A simple idea becomes an empowering tool for poor refugees of war:
The Women’s Self-Reliance Program in El Remate (Peten, Guatemala)
Sometimes, when one is able to listen to one’s own voice or the voice of a child, that voice tells you that you can do wonderful things. It might even bring you the possibility of transforming your life and the lives of others. This happened one day to Rose Lord, when she was planting seeds with her three year-old grandson at her home in Pittsburgh, PA. The radio in the background was broadcasting some news about the war in Iraq. Suddenly, her grandson innocently asked, “Grandma, why do people make war?” Rose had to think for a bit before responding; it was not easy to explain to him or to herself why human beings sometimes decide to destroy each other. But, once she had finished explaining to him the best she could, he responded with a very sound conclusion: “Well, I think it’s better to make gardens than to make war, don’t you?”
In January 2005, thanks to connections made through the internet, Rose met Anne Lossing, a Canadian who had settled in El Remate, a small town located in Peten, northern Guatemala, very near to the jungle and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Anne invited Rose to come and start a garden program there. The purpose was to help poor refugee women become self-reliant and make a better life for themselves and their families. Many of them had come to the town from different parts of the country to escape the horrors of the 36-year civil war, and most of them were living in poverty. Although they had been able to escape the war, they had not been able to escape the shadows of fear and distrust, even among themselves, that it cast over them. It was hard for them to conceive then that there could be a better way of life.
About 15 women showed up for Rose’s first class. Shortly after that, the women organized themselves to carry on the gardening project, known as the Women’s Self-Reliance Program.
Empowering women with their own resources
Although the area of El Remate offers a tropical climate to grow many healthy vegetables, the extremely poor condition of the soil around the women’s homes made gardening very difficult. Rose taught them how to compost and offered them organic seeds and a method of gardening that would increase yields fivefold.
The program has grown, and is producing more “fruit” than expected. It has not only empowered these women to provide healthy vegetables for themselves and their families, but it has also promoted their self-esteem and autonomy and has become a tool to vanquish fear and distrust. Today, besides making gardens, some of the women are becoming financially independent and are even starting their own micro-enterprises. Other women in neighboring communities are also following the program, and Rose’s work is spreading.
In January 2008, the Global Coalition for Peace (GCFP) invited me to join Rose as a volunteer-translator to work with the Women’s Self-Reliance Program during a two-week mission to Guatemala. They also invited Kavita Kasturi, a young filmmaker from India, to join the mission and make a documentary of the project.
The purpose of the mission was:
- To meet with the women and follow up on previous visits. To ask them what they wanted to do and to support them.
- To visit their individual gardens and distribute new organic seeds of the vegetables of their choice. To conduct classes that would expand their gardening expertise.
- To evaluate the business plan that two of the entrepreneurs of the micro-enterprise group, composed of 6 women, had been working on and to offer the first two micro-loans to them.
The first meeting of the mission
The women were happy to see us. They were especially happy with the harvest from the orchard and the fact that Miguel, a homeless man, was taking good care of it in exchange for a place to sleep. Thanks to his help and the work of the women, the common garden that they had planted was yielding corn, okra, peppers and tomatoes.
Among their concerns were:
- Some of their gardens had suffered from goats and horses running through them and, in some instances, eating the young plants.
- The association had run out of funds.
- Although the women had been working together for three years and the program had offered a lot of guidance in working as a group, they still felt some distrust and jealousy among themselves.
We needed to find a way to work things out and restore harmony. We began by asking the group what they would like to do, but they were too shy to respond. So we proposed: What about a festival to take place at the Women's Center, with local music, a craft show and a sumptuous lunch prepared by the women? This would help raise funds and also bring the group together. They liked the idea, but were concerned about the lack of money. It was agreed the Festival would take place the following Sunday.
Respect and responsibility
The two weeks of the mission were intense. Every morning, at the request of the women, we went to see their gardens. Rose always asked respectfully if they wanted to plant new seeds, what kinds they wanted, and if their gardens were ready. Sometimes we had to encourage them to try again, especially those whose gardens had been eaten by the animals! This problem could be solved in part by buying more chicken wire to protect the plants. The other part of the solution was a bit more difficult: to convince the president that she had to confine her goats!
Although the women all assumed that Rose had the last word, she never imposed anything. In this way the women felt responsible in the end for their own decisions. Rose only helped them to carry out what they wanted. In addition to distributing seeds, she gave classes on composting and pest control.
Although most of the first week was devoted to the mission’s agenda, we also reserved time to help prepare for the Festival.
