Lighting the Night: Two United linemen return from Bolivia

John Davis United Cooperative Services
Brody Weems, left, and Chase Noland, right, meet a child from one of the three Bolivian villages the linemen helped electrify.

The heat made sleep almost impossible.

In the rain forest of Bolivia, Chase Noland and Brody Weems, both first class linemen from United Cooperative Services, tossed and turned as they tried again and again for slumber in their cramped hotel room.

The pair had traveled almost 3,700 miles due south in order to power three villages in the Pando region in Northern Bolivia through an electrification project managed by National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International.

The 95-degree days didn’t relent much once the sun went down in the Bolivian community of Puerto Rico, a larger town that would become their home base for the duration of their stay. A single fan attached to a single electrical outlet served as the only source for both power and air circulation. If a phone had to be charged … well, there went the air.

The Bolivia trip, however, was a dream come true for Noland and Weems. Both said they had always wanted to participate in a mission trip of some kind, but with families at home and demands at work, finding the time to help others less fortunate wasn’t easy. That is, until the opportunity to assist through work occurred.

“When we got there, we had the first bath we’d had since we left, and it was cold water,” Noland said, recalling the first night. “I mean, it was ‘cold’ cold. Then, after you get out of the cold shower, before you hit the bed, you’re already hot and sticky from humidity. Even at 2 a.m. in the morning, it was so hot in bed. I don’t think we actually slept good until that last night.”

Weems and Noland had travelled for 36 hours to reach this destination. It took three planes and a six-hour ride in vans that shucked lug nuts and broke down several times as they zoomed down narrow, uneven dirt roads through dense jungle to reach their hotel. And though both men looked forward to the work ahead, Noland wasn’t initially sure about the flying. The trip marked the first time the Stephenville native had ever boarded an airplane in his 33 years.

Weems said he did his best to give Noland grief before they boarded.

“He was pretty nervous, and I built it up a little bit and tried to get in his head by carrying on abouthow scary it was,” he said, jokingly. “But once we took off, he didn’t have any issues. He went from never being on a plane before toflying seven times in two and a half weeks.”

The following morning, they would learn that their accommodations were the lap of luxury compared to some of the people they were there to help.

“Honestly I was surprised at the actual accommodations,” Weems said. “They were nicer than I was expecting. The fact that they didn’t have AC, I wasn’t really too upset about it. I will say trying to sleep without AC in the rain forest … I don’t know how those people do it. The bugs are brutal at night. We killed a cockroach about four inches long, and a large tree frog would show up in our shower every night. Overall, we had it good compared to what a lot of people there slept in. So, I have no complaints.”

The Mission

The two linemen were part of a group of 17 volunteers from six Texas co-ops who had traveled to the South American country to bring electricity to three small Bolivian villages set on the banks of the Rio Acre that makes up the border shared with Brazil. Leaving Stephenville on Nov. 6, Noland and Weems would return to Texas on Nov. 20, after helping to build five miles of line and bring electricity to 125 families, a school and a clinic.

“When there is a need for assistance from our project managers on the ground in some countries we work in, we often solicit help from our members,” said Zuraidah Hoffman, the international communications manager for NRECA International. “Other times, the NRECA International staff will identify communities in certain countries that need help. Often this is also done to help the local co-ops extend line—an effort that would take them years to complete, but that can be done in a matter of weeks with our help.”

Normally, it’s the statewide association that rallies the troops, Hoffman said. This year, Mid-South Synergy decided to take on the project in Bolivia. The other Texas co-ops on the team included CoServ, Bartlett, Bluebonnet and Pedernales Electric Cooperatives.

Approximately 55,000 of the 110,500 inhabitants of Pando live without access to electricity, Hoffman said. By helping to expand electric power into this area, NRECA International hopes the effort will improve the quality of life and create better opportunities in the future.

