October 6, 2008 Chiapas, Mexico Outside of San Cristobal Photos by Jim Cline
This is what we have been waiting for. This is why we work for Freedom from Hunger.
We left our hotel at 11:30 this morning. A few clouds in the sky, cool weather as we all anticipated our first day with a group of indigenous women. Pilar, the director of non-financial services for our partner Al Sol met us, as well as the trainer, a young man named Luis.
We drove up into the hills, winding to what seemed like the top of the world. The hills were green with corn, and I wondered how one would harvest corn on the side of a steep hillside. We passed a few small communities and I could see schools, wooden basketball hoops (and a few men playing), Chamula women in their black sheepskin skirts doing laundry on a rock on the side of the road. The homes were made of cement block with tin roofs.
Pilar told us that most of the children will leave school by the third grade, most of the girls anyway. Some of the boys stay a bit longer. The women we would be meeting have no education, and these are exactly the women Al Sol chooses to work with.
The women we would be meeting make products to sell to tourists in San Cristobal, or Chamula. Because their bracelets, belts and blouses all have the same patterns, they need help differentiating their products, and also how to calculate their cost and pricing. Pilar is excited to bring FFH/Alcance’s financial management training to them, hopefully soon!
Soon our paved road turned to dirt and the dirt turned to rock. The corn turned to scrub brush and the scrub brush turned to red dirt. We had been driving for more than an hour. The road was just a little treacherous, and I was happy it wasn’t raining.
Al Sol works with 16,000 women total, but only about 400 of them receive our integrated services. Each field agent meets with three or four centers (what we would call groups) a day. Each center has about 10 small solidarity groups. The average loan is 2000-3000 pesos ($200-300 US).
The diet here is beans, corn, tortillas and chili. Not much produce, and the hungry season is between January and April.
After an hour and a half, the landscape turns green again. The homes have changed to mud and wood with thatched roofs. Corn is on one side of the road, and a few buildings below us. We stopped the van and a few children stepped out of the corn to peek.
We are in Centro Tokoy.
The women we were to meet weren’t here, so we had a few moments to sit and wonder what to do next. A few in our group checked out the latrine, and Jim, our photographer, asked permission to take photos. The Chamulans don’t like having their photos taken, as they believe you take part of their soul, so we wanted to be very respectful. I was on the lookout for my “path of self-reliance” and wanted to take in all of my surroundings, since I knew I couldn’t use my camera out to document the scene.
Dogs, chickens, a turkey, and a few children wandered around. A few more girls come out to see Jim, and while he has permission to take their pictures, they still aren’t sure about him. The girls all have the black skirts, long black braids, and colorful shawls. I can hear music from the building below me….a guitar and men laughing. Then the boys show up…even more curious than the girls. Jim begins to make friends with them, and we have become the attraction. The first two girls who greeted us appear to be sisters, about 5 and 8, and are the first to allow him to take their pictures. The other children then feel brave enough to join in.
It’s very peaceful here, and I wonder if these children go to school, or if they are the ones who have already left. I see a cement building across the road with a Coca Cola machine.
I see evidence of electricity, and Matilde says “Yes, everyone should at least have a light.” For some reason, that took my breath away. Yes, everyone should have light, in more ways than one.
Then the girls and the women start to come out of the fields to meet us. Most of the women seem to have babies wrapped in their shawls.
We are introduced to two mothers, Julia and Julia, who we name Julia 1 and Julia 2. We sit down on the grass, right where we are, and are able to have a conversation about their lives, and their experiences with the group. The children gather around us, as I ask questions of Matilde in English, she asks them of Luis in Spanish, and Luis asks them in Tzotzil, and then back again. One man watches from the side, but he seems approving.
Julia Mendez Bautista is 25 and has three children ages 5, 3 and 1 (who is playing and breastfeeding during our time together). She makes woven bracelets for her business and sells them in Chamula. She says sometimes she goes by herself, and sometimes with her husband. She makes the hour and a half trip about seven times a month.