While planning for the Festival, I was amazed by the people and strangers we encountered. Two musicians, José the orchestra-man and Danny the flautist, came to volunteer and were the life of the Festival that Sunday. A young German couple, who were just passing through El Remate on their way to the Ruins of Tikal, interrupted their trip and began working on a bilingual flyer for the Festival.
The next day we began distributing the flyers, walking three hours to spread the word in all the hotels and commercial areas. Our feet were killing us and it was hot and humid, but we were encouraged as we encountered unexplained acts of kindness. When I talked about the Festival to a man advertising soap over a megaphone and offered him free food at the Festival in return for his help in advertising it, he gave me a big smile, forgot his soap and began making announcements. He did this with such passion that, in no time at all, the whole town was aware that Sunday was going to be no ordinary day.
All we need is love
At the next meeting, the women expressed their doubts regarding the Festival: they said that they did not have money to buy ingredients for the tamales and other food. This was very serious, because the food was to be the main source of fundraising and was also the only way that the women themselves could contribute. Confronted by this, Rose asked the participants in the Women’s Self-Reliance Group, “So, what are you going to do to make it possible?” There was a long silence. Then one of the women finally spoke: “I don’t have any money, but I would like to lend some corn for the tamales.” Immediately the women caught on and, one by one, in a cascade of generosity, they began donating corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, and most of the ingredients needed. Their enthusiasm became so contagious that the first woman changed her mind and offered her corn as a gift.
I think at that moment the three of us (Rose, Kavita and I) were crying. A transformation had taken place before our eyes: these women who had so little were willing to set aside their individual needs and contribute to the greater good in a very generous way. Their response was just amazing. When the last one had made her offer, we were also ready to offer them the remaining help they needed. In addition, Rose, on behalf of the GCFP, loaned them a few hundred quetzales to buy the chicken, spices and other items required to prepare their delicious food. The Saturday before the Festival, the women demonstrated how well they could work as a team. Everyone contributed to the final result: 200 tamales, 100 guisados de pollo and an ultra-healthy bean salad served on tortillas for vegetarians.
The Festival was a great success! The women started selling their tamales from early in the morning. More tourists than local people attended, though many children from the village also came and thoroughly enjoyed the free music and dances. Among the volunteer entertainers were young dancers, some of them daughters of the women of the program, who performed Indian and Arabic dances that a tourist had taught them several months earlier. Other girls in the town loaned the dancers colorful skirts and blouses, which they enhanced with shining belts and sandals, and I helped them put on make-up and lent one of them my sandals so that she could dance.
We also had a raffle of prizes donated by people from Canada. One girl whose parents were so poor that they had to borrow Q1 (equivalent to less than 10 cents) to buy her a raffle ticket was the first child to receive one of the prizes—and that day was her birthday. Her mother had tears in her eyes when her ticket was drawn and we all sang Happy Birthday to her.
The last meeting of the mission
We looked back on what had been accomplished. The women whose gardens had been destroyed had planted new ones, and everyone got new seeds to plant in the future. The first micro-enterprise loans had been made to the first two women who qualified, so each one could
start her own business. In addition, the participants in the program reported that they had recovered their expenses for the food and were able to return some of the money borrowed from the GCFP. Moreover, they had some left-over chicken to sell the next Sunday. They also announced that they were going to continue their catering business, already advertised at the Festival, and we have since received a report that they are indeed doing that. Their desire to progress financially was now becoming a real possibility.
What was even more important for them was to realize that by having a concrete project and common goal, they could work together and succeed as a group, despite their differences and the challenges we all face, which, in their case, had been exacerbated by their recent history. Before we left, we asked them to do one more exercise that would help them discover the best in themselves and put it at the service of the group.
They sat in groups of two and told each other what they most admired in each other. Some of them felt at ease doing the exercise, while others had a very difficult time saying anything. A couple of them laughed so hard that they could not stop. At the end, they were grateful that they could appreciate each other better. The president suggested that they do this more often, and in their families as well. Until then, they had not realized that the Women’s Self-Reliance Program was wealthy in terms of having committed women with so many gifts to offer.
The experience of the mission was much more than I had expected. We had all shared and learned from each other, and the participants in the program were discovering the possibility of living in peace, trusting each other and accomplishing great things by working together.
Food for thought and reflection
• What can I do to help people rise from poverty, or recover from war and suffering?
• How much do I waste/ how much do I really need?
• Do I contribute to the suffering in the world in some way, for example, by criticizing or fighting?
• How can I use the knowledge and skills I have now to transform and improve my own life, then the life of my family, my community and the world?
• “Poverty in the World is an artificial creation,” Muhammad Yunus, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2006.