Progress in Panama shepherded by Father Wally"
This is the third in a series of stories highlighting Ripon’s sister city —
Wacuco, Panama — and the work being done there by Ripon native Father Wally
Kasuboski. This week’s article focuses on how east-central Panama has improved
in Father Wally’s 20 years of service to the region. Next week will conclude the
series as Father Wally talks of his future in Panama.
by Ian Stepleton
When Father Wally Kasuboski, a former Riponite who has dedicated his life to
service, arrived in east central Panama 20 years ago, to call the region
impoverished would have been an understatement. Locals — as well as the newly
arrived “Padre Pablo” — did not even have a safe source of water. “I didn’t have
water in Wacuco where I live,” Father Wally said. “I had to drink out of the
creek.” He joked he would have to be “de-wormed” whenever he returned to Ripon.
Two decades later, Father Wally’s impact on the region is clear.
Safe water, better educational opportunities, improved roads, new church
buildings and more quality homes are among the accomplishments the priest has
helped make. Of those, water has been — and continues to be — Father Wally’s top
priority. “I think the priority is to get people healthy,” he said, adding,
“Water is the No. 1 priority to avoid future wars [between cultures and
neighbors].” Maintaining a safe water system is particularly important because
“The underground water here is undrinkable; it’s brackish, because this whole
area here was under [the sea once upon a time].”
Progress on the water systems — and other areas — are changes not lost on those
who’ve been to Panama on several occasions to volunteer for Father Wally. “Since
my first trip to now, you really can see how much healthier [the locals] are,”
said Bernadette Krentz, Father Wally’s cousin, who made her third trip to Wacuco
this month. “And their properties have improved from where it was.” “Grass used
to be this high,” she said, indicating waist-heighth, “with a path to the hut.”
This trip, she said, she saw a resident weed-wacking his entire front yard to
keep the property in better repair.
Others who’ve made multiple visits also have noticed not just the increase in
pride the residents of east-central Panama have, but in other areas of their
life as well.
“It’s like night and day from three years ago,” said Paul Elsen, a former Ripon
resident who went to Wacuco during the March 2008 trip. Road quality has played
a major role in how life has change for many of those who live in Panama’s
“Ten years ago, it was all gravel roads with runs,” said former Riponite Rollie
Alger, who was on his second visit. “Now, it’s paved roads.”
“It was nothing to see 30 to 40 people walking down the road,” Elsen said.
Improving access to communities has been an important project for Father Wally.
“We’ve been cutting in roads to communities so they can take their rice to
market,” he said, noting today remote communities can sell their “rice and beans
on a continual basis.”
Of course, they noticed bits of Western culture seeping into the area as well.
“We were seeing cell phones,” Riponite Bill Boesch said, adding that today there
is “electricity going to the huts, and some with TVs in them.”
“It’s a big challenge,” Father Wally said of such progress. “Now with
electricity coming, people are getting brainwashed with TV soap operas. And they
feel like they need to act like [the characters on TV].” While such changes are
inevitable, improvements in quality of life in that region generally can be
attributed back to Father Wally’s work.
“I’m just completely amazed by everything he’s done,” Ripon College sophomore
Kassondra Meyer. “He’s built the economy; he’s built roads; he’s solved disputes
between cities.” It’s in that latter role — mediator — he’s been seen as both a
help and a hindrance, depending on which point of view is taken.
Father Wally has stood up for land rights of local cultural groups, particularly
of the native Kuna Indians. Those trying to take — the Kuna would say steal —
their land, however, have been less welcoming toward Father Wally’s role. “The
Kuna are very jealous of protecting their history; they’ve never been conquered
by a foreign force,” Father Wally said of the group, which rarely lets insiders
in. “But I can go in there any time; they know I’ve tried to defend their
resources from local farmers in the area.”
Much of the land to the north and west of Father Wally’s Wacuco compound once
was Kuna land. But, over time, ranchers have eaten away at that land by fencing
it off and proclaiming it their own.
While Father Wally has not aimed to evict these ranchers, he’s been adamant not
to let them extend their property further into Kuna territory. It’s made them
wary, and angry at locals. “Kunas are ready to go to war; if farmers try to keep
stealing land, the Kunas said this is it, we’ll go to war,” Father Wally said.
Despite their edginess, the Kuna people have let him into the community, even
allowing him to try to convert some of their own to Catholicism.
But it’s Father Wally’s principled approach to life, his stubborn push to
improve lives and continued work in the area that has both earned him respect
and enabled him to accomplish much. Yet he is not done. For as much as he’s done
so far, he has many more dreams he hopes to make reality.
Most important is the dam he hopes to create. Far up in a remote area still
covered by virgin jungle, 1,000 acres collect water for the local water system.
“Nobody lives here; nobody is allowed in here,” Father Wally said of why the
water in this location is safe to drink. “Not over 50 people from other
countries have been in here. It’s never been touched by logging companies
because they couldn’t figure out how to get in here.”
And, in the heart of that preserve, Father Wally hopes to complete a reservoir.
When completed, it will bring water to about 4,000 people, and seven
communities, not currently served. For as much as Father Wally already has
improved the lives of thousands of Panamanians, it’s this project he dreams of
“It’s been 20 years I’ve been working on this project,” he said.