This story is the first in a series from DESEA Peru, where Vibrant Village Foundation is supporting a community health program in the Andes mountains.
The qhalis, the Quechua word for community health worker, working with DESEA Peru are the first in their communities to have received any advanced healthcare training, and it is already being put to use. It is not uncommon for injuries or illness to go unattended because families cannot justify the walk out of the community or do not recognize the seriousness of the condition. The qhalis serve a vital role in helping families make these decisions and supporting them with their healthcare needs. These dedicated women are showing that illiteracy need not exclude them from learning or prevent them from providing advanced service to their communities.
Within indigenous Quechua communities in the Andes, it is the custom for women to move to their partner’s community when they start their married lives. Many of their mothers, as they age, are then left without the care and support of their daughters. Often crippled with arthritis and unable to work the fields, elderly, widowed women are found living alone in situations of extreme poverty and with little ability to care for themselves. Through the care of DESEA’s rural nurses and community health workers, these elders are gaining well-being and the dignity and respect they deserve.
(Photo) Nurse Vilma Florez, Leandra and qhali Geronima Siccus
Recently, one of DESEA’s qhalis in Huarqui brought us to 80-year-old Leandra Tapara. Filthy, living alone in squalid conditions, and suffering from chronic arthritis pain and bilateral conjunctivitis, she was receiving only rudimentary care from her nearby son.
In the Quechua language, there is no specific word for ‘thank you’; instead, Andean people will say, ‘urpillay sonqollay’ which, literally means ‘you make my heart flutter like a dove’. Leandra repeated this over and over again as we tended to her eye infection and helped to wash her hair, face and hands.
DESEA qhalis are now visiting Leandra weekly to help her with bathing and household chores and to treat her health problems. Leandra is receiving daily multivitamins and Tylenol for her arthritis, as needed. Such simple care provided by DESEA nurses and qhalis is improving the lives of many elders in the communities in which they work.
Nkoyoyo Monglya and Lilian Muriet Leshan are mothers who struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children in a traditional tribal society where women have little political or social power, and education is undervalued. Still, these two women hope that by sending their children to school, and encouraging other women in their village in Southern Kenya to educate their children as well, the lives of all villagers will improve and their community will grow stronger.
With this desire, they and other women who are participating in the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project are motivated to learn more effective agricultural practices so they can earn enough money to pay for their children’s education and improve health and economic conditions for themselves and their children.
The two-year project is helping 81 Maasai tribeswomen, identified as “the most vulnerable and needy women,” to learn sustainable agricultural methods, explains Daniel Nyagwara, who heads the project with funding from Portland-based Vibrant Village Foundation’s $82,260 grant. The women are being supported with borehole wells, tools and equipment, seeds and fertilizers.
“I hope to grow beans, maize and some vegetables,” says Nkoyoyo, who has five children, three of whom are in school. “When I get produce in excess of my needs, I will sell to the market and gain some money for paying school fees and other needs.”
Lilian is married with three children, two of whom attend a nearby private school. Through the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project, she hopes to become a serious farmer. She wants to grow vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, beans and maize. When she has a good harvest, she plans to sell her surplus at the market to make extra income for buying things she can’t grow on the farm. She also hopes to raise cows of a higher grade to increase milk production.
The 81 women live in three villages in Rombo, a small township with fewer than 5,000 people. Rombo is located in the Rift Valley, just north of the border with Tanzania and within the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Traditionally, the Maasai people have been herders. But years of drought and being pushed off their historical land — first by British colonialists so settlers could build ranches, and continuing in the 20th century by the Kenyan government to create wildlife reserves and national parks — have forced many tribal members to adapt to new lifestyles.
Some men continue to raise cattle or other livestock, and some have left the rural villages to work low-skilled jobs in cities. A few men have taken responsibility for earning money for their households, but most are idle, lacking skills to farm or do any other kind of income-generating activity, Daniel says. Women are expected to raise food and sell any surplus. Some also sell traditional medicine or items such as minerals, embroidery work or dairy products. What money these women earn becomes the property of their husbands, who often use most of it to buy food, drink or other pleasures for themselves, leaving their wives to feed children and maintain the household with what is left over, he adds.
