"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the 
least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me' " (Matthew 25:40)

April 2, 2008

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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 Darien Province.

“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 completing.

“It’s been 20 years I’ve been working on this project,” he said.

Last modified: June 18, 2013