Cornfields draping the mountainous terrain of the Chorti Maya at La Pintada, Honduras.
Related story from my blog (www.giramonda.com) and published elsewhere:
Billy’s story really isn’t about Billy at all. Rather, it’s about the people he’s been working with nearly everyday for the past five years. Billy’s story is the story of the Chortí Maya, the direct descendants of the ancient Mayans. Billy describes them as Honduras’ “conquered people.”
“They used to own all of this land and it’s just like we did in North America,” Billy said. “In every country there’s a conquered people.”
Billy says since they became the “conquered people,” the Chortí Maya existence has been a harsh one – one of exploitation from land owners and a day-to-day struggle for survival.
“Before 1997, 50 percent of the Chortí children died before the age of five,” Billy said.
But, that was more then ten years ago. Now, the reality for these people is changing, and Billy and his work are a huge catalyst for much of that change. Billy is involved with so many projects with the Chortí people that it’s hard to keep them straight. On the hour and a half truck ride, bumping through rough, dirt roads that could be washed away with the next rain and fording through swift streams, I listened to Billy talk about everything he was doing for these people… and by the end of the ride, there was still more to know.
Billy is involved in so much, it’s hard for me to know where to start. Perhaps, I should simply start where we started. I met Billy at the small, local pharmacy in Copán Ruinas. I was looking for face wash, but even the word “soap” in Spanish was escaping me. Obviously, I wasn’t getting very far. But then I heard a someone call out, “Jabón. Necessita jabón.” It was Spanish, but it was laden with a thick southern accent from the U.S. When I turned to see where the strange Spanish was coming from, I found Billy. Billy was there with a handsome, yet scruffy local, looking for some first-aid. The man had cut his finger and it didn’t look pretty. The cut wasn’t quite grotesque, but it was definitely a cut that needed some attention.
‘Well that’s not something I would expect to find,’ I thought. Copán Ruinas is well-known for its ancient Mayan ruins and is a touristy city. Though it has managed to preserve its quaint, thoroughly local atmosphere, I figured any “Western” person that I would run into would be a tourist, not an aid worker. But, that’s precisely why Billy moved from Arkansas eight years ago to live in Copán: to aid the people here who have need.
The next day, I found myself bumping over the dirt ruts the locals called a road in Billy’s truck. But, the bumping and bouncing was a rare, luxurious break for the handfuls of locals that hitched a ride with us between Copán and the La Pintada. Nearly everyone we passed on the hour and half ride knew Billy and sent a greeting, a wave and a bright smile in our direction when they saw him. Those that still had quite a hike to go, were urged into the truck with Billy’s friendly, thickly-accented Spanish. Most of the girls giggled at Billy’s Spanish. It seemed as if most of the guys – both with sparkling, white smiles and dark, toothless ones – gave Billy a sly wink. The compassion Billy showed the Chortí people was evident in their eyes. Evident after he made a mental note to ask for a wheelchair for the man who scooted around on cobbled, gravel and dirt streets – molded rubber from old car tires the only cushion from the hard ground for his underdeveloped shins and feet. Evident later in the village where new huts were being built – huts that were cement instead of mud.
“They’re counting some of these folks as employed out here when they’re just living from day to day… poor folks have a hard time,” said Billy.
In reality, most of the Chortí Maya live off of $300 a year, less than a dollar a day. Few others are lucky to make more.
“I know a man right now that’s starting at a place; he’s working 12 hours a night for 40 Lempiras a night,” Billy said. “That’s a little over 2 dollars. And he’s glad to get it cause it’s the only job he’s got.”
A tough wage to feed a typical family eight to ten with.
En route to one of the villages, La Pintada, I got a brief overview of various projects Billy and his wife, Mary, are involved in. And those projects fall nothing short of feeding, housing, educating and medically treating the Chortí people. Billy and Mary and a number of others are working together to do it all.
“We just want them to have enough food on the table that they can feed their family and someday have enough that they can save and sell,” said Billy. “And we want every kid to have clean water.”
