That evening when Damien returns from school we study together, sharing new words, how to shape our mouths, tongues so the syllables sound right. As he, the sharpest and quickest english student I have ever met, writes ‘I like sheep, you like cows, we like pigs,…’ the sun sets and we switch on the bare light bulb.
It took twenty men from the community seventy working days to bring light to their farms. After many years of pressure, the council provided the materials. This was in 2004.
It’s so easy to see people living without amenities (running water, electricity, gas, roads, schools) as a permanent state and not recognise the sheer amount of hard hard physical work that has gone in to getting what they do have, nor to know of their plans for improvements for the future. Their time scale due is different – growing food and getting the money to pay for the materials must come first (no buy now pay later offers for a new bathroom - but change comes. And rather than just ‘home improvement’ change, they also have an idea of community improvements. Their next task is to dig drainage for the road to prevent it eroding away in the rains.
Education and collective organising are crucial to improving their lives. As Dominga told me “with education comes the confidence and skills to confront those in power who would otherwise ignore us.” With collective organising comes the capacity to improve more than just their homes and gardens, but their schools, roads, health access.….
Raul and I were there to help build some basic shelters for making compost for all in the vereda. The land, while lush and green, is not too fertile. I helped the men with the building - they didn’t comment on me doing such work, they didn’t say much to me. Shy – perhaps unsure of this strange person like Damien on the first morning. But with age – insecurities around difference are deeper, and it was tough for me to break through.
With Dominga, it took time too but through conversations while milking cows, making cheese together and washing up, we shared intimate moments. With me, she spoke openly about how her brother and husband ignore her opinion, yet later say she was right in the first place. She tells me she has had very little education, “women don’t need an education as they are only going to cook and look after the house and children" she was told..... I ask her how she has continued learning, despite being denied formal education. “I started recently going to meetings and there I have learnt a lot. I don’t speak but I learn. Some of the women think it is odd that I go to meeting but I tell them that we are as much a part of this community as the men”.
Our farewell suprises and moves me – we embrace for what feels like hours. She cries and tells me she loves me. I hold her dear to me. What do I mean to this kind strong woman? Why was my stay of just two days and two nights a profound experience for her? I hope I can return and spend more time with her, to find answers to these questions. For now I can only imagine.....
....that to spend time with another person with whom she could talk more openly (my gender was crucial for this trust to be built so quickly) is something she rarely has the opportunity to do as her imposed responsibility in life has been in the kitchen. Certainly not to talk and share ideas with others outside of her family.
This relationship prepared me a little more for the next part of my trip – participating in a workshop with a group of rural women, some of whom asked COS-PACC (the org. i was accompanying) for support in creating a women’s organisation so that ‘we leave from the kitchen’.
We did a few activities, intended to help them understand and reflect on their own situation in their community, and to start thinking of possible responses to their dignostic. I have my own views on what I think is really good about the rural way of life and what is not. But what I liked about the workshop was that the women from COS-PACC asked questions, instead of judging or being opinionated.
What did surprise me was how unique and rare the space created is and that the idea of the women of the community coming together every few months to eat, laugh, talk together is a powerful act for them. We left it in their hands. We could support them but they had to decide what they wanted and make the next step. I hope I go back there, as will mean that even though they were mainly pretty shy, that they enjoyed and valued the space and want to continue meeting.