“The credit has helped me buy more items for my bracelets, and sometimes I use my credit to buy food. My children have become less ill, so I am sure that what little I have learned has helped them. And I am also learning to read and write. With this training I have learned I don’t have to wait too long when my children are sick to take them to the hospital. I can identify when they are really sick and when they aren’t. Before when my son had diarrhea I didn’t know to give him more water. Last time he had it, I gave him water, and now he is better. I didn’t know that before. Also, before I didn’t know how to talk to the doctor, and how to tell him what was wrong with my children. Now I take the checklist with me and I can share the symptoms.
I have learned I have to share my knowledge with other women. Now I am more capable of helping them know what to do when their children are sick.”
Later we were able to watch Julia make her loan payments, it appeared she was the head of her solidarity group.
Luis also told us a story about the changes he has seen in her. He said at the beginning of the meetings, she would leave early so she could fix dinner for her husband. She would always miss the training session. But she told her husband she wanted to learn to read and write, and how to better care for their children. So she began to make his dinner before she comes to the group, and now she stays for all of the learning. He doesn’t complain, because the changes have been gradual.
We asked a few questions of Julia 2, and a few other women share.
A car pulls up and a few women pile out, and before we know it, women have come down the road, and out from the cornfields. It looks like we are going to have the group after all!
It begins to rain. But we aren’t going anywhere. We all crowd into a 3-foot wide overhang on the side of a cement block building. The women make their repayments, each solidarity group represented by one woman, including our Julia 1.
The children are entertaining themselves in the street with a grasshopper, tied to a string, like a yoyo. The rain comes harder, accompanied by a few flashes of lightening and lots and lots of thunder. But everyone stays. I briefly wonder about our drive back down the mountain.
The learning session today is literacy, and Al Sol has ingeniously tied this into the Freedom/Alcance health modules. The women have chosen action words from the health lessons, and have brought their notebooks with them. They take turns writing on the whiteboard, while the trainer, Mateo, gently guides them. They write,“The road passes by my house.” and “I have a little son and I love him very much.” He then pulls illustrations from our breastfeeding module and has the women work in teams to each write one sentence.
And then the rain lightens, the thunder stops and the blue sky appears. One boy plays next to us in what has become a huge puddle. The women shake our hands and then run back into the cornfields, up that path of self-reliance (and I made sure Jim got the photo this time).
On the bus ride back, we interviewed Luis Ruiz, who is just 22 years old. He is the principal trainer on the health prevention topics. He works with the women to understand how to use traditional medicine -the medicine from their culture—for prevention, and modern medicine for healing.
Luis has worked for Al Sol for thee years, and he has a nursing background. He works with nine centers, about 200 women total.
“The first change I see is in how the women treat me. At the beginning, they treat me with reverence, like their husbands. But I tell them we are equals. They have not heard that from a man before. They liked that. Then they start staying longer at the meetings, to get the training session after the credit session. At the beginning we had women who were all participatory, but then they invited others. And that was when the change really started to happen. Then they all began to speak up. You could see them getting more and more motivated and asking questions on more topics. Now they all stay the entire time.
I also see them speaking more openly with their husbands. They ask them not to drink so much, because they will die sooner. And I see little changes in their children. For instance, they used to buy little candies as a treat, but now they say “you have to have fruit first.”
We asked him what he has learned from the women. He said, “They really want to live, to enjoy life, and be better. In the beginning, they said they weren’t prepared for learning, that they weren’t born to learn. They say, “No, I cannot learn.” Now they are starting to read the work from the notebook. They are surprised and motivated. That makes me want to do even better things for them.
I want them to value themselves and to come more self-confident, to be able to care for their families better, and to be able to bring them a better life. The big challenge is for them to recognize the importance of their roles within their families. They can enable their families to have a better future.”
We asked Luis why he chose this work, above all other work and he said, “I once saw a young girl die because her mother didn’t know how to read or write. Her father was an alcoholic and battered her. This woman was so upset, and she didn’t have the ability to make decisions. She could only depend on her husband, she had no other way. This was an important moment for me, and it was then that I chose this work.”
And that was the story of the day. Matilde, Jim, Eden and I went out for an early dinner, as we were all excited to get to our notes. Jim had 700 photos, and Eden and I had been writing on the bumpy road, giving a new meaning to the concept of “reading what you write.” Add a few rain splattered pages for good measure.
It’s midnight now, and tomorrow we have two more groups. Thank you for reading….