Billy says the Chortí Maya people go hungry two months out of the year. Most of the villages don’t have clean water. But, the projects Billy, Mary and others are involved in are turning around these harsh realities of the Chortí people.
Billy and Mary have helped the locals develop the Chortí Maya Agricultural Training Center. The center is used to train locals in SALT, or Sloping Agricultural Land Technology. The program teaches villagers specialized farming techniques so they can grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. Local villagers stay at the center for about three full days of training in SALT techniques. Billy says, that’s all the time it takes to start drastically changing the lives of the Chortí people. The training program also teaches the Chortí how farm in a sustainable way, one that combats the devastating soil erosion common in mountainous farming terrain. Local farmers can also become involved in programs that offer instruction with seeds and planting, goats and even honeybees all through the agricultural training center. The program has also introduced a self-propagating plant for firewood to encourage the Chortí people from harmful deforestation. Billy says the project is currently working with 100 Chortí families.
Fresh, clean water is another major goal for aid workers like Billy and Mary working with the Chortí.
“My wife’s been instrumental through the Rotary clubs in the Unites States and through the Rotary Club in Santa Rosa de Copán and the Rotary Club in Copán Ruinas,” Billy said. “She’s got water to 13 villages.”
Don Warren, a retired executive from the textile industry, is another major player in getting fresh water to the Chortí villages. Billy says Don “has made it his mission in life, before he dies, to put clean water in every Chortí village.” That’s no small task. There are over 50 Chortí villages in Honduras. But, Billy says Don and his wife have help. Two peace corps workers have already mapped out a plan that promises to provide every Chorti village in the region with have clean water within the next two to three years.
Billy’s wife Mary does more than help create needed infrastructure for fresh water though. Billy says she’s also teaching the Chortí people about proper health techniques. What she’s teaching the Chortí might seem obvious to Westerners, but many of the Chortí have never been educated in what much of the Western world considers basic health knowledge.
“My wife Mary does health talks,” Billy said. “She takes people into villages and almost 100 percent of the Chorti women have never spent one day in a classroom. They’re very smart. They’re oral learners. So my wife goes in with different groups and she just teaches rehydration. Water, clean water. A little salt and a little sugar. A little lemon juice. And when someone has diahhrea they can give them this and it rehydrates them. She tries to teach them to take all these clothes and blankets and caps off these babies when they have a fever because they don’t know any different. She just tries to teach them cleanliness. Eighty-five percent of the problems with these rural people, medically, and this is what the doctor in town says, is cleanliness and poor water.
Health isn’t the only education the Chortí are getting thanks to Billy and Mary.
“There are kids that are 16 and 17 years old in the first grade because a lot of villages are just now having their first school,” Billy said. “So the things are changing for ‘em… What we do is we go in, and if they have teachers, I’ll build whatever they need. I just built a kindergarten in Roatona. Most places I build three classrooms. I’m fixing to build three classrooms in San Jironomo, Santa Rita. I talked to the mayor this morning. He’ll transport all of my materials in there, which will save me over $2,000 dollars.”
So far, Billy has built six schools. The government is also building some schools for the Chortí people, but Billy says he can build two schools for the same cost the government builds one. Plus, he says the government doesn’t understand what the villagers need. While the government will put in glass windows, Billy knows the a stray soccer ball will bust out a the glass and the window will never be repaired. That’s why Billy says he installs wire screens. Billy points out that it’s the little things that make all the difference. It was common before, he added, for schools to amount to nothing more than mud building with no windows at all.
Right now, he says the less than two percent of rural Honduran children finish the sixth grade. A majority of the kids go to first, second and third grade, he says. Most of the boys will not go past the third grade, though, and very few kids will attend the fifth and sixth grades because they need to work. About eighty-five percent, he says, do not read or right. One-hundred percent of the women do not read or write. But, Billy says he’s already seeing that reality change as more villages are getting their own schools.