Nkoyoyo is concerned that many community members, especially men and to some extent women, do not value education as a vehicle to create a brighter future for their community. She hopes this mentality can be changed through awareness as well as increasing the number of schools so that as many children as possible can access education from primary through secondary levels.
According to Daniel, studies conducted among communities in the developing world show that women with higher levels of education are more likely to have cleaner households and they and their children are less likely to suffer from diseases, including HIV/AIDs.
In their patriarchal society, Maasai women don’t own land. If a woman’s husband dies, the widow can claim ownership of any acquired or inherited property such as land or livestock only if she has a young son or sons who will assume ownership when they come of age.
“This can make a woman very desperate. Upon the death of her husband, she may be either fought or even chased away by the next of kin to posses any wealth that her husband left behind, which she definitely contributed to making,” Daniel adds. “It will be her in-laws who will dictate what she owns and what she does not own. I know of many women who have been denied their matrimonial wealth, sent away or killed by their kinsmen just to access and acquire their late husband’s wealth.”
Despite these challenges, Nkoyoyo and Lilian both like their community.
“The families are at peace, and there is no crime,” Lilian points out. But she works hard to ensure her children get an education. In addition to her household chores, Lilian prepares tea and snacks, which she sells daily to farmers, casual laborers and to men who are traveling. This helps her pay private school fees, feed her family and buy other basic needs. She says she started this small business because, when she was first married, her husband “did not care to provide for me. My children and I suffered. They were going to a public school where the level of education was too low.”
Lilian advises other women of her community to “struggle, even though all things work against them.” And, she believes Maasai men should be empowered to actively participate in helping their wives take care of their household responsibilities — such as finding food, educating their children, building a house and farming — all duties women are currently expected to handle by themselves.
“These women truly have needs,” Daniel says, referring to all the women in the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project. “We may not be able to find solutions to all of them, but we can put our best foot forward, give our best talents, efforts, skills, knowledge and resources to at least change the life of a child, a girl, a widow and women generally in these villages.”
Nkoyoyo adds, “With this project, I hope that there will be a change, and this change — though coming through agriculture — will encompass all the women in the community to make a step ahead socially and economically."
By Molly Rooney
Molly is an Agriculture Volunteer through the U.S. Peace Corps (2012-2014) working in Bugubelle, Ghana.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the community of Bugubelle in the Sissala East District of the Upper West Region of Ghana, I have the opportunity to work closely with a wonderful women’s soap-making group. The group works together to make a wide variety of soaps that they sell in the local market. To increase their capabilities, some of the women have been looking for a way to start training other women’s groups in soap-making. Recently, we were delighted to receive an invitation from Vibrant Village Foundation for two of the women from Bugubelle to lead a three-day soap-making class for 20 women in Fielmuo. None of us had traveled to Fielmuo before and, although we were nervous to begin the training, we were welcomed warmly by the community. The Fielmuo women were enthusiastic to learn the fundamentals of soap-making and its application as a business in their community.
The training started as soon as we arrived in Fielmuo. The first two days were spent carefully going over the recipes and methods of preparing each kind of soap. The women then mixed the oils and lye. Once soaps hardened, the women got busy stamping and cutting the soaps to create the beautiful final products. The last day was devoted to the Fielmuo trainees showing off their new knowledge by preparing new batches of the soaps they had learned in the training.
Besides the amount of soap produced, what amazed me the most was how enthusiastic all of the women were to get started with work, to help each other, and to stay as late as needed to clean up after the day’s activities. It’s never an inactive period for any of these village women – but they put aside their household activities to do something to better themselves. The support and enthusiasm with which the women received us in Fielmuo made a lasting impression on us. I cannot wait to see the Fielmuo women build upon their training and start making some fabulous soap for sale in their own markets!