fulfillment. The festivities began with the ceremonial parade. Linemen and villagers walked side by side while the kids performed a dance routine and a marching band led the procession. Parade-goers walked to the local elementary school in Pie del Cerro where an area had been set up for a lighting ceremony. There, they said a prayer, sang the Guatemalan and U.S. national anthems, heard remarks from local authorities and co-op officials from Oklahoma and Colorado, and turned the lights on. The day was October 2, 2018. It was a day worthy of being celebrated. On this day, Pie del Cerro and neighboring village, Tierra Blanca Salinas, came out of the dark. From this day forward, generation after generation will enjoy the gift of light.
The Energy Trails team and local residents at the village of Pie del Cerro celebrate turning the lights on for the first time. | Photo by Daniel Afcha
Energy Trails Electrification Project
Fifteen volunteer linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado landed in Guatemala City in mid-September. Their mission: to electrify two remote villages that had never had electric power before. The project was a joint effort between Oklahoma’s and Colorado’s electric cooperatives with coordination from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)’s philanthropic arm, NRECA International. The volunteers spent three weeks at the project site working to electrify 100 homes, two elementary schools, two health centers and five churches. They lodged at the modest hotel Don Pablo in the town of Playa Grande near the Mexican border. The daily drive to the villages of Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas took them down 40 miles of treacherous roadway. Once there, the linemen worked on a span of 8 miles of line, wired 130 poles and installed four, 25 kVa transformers to bring electricity to both villages. According to project team leader, Derec Janaway, construction foreman with Oklahoma Electric Cooperative based in Norman, Oklahoma, the heat and humidity were the greatest challenges.
“The heat was our No. 1 challenge. The first couple of days we worked in the cornfields along the rainforest, the humidity was so high it felt like we had very little air. I watched the guys pretty hard to make sure everyone was okay,” Janaway says.
Volunteer Curtis Chlouber with Cimarron Electric Cooperative based in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, says the working conditions were difficult for the volunteers and for the residents, although the locals have a unique resiliency.
“The corn fields are huge. They go on for hundreds and hundreds of acres. The territory is remote and the terrain is tough,” Chlouber says. “The local men have to plant corn by hand and carry it by hand. We were sweating so much even before climbing a pole.”
The volunteers worked with a local municipal utility, Empresa Rural Municipal de Electricidad (EMRE); this entity owns and maintains the infrastructure built by Oklahoma and Colorado co-ops. EMRE, a utility with 26 employees serving 5,000-plus consumers, coordinated the pre-placement of 130 poles prior to volunteers arriving at the project site.
Linemen volunteers wired approximately 130 poles to electrify two remote villages in Guatemala. | Photo by Daniel Afcha
Despite the challenges, the volunteers expressed gratitude for the opportunity to help others by using their trade.
“I enjoy giving back. Having the opportunity to use our trade to help families who have never enjoyed electricity before was truly humbling,” Brad Scott, lineman with Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, says.
EMRE worked with a local vo-tech school to recruit students to do the bulk of the work for the internal wiring of the homes and other building structures. Each home received four lightbulbs, four electrical outlets and four light switches.
Scotty Branham, a licensed electrician with CKenergy Electric Cooperative based in Binger, Oklahoma, led the internal wiring efforts. His responsibility was to ensure every home was fully equipped to receive the gift of light. Branham feels privileged he was able to enter nearly every home and interact with local residents.
“It was an honor to visit each home and see how the villagers take care of their homes, their families and their communities with how little they have,” Branham says.
Guatemalan kids eating by candlelight | Photo by Daniel Afcha
Life at Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas is simple and arduous, but it is not free from joy.
“The living conditions at the villages were worse than what I expected; you truly don’t get the full picture until you’re there,” Branham says.
Villagers live in extreme poverty without running water, plumbing, food refrigeration and—until recently—without electricity. Most homes have dirt floors and are constructed with wooden planks, leaving gaps in the walls. Some homes even lack a door. They have straw roofs, and when it rains is not uncommon for water to leak into the living space. The villagers cook over an open fire inside their homes and the smoke from their primitive stove stays in the house; the wall openings become necessary as a way for the smoke to escape.
Village kids helped the linemen during the electrification project. | Photo by Daniel Afcha
The men of the village are typically gone for days, weeks or months working the fields on crops such as corn, coffee, or spices. The women and children stay behind and grind corn to make tortillas, their main staple. The villagers use a creek to wash clothes and to bathe. While there are elementary schools in the villages, it is not uncommon for the children to only attend school a couple days of the week; many kids do not advance in their education past fourth grade.