Billy takes care of building the schools, and he also helps out with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity whenever he’s given the chance. The day I rode with Billy, he was making the trip out to the villages, just to give the local Habitat for Humanity representative who was stranded in town a ride out to do his job. Aber is working with Don Warren in the local Habitat for Humanity project.
“The other project Don Warren wants to see is that every Chortí sleeps in a house and has a concrete floor and that’s his goal,” Billy said.
That’s an important goal. Not only one that aims to put a solid, metal roof over each family, it also protects the Chortí from a critical threat – a threat that burrows in the the more traditional straw and mud huts of the Chortí people.
“In Honduras there’s a bug,” Billy said. “It kind of looks, to me, like a cross between a cockroach and bowweavea? If this bug, [the] Chi-Chi bug, bites you, you will have heart trouble [Chagas]. And La Leguna is a little village just out of Copan Riunas. Over 80 percent of the kids [there] have already tested positive for Chagas. The bug lives in adobe [mud huts] and in straw roofs. So the government and other organizations and Habitat are trying to put everyone at least in a house that has [cement]. If they have an adobe house, they’re putting cement over the adobe, which is fine. It seals [the mud] and they’re giving them a metal roof and a concrete floor and that will give the people better health.”
So far, Habitat for Humanity has funded a metal roof and cement plaster for 14 houses in various Chortí villages. The organization has also built four additional new houses. Billy and the others aren’t stopping at concrete walls and a metal roof though:
“We also have a improved stove project that I’m working on,” Billy said. “We’ve got a guy out of Mississippi, Pierce Smith… We’re trying to put an improved stove in each home. A wood burning stove with a chimney. Because so many of these kids, there’s no chimney in the home, so the smoke is in the home and it’s like [the kids] have a two or three pack a day cigarette habit. They have lung problems, eye problems and skin problems.”
Billy and Mary are working to provide the Chortí with food, water, schools, houses, basic health education… and still… somehow… more.
“Four Chortí children have had heart surgery here in country,” Billy said. “A little boy, right now, will have surgery in November or January in Somesa hospital in San Pedro.”
Another, he says, will receive and artificial limb. Still others are getting cataract surgery. A six-month old and 19-year-old will receive surgery for cleft palates. He’ll be able to get injections for 20 this year, who are suffering from open, festering wounds that aren’t leprosy, nor are they symptoms of diabetes. All this… through a network of people who have come to know Billy, come to know his work, and have felt compelled to contribute… in their own ways.
“In the last ten years, health has improved, which is good,” Billy said. “But the other thing is, they’re still having seven and eight kids, so they’re going to run out of land. So it’s good that the kids are living longer, but if they don’t cut down on the number of kids they have, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Right now, the only land the Chortí own is the half acre of land the government gives to each family. That’s not much land for seven or eight children to split as inheritance.
So, why do they do it? Why do Billy and Mary and others give up the comforts of Western living to pour so much heart and soul into helping the Chortí people? They’re answer is simply, they felt called by God. But, Billy explains, the last thing he wants, is to force his religion upon those he’s serving.
“When I build a school I ask them, if I build you a school can I have a Bible school,” Billy said. “You are not required to attend, I don’t care if anyone in the village doesn’t attend. Let me use it while they’re not in school… I’m paid by the International Mission Board, which is in Richmond, Virginia. It is Southern Baptist, but we do not put any requirements on the people. We do not require them to attend a Bible study. We don’t require anything of them, except that they have to do the manual labor. I don’t care what church they belong to, or if they don’t go to church, or if they don’t believe in God. That’s up to them. We work with them because we believe that Jesus helped everyone.”
Billy estimates that 90 percent of the people he’s helping today are Catholic. But, he says, the details don’t matter. What matters to him, is to teach through example. He wants to reveal God through actions. And, no matter what you believe or what the Chortí believe, it’s safe to say that those who meet Billy recognize a certain “holy” quality about him. Call it God. Call it special. Call it what you want. Whatever you call it, you can’t deny: Billy is quite the inspiration.