Author: Stephanie Deutsch, Smaller World Volunteer
It was our first morning in La Majada, a tiny village in the mountains of Honduras, and we were walking with our local guides from the one-room, cinderblock schoolhouse up a steep, verdant hill to visit Don Virgilio Hernandez, an elderly man in a wide hat with a warm, almost toothless grin, and Noé, a young farmer proud of the radishes he had raised using newly learned organic farming techniques. We passed several tiny adobe cottages with red tiled roofs, a simple chicken coop, and a concrete outdoor sink with a washboard next to clothes hanging on a line. Everywhere there were chickens – roosters strutting and crowing, hens of all colors and sizes pecking the ground, shepherding scores of chicks. As I snapped a picture of the chickens, Gloria, the pretty young teacher with her own flock of young girls in uniform blue skirts and white blouses following the foreigners with interest, asked me, “Don’t you have chickens in your country?” Well, yes, I told her we do, but we don’t see them very much. We’re city people.
We're 14 women, 11 of us from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C., visiting Honduras with Sustainable Harvest International. One might question how effective 14 middle-aged women, none of us farm girls, would be at advancing the mission of SHI, but there was another concept underlying the partnership – the idea that women enjoy relating to other women and that this natural affinity would, somehow, serve the missions of both organizations.
We visited two small villages near Trinidad, Honduras spending time working with SHI staff members on agricultural projects in the mornings, and visiting with the women of the villages in the afternoons. The agricultural work was, in a way, the easy part. We would help to create gardens on steep hillsides, mix dirt, ash, manure and yeast to create organic fertilizer, pot tiny seedlings for people in the villages to take home with them. We would follow directions. Spending time with the women was more of a challenge. Some in our group spoke little Spanish; conversation might not flow.
And since this time together had been our idea, we would be giving, not following, directions. We decided to focus our visits by inviting the women to do two craft projects with us – embellishing plain cloth tote bags with sewing, embroidery, fabric paint and appliqués, painting and decorating small, wooden picture frames. We took cameras and small printers to give each woman a picture of herself to put in the frames. Before heading to Honduras, we visited a local Spanish-speaking senior center to practice. The enthusiasm of the women there sent us on our way with high hopes.
We arrived in Honduras with not just our own backpacks and rolling suitcases, but with seven enormous bags bulging with frames, fabric, buttons, tote bags, glue, sewing kits, scissors, paint and materials to donate to the primary schools. By mid-week it was clear that the women in both villages were enjoying the projects. As our SHI guide had warned us, each afternoon there were more of them than there had been the day before. And it was not just women, of course, who flocked to the schoolhouses where we met. Each day there were men looking through the windows and children scampering everywhere.
On our last day in the villages, each of our groups attempted a conversation just with the women. Over the din of children playing outside, we gave simple information about ourselves – “Me llamo Stephanie; vivo en Washington, DC; soy casada; tengo tres niños” – and invited our new Honduran friends to do the same. Each group had one native speaker in it. The Hondurans were interested in what we did (we counted a priest, a teacher, a psycho-analyst and retired government workers among our number) and in the fact that we had, to their minds, so few children. They said they all voted, but they were not enthusiastic about their current mayor because he planned to eliminate a kindergarten class for lack of funding.
Our translators were kept busy facilitating the exchange, but none was needed when one of the women from our group, noting the lack of electricity in most of the village homes, innocently asked, “What do you do in the evenings in your villages when there is no light?” Without hesitation, all the women in the room began to laugh. There is much, much more to say and understand about each other, but a moment of shared laughter is surely a good place to start.
I live in the community of Las Breñas, Kukra River, Nicaragua and have six children and two grand-children. Five years ago my family started with the Suatainable Harvest International program, and we now believe that organic and sustainable farming is the best way to get out of poverty.
As a woman I have felt my dream realized, when I see that my garden produces more each year and with better quality. SHI has made a big change in our lives, given that today my children have different vegetables and our nutrition is better every day.
SHI is an organization that demands continual work, but you see results. I hope that every year, more women have the opportunity of working with SHI, because it’s an organization that benefits our families and teaches us to protect our environment.
~ Marta Rojas, Nicaragua
Antonio Ramirez and his family have been working with Sustainable Harvest since July 2008. He is married with 5 children. Prior to working with SHI, he was only growing basic crops, like corn, beans, cassava and some coffee. Now working with his field trainer, Jorge Rodriguez, he has diversified his plot with different vegetables like tomato, cabbage, onion, beets, mustard, pepper and watermelons, as well as coffee and timber-yielding trees.
In the past, a lot of promising organizations came to our village and worked for a little while but most of the time, nothing was done. It was not until SHI-Belize, which many of us had heard of and had long waited for, accepted the invitation to work with our village of Sunday Wood, that we had hope. We had heard and seen what SHI accomplished in the other villages, so we did not need to think twice about working with them.
Despite the political unrest that arose in Honduras in recent weeks, our group of Smaller World™ volunteers traveling there safely arrived back in the US as scheduled on Friday, July 3. The group divided between communities of Subirana (Jicarito, Musiquito, Barrio Abajo) and Rosario (Tecuan, Los Planes) to work on a variety of sustainable agriculture, income generation and appropriate technology projects, such as plantain and cassava plots, coffee tree nurseries, family gardens, chicken coops, and wood-conserving stoves. They worked with SHI participant families in the countryside and enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Honduran people.
Ms. Melva Soto was born April 29, 1953 in the rural community of Pagua, in the La Pintada district of Panama. She is a single mother with three daughters and granddaughters who she considers to be her biggest source of inspiration.
In her community she is known as “Doña Melva” or “Mama Tita," and is held in esteem by the townspeople. As a young woman she promoted many social activities, including the formation of a youth artisans group that makes “Sombreros Pintados,” or painted hats. She encourages the students to put forth their best talents and at the same time, earn income for their families. She later formed a group of farming families and served as treasurer and coordinator of many collaborative community improvement projects including road improvements, bridge, aqueduct, and school construction, as well as other agricultural and environmental projects.
We want to share another story of a successful woman who, through her work with SHI, is lifting her family out of poverty.
Widow Farms to Feed Her Family
Ms. Gertrudis Salazar is 57 years old and lives with her son and three grandchildren in Las Breñas, Nicaragua. Gertrudis began working with SHI-Nicaragua five years ago after her husband passed away.
We want to share with you the story of another inspiring SHI participant, Sr. Marcial Urbina:
At a young age, Marcial Urbina moved away from his hometown in the Boaco region of Nicaragua to look for work in the banana plantations and in the extraction of rubber. By working hard as a laborer in these industries, he was able to buy a bit of land in the community of La Pichinga. He dreamed of having a dignified life with his family and his community.
He is now 69 years old and has lived in La Pichinga for forty years. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren. His hope for working with Sustainable Harvest is that his community should improve its standard of living while protecting the environment. He hopes that through this, he can leave a great and selfless legacy to future generations.
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Voices from the Field