In coordination with ENDE-Cobija, a regional electric cooperative serving the region, and the government of Pando, the three communities chosen included San Antonio de Maty, Batraja and Jerico by, she said. Although Pando is rich in natural resources, it is one of the poorest regions in the country. Few roads between the communities are completely paved or accessible during the whole year.

NRECA International was established in November 1962 when the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the newly established U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) signed an inaugural cooperative agreement that began the NRECA’s overseas involvement to share lessons learned in the electrification of the rural United States with developing countries around the world. For more than 50 years, 120 million people in 43 countries have benefitted from the organization’s work and many lives in rural communities have undergone improved agricultural productivity, health care, job growth, small enterprise booms and increased quality of life.

Getting to Work

It’s not that all the villagers had never seen electricity before, Noland said. Many had. Until about 10 or 15 years ago, each village had its own gas-powered generator to pump water and run a few electrical items. But, as with the vans, the generators weren’t built for rugged life in the jungle, and eventually they broke down.

While older villagers remember the generators, a whole generation of younger ones hadn’t seen electricity yet. With the promise of power coming soon, residents’ excitement grew.

As volunteers arrived, they began surveying the jobs needing to be done in each village, as well as splitting into groups to complete them, Noland said. Others built meter loops and set meters while villagers dug holes for the poles the NRECA volunteers would set. The main line was built by the first day.

Wherever they went, Weems said curious children flocked to watch volunteers do their jobs. Though they spoke Spanish, workmen communicated to them with high-fives and games of charades and Pictionary.

“The kids there were awesome,” Weems said. “They were all so excited. It’s like they put us on a pedestal. They all wanted to come up and tell you that you’re awesome. You wanted to do something for them. We’d have one of them carry a tool and another one a roll of tape. We’d give them a Boliviano coin or something to show them that if you work hard you can get where you need to be.

“At lunch break another guy and I decided we were going to play basketball with a couple of the kids. I am no good at basketball, but it was sure a lot of fun. By the time we were finished playing,six kids had come up.”

On the final day, Weems and Noland used homemade ladders to crawl into the attic of the Batraja schoolhouse to wire rooms for lights. That left the big final test.

Festival of Light

Later that night, everyone gathered at 6 p.m. under the roof of an outdoor pavilion in San Antonio de Maty. Local and regional government officials gave thank-you speeches to the volunteers. Afterward, children put on a dancing show for the NRECA International volunteers. Dressing up in the workmen’s co-op shirts and hardhats, some donned pretend beards and emulated the linemen’s’ personality traits while pretending to set poles and hang power lines.

“The preparation—that’s what lets you know they appreciated it,” Noland said of the night’s event. “There were 100 kids from four years old to high school age. They spent that much time and effort to give back something to us. That was saying a lot about people who don’t have a lot.”

As darkness fell around 7 p.m., volunteers wondered if their work would shine. No one had tried out the wiring beforehand. Everyone held their breaths and waited as the 100-amp breaker that fed all three villages was thrown.

“Whenever they flipped that switch and that first area light came on, that was probably one of coolest feelings I’ve ever witnessed in my whole life,” Noland said. “The kids were laughing and cheering. Everyone was staring at it when that one light came on. That’s when it hit us what we had just done. We felt good about what we were doing. And it was all worth it right then.”

Without hesitation, Weems admitted he became emotional at the lighting ceremony. He wasn’t the only one, either. Overall, the trip was an eye-opener for him in allowing him to see the way many other people live,as well as an opportunity for him to reflect on the good fortune and opportunities he enjoys in the United States.

“Yeah, I cried,” he said. “I shed a tear. One or two. It was really cool. Some of the people have never experienced having electricity. It was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. When we saw lights come on in the school, that was really neat. Even at the back of the village you could see street lights going on. You knew that now they can see when they’re walking home at night or coming to work in the morning. It was a cool feeling to know we helped with that.

“Like anybody else, you reflect on how much we have and what we have at our fingertips. I think for me mainly, it reminded me how lucky were are and of the opportunities we have. I would do this again in a heartbeat,” he said.