Field Notes

Lucia's Loving Leadership

January 28, 2013

Written by Stan Patyrak, Living Water International Senior Director—Partnerships

It’s a warm Tuesday afternoon, and I am sitting with Lucia Alvarado in the village of La Planta—a rather poor community of 46 families outside of Acajutla, El Salvador. Most of the community has steady employment only a few months out of the year—entirely reliant on picking season at the nearby lime plantation. Many others are entirely unemployed and homeless. Lucia has lived in La Planta all of her life. On most days you are likely to find her on buses, selling fruits and vegetables to earn a modest income. But ask any of the 178 people of her community, and you will learn that Lucia Alvarado doesn’t just run from bus-to-bus selling goods. Lucia is the leader of La Planta.

It wasn’t always this way. Without steady leadership, the community had gotten lost between larger communities, out of sight of regional authorities. The community quietly dealt with the issues that surface from extreme poverty. It didn’t work without strong leadership, and things only got worse. 

Where we are sitting I can see the river. Lucia shares with me that women used to wake up every morning to fetch water from the river—the same river where they washed clothes and bathed. The resulting illnesses caused education to suffer. Lucia tells me that children and adults all dealt with kidney problems, parasites and chronic diarrhea due to contaminated water.

A few years ago, Lucia had finally had enough.

La Planta had been without leadership for too long, and problems were only growing. So she “took initiative” (as she puts it) to make a difference in her community. She met with the community and shared her idea.

Lucia tells me: “My idea was to work for everyone and make something to benefit the entire community and not just my family.”

The response to her proposal for leadership was not completely positive at first. In fact, she was told “no” by a nominal leadership committee made up entirely of men. El Salvador, like many other cultures outside of the West, is one where men tend to dominate leadership roles; her “initiative” was not just about leadership—it was about social norms that are tied to the identity of rural Salvadorian life. Lucia refused to concede. After all, she had a plan.

“If the men are actually taking into consideration the good of the community,” she says, “they would know that it could be a good thing; if selfish, then they won’t”.

It was finally agreed that Lucia would be the leader of La Planta. But it was also clear that she would have to prove herself. Leadership for women rarely comes easy in El Salvador.

“The first thing we needed was water,” she tells me. “The water here was very contaminated. All the detergents from washing clothes and baths had contaminated the river. I knew clean water would be the best thing for our lives. I heard about Living Water International through the Mayor’s office, and began to show up at the other villages that Living Water was working in.”

Show up she did. Again and again. Over the course of a year, her fierce initiative took her to 8 different communities where she learned that Living Water was working. At each site, she cornered Living Water staff members, sharing about the need in La Planta, asking them not to forget.

She is a determined leader.

Finally, Lucia danced under the water that blew in the air as Living Water developed the first well in La Planta. Another well was drilled at La Planta’s primary school.

Lucia steps away from our discussion, and comes back with photos—photos of a volunteer team from America that joined Living Water’s El Salvador crew to drill La Planta’s first well. She shows me photos of each step of the project process—photos of her son and others in the community who spent a week helping to implement the project, photos of the participatory hygiene training that she helped to organize for the women and children of La Planta. One image I will never forget: a photo of her dancing in the clean water that she had advocated for, prayed for, and for which she had challenged the cultural norms of her community.

As we begin to take a walk, Lucia tells me, “Now that our children have clean water, they don’t stay home from school to be sick. This well has been the best thing for our health.” With a smile on her face, she goes on: “Now most of the men like me being the leader, because of what I have been able to do. I am very thankful to Living Water International for helping me and my community. I am a strong woman and I feel like we [women] are capable in roles like this. When it comes to this, things are changing.”

It’s Wednesday now, and I’m standing at the school in La Planta. The hand-pump has just been installed, and clean water is flowing for the first time. Lucia is here, of course, but she’s not alone. She has brought two of her friends with her—women who are also “taking initiative” in their own communities. They are standing in the corner of the schoolyard, talking to a Living Water team member—animatedly talking about their own communities, just like Lucia told us about La Planta. I ask Lucia if these women are the leaders of their communities. Her smile tells me, “not yet.”

The link between women and water is obvious. We know that many women spend 15-20 hours per week collecting water for their family—water that is very often contaminated. We know that these hours result in time poverty, and stunt further opportunities for development. For example, according to the United Nations Development Program (2006), “Research in Uganda found households spending on average 660 hours a year collecting water. This represents two full months of labor, with attendant opportunity costs for education, income generation, and female leisure time.”

This is tragic, indeed.  And, it also displays a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to the regular provision of water (even filthy water) for not just the self, but others as well. This is strength, courage, and determination—all components of leadership and water resource management. Ultimately, these are building blocks towards sustainability. My time in La Planta taught me to recognize the Lucia’s within the communities we serve—across all of our countries of operation. As I visit projects across all of our programs, I tend to find a strong woman leader involved in some of our most successful projects.

Today, I have no doubt that the hand-pumps in La Planta are being cared for and properly managed. Lucia is that assurance.