LDS Church helps as Guatemalans bring water, education to their village

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

John Curtiss, a humanitarian missionary for the LDS Church, supervises the construction of a new school in Seamay, Guatemala.

Alan Gibby, Deseret News

SEAMAY, Guatemala — It is still dark when the woman rises from her bed, slips her callused feet into her flimsy pink flip flops, and begins the long walk for water. Already, the damp air smells of cooking fires, and before long, the blue sheen of wood smoke will rise above this small mountain village in Guatemala.

It is a quiet place where she lives, even during the day, but now, at 5 in the morning, everything is still. She walks past the pig in her yard, tethered to a banana tree and sleeping, and down the winding path that leads from her hilltop home to the mist-shrouded valley below. Her walk to the river will take several hours.

Her name is Magdelana Cuz and she is 46 years old. She has spent her entire life here in the Alta Verapaz. Her neck is bowed from years of carrying water atop her head; her hands bent and gnarled from grinding corn on a rough stone slab. It is a testament to the harshness of life here. And yet there is a radiant beauty that emanates from her dark eyes, a suggestion that even here, in this hard land, there is hope.

Magdalena makes this trip nearly every morning during the dry season. When it rains, and there is more water here, she goes to the tap in the center of the village, hoping to fill her blue plastic jar with what she needs for cooking and laundry, and of course, drinking. But she often arrives to find a long line already waiting, even in the middle of the night. Sometimes it gets so bad that the neighbors steal water from each other. Magdalena can't believe that she has done this herself, but she has 11 children, and there are few things more powerful than thirst.

In the moonlight, she leaves the rutted dirt road for a steep rocky path that cuts through the jungle. By this time, her husband has already been up for hours as well, gathering wood, and is likely nearing home. Their children are probably stirring from bed.

As she nears the sound of the water gurgling from the rocks, she prays for a better life. She imagines not having to make this walk. She imagines her husband not having to hike for miles for firewood. And she imagines her children studying past the third grade, in a school with cement floors, a library and maybe even computers.

She can't imagine that any of this will actually happen — it seems a distant dream too good to be true — but within a year all of it will, improbably, begin to become a reality.

Seamay sits in the highlands of northeastern Guatemala, wedged between the Polochic Valley, a humid patchwork of farmland that stretches all the way to the Caribbean, and The Peten — a vast, jungly no man's land of sweeping rain forests and ancient Mayan temples.

John Curtiss still remembers the first time he visited Seamay. A 64-year-old American from Wisconsin, he had driven up from Guatemala City on assignment with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and had spent his first few days exploring the town. It was easy to fall for the place. The village lay nestled between several vine-covered peaks, with terraced farms of corn and beans dotting the steep slopes. A sprawling coffee plantation, once the economic center of the village, sat abandoned and empty, its white hacienda looming ghost-like against the backdrop of the deep green mountains.

As Curtiss drove through town, he could see the villagers in their bright Mayan clothing watching him curiously. They were accustomed to Mormon missionaries, but they had never seen a missionary like him. Outside of the black badge he wore on his chest, he bore little resemblance to the teenage boys who walked the streets in their starched white shirts, carrying Bibles and Books of Mormon. Curtiss hadn't come to Guatemala to baptize; he had come to provide humanitarian service.

Throughout the world, there were dozens of missionaries from the LDS Church just like him. Typically retired couples who volunteered to serve for 18 months at their own expense, they trained doctors, built schools, dug wells and helped the unemployed find work from Haiti to the Dominican Republic to the Congo.

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