“The villagers work so hard. When they wake up, their mission is simply to survive, to see the end of the day,” Mike Wolfe, operations managers with Southwest Rural Electric based in Tipton, Oklahoma, says. “We have things so much easier in America. We don’t realize what it is like to work for everything we have.”
Now with the gift of electricity, Energy Trails volunteers are hopeful the quality of life in Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas will change for the better. One volunteer, Michael Musil with Central Electric Cooperative in Stillwater, Oklahoma, remembers how rural electrification brought hope to America’s countryside and how this project resembles the transformation that followed.
“I can’t fathom how bringing lights to America was, but it was probably similar to what we just experienced in Guatemala. This is opening a door to them,” Musil says.
More than Power
Each volunteer on the Energy Trails team says they left more than electricity behind; they left the gift of friendship. The team made connections with the local children, villagers and with EMRE linemen and apprentices.
“We came here to bring power, but we’ve brought more than power,” James Willcox, lineman with Indian Electric Cooperative in Cleveland, Oklahoma, says. “We have made connections that will last longer than turning the lights on.”
During the project, volunteers worked 10-hour days at the project site. Lunch was provided by EMRE at the village and the team created a habit of playing with the children after the meal. It was a fun and loud “siesta.” The children took a liking to the linemen and the feelings were mutual. The volunteers who worked on the internal wiring of the homes had the opportunity to work side by side with young men—also called “praticantes”—who were interns at EMRE. They developed great friendships.
Among themselves, the linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado formed a brotherhood they say will last a lifetime.
“We had an awesome team. It would be unlikely that we would work a storm break together, but through this project we formed a brotherhood for life. We still talk to each other every day. It will last forever,” Janaway says.
Every team member was impacted by the friendship formed among the linemen; despite state borders, the team became one.
“This was the best group of guys I have ever worked with,” Michael Green with Southeastern Electric Cooperative in Durant, Oklahoma, says. “Everyone was eager to work and do whatever was needed. I couldn’t have asked for a better group.”
Turning the Lights On
During week 3, the Energy Trails team finalized their work. Once all structures were properly wired and primary and secondary line work was complete, it was time to formally turn the lights on and celebrate with the residents. On October 2, the villagers organized a parade and invited the linemen to walk the parade route with them. It was a festive event marking a historic occasion. A lighting ceremony took place at the elementary school in Pie del Cerro. EMRE conducted the ceremony that included a band, certificates of appreciation for the volunteers as well as a savory lunch. Local officials and representatives from Oklahoma and Colorado electric cooperatives offered remarks about the significance of the project. They sang the Guatemalan national anthem and the U.S. national anthem. Jack Johnston, CEO of Southeast Colorado Power Association was at the lighting ceremony and says it was a moving experience.
“I have heard from past generations their own experience when the lights came on, but there is no way to reflect the actual feelings of seeing electricity flow for the very first time. Added to this was the emotion of standing on foreign soil as your own national anthem is played,” Johnston says.
Jennifer Meason, CEO of Cotton Electric Cooperative in Walters, Oklahoma, was also a part of the delegation that traveled to witness the Inauguration Day. Meason expressed she was inspired by what she saw in Guatemala.
“The beauty of the Guatemalan landscape was a strong contrast to the harsh reality of life without electricity. We were honored to witness the electrification of a home in the village and experience the excitement of the multiple generations who live there,” Meason says. “Today, the gift of electricity is a step forward for our friends in Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas.”
CKenergy Electric Cooperative board trustee Robert Travis witnessed the lighting ceremony and dearly remembered his father who was a leader in bringing electricity to the Custer City rural community.
“This project has a lot of meaning to me. My father helped to electrify our community, and now I’m here watching these communities receive power for the first time. It’s very special,” Travis says.
Providing electricity to areas that have none is part of the cooperative DNA, according to Chris Meyers, general manager of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.
“This mission enables co-ops to get back to our roots. They expose our linemen to electric cooperative beginnings and allow them to use their trade to give a gift to families that will last for generations to come,” Meyers says.
The festive music concluded, the parade ended, and the village heroes left, but the joy of the villagers remains, now with hope for better days ahead made possible through the gift of light—and the gift of friendship.