Ripon man plants pipes in Panama
The Ripon Commonwealth Press, January 27, 1994
by Tim Lyke
(This is the second installment of a three-part series on
Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski and his mission to help people in the
interior of Panama live longer, healthier lives).
When the Panamanian government finished building
a school on the Chocoe Indian reservation, Manuel Noriega himself showed up for
the dedication. But so poorly constructed was the facility that when the
dictator's helicopter touched down 100 feet away, part of the roof blew off.
Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski met with the Chocoe's to
talk about rebuilding the school so that it would last. They did it and it has.
Just another day's work for your average dairy farmer kid turned Central
American Catholic missionary.
From the modest beginnings growing up with 13 brothers and
sisters on a farm southeast of Ripon, Kasuboski has learned that there is little
people can't do to better their lives, if they have the knowledge, resources and
the will. "We learned to do a little bit of everything on the farm,"
Kasuboski said. "We were dependent on each other. We taught each other a
lot. I learned to repair a tractor from my brother."
Growing up on the farm run by his parents, Leonard and
Margaret, Kasuboski learned to be a carpenter, a block layer, a mechanic.
"While growing up I witnessed technological advancements firsthand,"
he said, noting that he saw his family's farm make the transition from horses to
In a letter to his mother two years ago, Kasuboski told about
acquiring a used 1979 GMC Brigadere dump truck, purchased in Orlando, FL. and
sent by boat. "I had to learn how to drive it in one minute because I had
to pick it up at the dock," he wrote. "Once I got the 13 speeds down
everything was clear sailing - thank God I grew up on a farm." Which is not
to say that a Ripon dairy farm is in any way similar to a Panamanian subsistence
"When I grew up we took roads for granted,"
Kasuboski said. "Then you come to a country where there's barely one road
reaching from one end of the country to another." That one road - the Pan-American
Highway - in Kasuboski's parish is a pothole filled, gravel road with bridges so
poorly built that drivers motor through the rivers rather than risk having one
of their tires fall through the bridges.
"The highway department seems to have died,"
Kasuboski wrote to his mother in 1992. "We prayed for their resurrection
last Sunday at Mass. People smiled."
Shoddy infrastructure, no hospital, few schools - this was
the Panama Kasuboski discovered when he arrived at his home in Wacuco in
One other thing: People were sick and many were dying. They
walked as much as two days to get contaminated water filled with dangerous
microbes. At best, they had parasites in their stomach. At worst, they were
dying of cholera.
Kasuboski set up several water projects, using PVC pipes to
bring water down to the people via mountain steams, bypassing the disease-filled
river water on which they'd relied. But he didn't do it himself. In the case of
his biggest undertaking, the Torti water system, Kasuboski organized a committee
made up of representatives of each of the 12 communities to be served.
Kasuboski told the committee they would need to raise money
from their communities to build the system. "I don't believe in giving
anything away," he said.
"I asked them, 'Who's going to pay for it? I don't have
a money tree growing in my backyard." Committee members recommended that
families each be assessed $50. Kasuboski questioned how that would be possible
since many families were extremely poor. The committee than suggested families
be assessed at the rate of $1 per cow, $2 per hectare (2..4 acres).
So excited were committee members that they wanted to put the
assessments into effect immediately. "No", Kasuboski said, "Take
the idea back to your people to make sure they agree with it." After the
idea received 95 percent approval, Kasuboski mapped out a route for 25 miles of
3-inch water main, from which 16 miles of pipe would lead to 330 homes.
So excited were residents at the prospect of having clean
water that after the route had been finished one morning at 3 a.m., people immediately
emerged from their homes with picks and shovel, ready to build 2-foot deep
trenches in which the pipe would be laid. "They think it's a miracle that
they have water 24 hours a day," Kasuboski said.
Pipe ran up the mountain side to la toma - "the
take" - a mountain stream containing clean water. At the mountain's base it
emptied into a 62,000-gallon tank, which regulated its flow via gravity into the
When an official from the Panamanian Ministry of Health first
viewed the project, he asked Kasuboski how he was able to build so extensive a
system at so little cost. "I didn't do anything," Kasuboski said.
"(The residents) are the ones that are doing it."
With technological advancements come new challenges. The
price of land along the water system has tripled, and the average life
expectancy of 50 years is getting longer.
The addition of electrical lines to a Chocoe Indian village
means that each family will be able to have one light bulb to light their house.
Those bulbs will attract mosquitoes into the open windows. "The next thing
they'll want is screens on their windows," Kasuboski said.
Construction of a school on a Kuna Indian village has been
halted because the people want Kasuboski to pay them for their work.
"Sometimes the hardest part of my work is keeping the people
motivated," Kasuboski said.
When not building schools, bridges, roads, churches or water
projects, Kasuboski is traveling throughout the countryside, holding Mass and
meeting with community leaders to determine their needs. He has trained
delegados de la palabra, or "delegates of the word," to minister to
the people in his absence. But the bull of his work involves improving the
people's lifestyle so that they can be healthy enough to come to the Mass on
Helping Kasuboski are 10 to 12 men he has hired and trained
to be builders, carpenter, mechanics and driver. Working for Kasuboski is
considered a privilege because he pays his employees well at $10 to $20 per day
- average wages in his parish are about $5 per day - and he teaches them skills.
But cross him once and you don't have a chance to cross him a second time.
"I tell (new hires) there are two things that make me
really mad: lying and stealing. Steal a nail, you'll steal a hammer. Steal a
hammer and you'll steal a saw. Steal a saw and you'll steal bread out of your
brother's mouth." He admits to using fear to command his workers' trust.
"It appeals to people's most basic instincts, and the instincts here are
pretty basic," he said.
Next week: How a Ripon farm boy became a Catholic missionary