As you putter towards Iquitos on the TahuayoRiver,just a few minutes from the lodge of same name, the water is glassy and smooth. Dark clouds loom overhead, the temperature is low for this time of year. The waters are beginning to rise slowly as spring approaches. On both banks there are signs of heavy erosion as the waters tear away the root systems of big trees. Many have toppled into the river, and they are often so large that villagers must boat out and cut them to allow traffic to pass.
Life is changing in this area of the Peruvian Amazon. Nowhere so much as in the tiny town of El Chino, population about 200. El Chino is about twelve hours by river boat from Iquitos. Like many Amazonian river communities, poverty is a fact of life here. However, for the last twenty or so years, this has been changing the same way the river changes the banks- slowly but determinedly- through the efforts of one remarkable woman, the not-for-profit she created and the partnerships she has woven into an intricate and powerful support network for this part of the great green complex and interwoven Amazon world.
For anyone to be able to make a difference here, they had to know and understand this part of the world. Know its challenges. Its people. And above all, understand how essential it was to delicately balance the influx of progress with the preservation of the traditional way of life, the forest itself, the belief systems and ways of being so key to the cultures of the river people.
The annual flood waters often devastated the town and its crops. The women were largely uneducated and young people often left for Iquitos, about 12 hours by river bus down the river, sometimes leaving- and forgetting- young children with grandparents. Single teenaged girls moved to Iquitos, found work, and often began new families in the city, abandoning their newborns or young children to their parents who in many cases had young kids of their own. These single moms had left with the real or implied promise of sending financial support to their families left behind in El Chino.
All too often, this support either didn’t materialize or only continued for a few months.
These grandparents, mostly illiterate, were poor enough, hardly able to provide for their own kids, much less another mouth dumped upon them by their children. This added to their poverty and sometimes these additional kids suffered. It’s not that they weren’t loved, the families simply were overwhelmed. If the older parents were disabled this exacerbated the situation.
El Chino’s social problems were many, but some of them needed immediate answers.
Dolly Beaver, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who established the Tahuayo Lodge, the original Peruvian Amazonian Adventure Lodge in this area, had a dream and a vision. Born in Iquitos and familiar with the challenges faced by the people of the river, Dolly had formed an organization in 2006 called Angels of the Amazon. Angels is committed to the social, health, educational and economic concerns of the small river communities in this area of the Tahuayo.
Back in 1996, Dolly had begun working in the community on her own, befriending the women. She heard about the alcoholism, spousal abuse and health problems and the challenges that lack of education created. For a number of years she toiled on her own to provide health care for women that she would bring to Iquitos, or young girls who had finished the government provided elementary school in El Chino. In Iquitos these young women, with Dolly’s help, would get further assistance to continue their education through high school and then technical college.
Eventually, a number of tourists who were guests of the Tahuayo Lodge began to take notice of Dolly’s efforts. They encouraged Dolly to start a non-profit in the United States which they could then support. Angels of the Amazon was established in 2006, and those tourists, along with many others, now are actively engaged with providing support for the development of projects, buildings, educational support, meals and many other life-changing aspects of community life in the Tahuayo River area.
Dolly encouraged the women of El Chino to begin creating crafts for sale to the tourists at the Tahuayo Lodge. She instituted workshops where the women could learn weaving high quality traditional crafts from the village elders. When that developed into an onslaught of canoes overloaded with mothers, babies in hammocks and goods to sell arriving underneath the lodge at four in the morning, Dolly knew she had to create a new option. The idea, the dream of an Artesan Center, was born.
The Artesan Center, once built, would provide a place for the women to create and sell their goods which would provide a sustainable income for their families. This would not only support the forest they counted upon for their lives, but also improve their standard of living. The dream inspired some and terrified others, mostly along gender lines. When the workshops to teach women how to create their products began, for some women, the economic empowerment helped to diminish the spousal abuse. Part of this was fear of change, and a lack of understand of where the money was coming from. At times women would come to their classes with bruises. Yet they persevered. It wasn’t until the income became real, and the women’s determination to have a voice in their families gave them economic power (as well as the power as how to spend that income) that they gained respect and power.
To some resistance, especially among the men of the village, Dolly presented her idea. The women loved it and embraced it. Because Dolly had always treated them with respect, most believed, albeit tentatively, that it might come to fruition. Not so some of the husbands, a few of whom crossed their arms and said they would “sit on the ice” until the supplies showed up, a local saying equivalent to “when hell freezes over.”
Ultimately, through getting the women to pitch in money of their own from the sales of their crafts and with $25,000 from AofA funding donations, the concrete, sand, and wood harvested from the local forest did indeed show up. The womencooked breakfast at one a.m.by floodlamp, worked until their shoulders hurt to the touch, their backs nearly breaking with the labor.
But not everyone.
At one point, two artisans’ husbands refused to work, and the women, with money they had earned by selling their crafts, hired three outside workers for two days. This embarrassed the husbands deeply. They were already in trouble with their wives at home. Finally cowed, they finally showed up on the job site. The group had finally come together as a community.
A beautiful building, with a woven roof and rafters made of wood taken from the forest, a lovely solid concrete floor high enough to never be touched by a flood, and secure concrete stairs, rose gracefully out of the forest floor. Along with the building, a community of women had formed, a collective of artisans and friends had been created that provided a safe place from abuse, a place to create economic power, a place to talk out problems, a place where women could finally know their own power.
Today a septic system is being carved out of the forest. Alternating teams work daily, switching out responsibility until a day when everyone works. This way each person has a hand in the building of this testament to community involvement. Most of the back-breaking work has been completed and the smiling teams are happy to pause and greet you as you inspect the last of their efforts.
To climb the new grey stairs to the breeze-cooled room with its open walls to the forest and pleasant views is a joy to everyone. It’s a huge space, and the bathroom only needs the septic system to be finished. A small cardboard sign teeters on the steps where too many men insisted on sharpening their machetes on the nice corners, which resulted in breakage. The sign warns off anyone who wants to use these brand new steps as a tool sharpening device. People worked too hard to make them beautiful and even.
Dolly reported that the men insist on dancing with their wives on the smooth concrete floor. After all, they had worked hard to build it, they said. She agreed. She is paying for the champagne, and the food, champagne and music will make for quite the celebration.
The Artesan Center isn’t the only answer to El Chino’s complex social problems. It’s one of several, including a brand new high school. Each step has naysayers, people afraid of change. However, the lessons learned by the women who held the dream of the Center in mind have taught them that by working together, their dream could become a reality. It would be fair to say at this point their husbands have learned to take their wives seriously! Today they walk by it every day. They can sit on the cool floor and enjoy the breezes. This is just one step of many, a fight to build their community stronger and better for their families and to offer reason for their daughters to stay at home to bond with their children.
When the Artesan Center is fully up and operational, one of its primary purposes is to train people in a variety of skills in making saleable items. By keeping kids close by, if the daughters get pregnant, they may be more likely to stay if they have viable work. This way they are more likely to bond with their babies. That is the very real dream. Given how hard this community has worked to realize the first part of this dream, and how beautifully the Artesan Center stands in El Chino today, the next part of it seems possible indeed.
Robert sprinted down the path in the waning afternoon light frantically searching for Dolly. I could see him over Ruth’s head as she and Dolly were reading her school books. The young man looked desperate. Finally he spotted us, and climbed the stairs, winded. He looked exhausted.
He had an animated conversation with Dolly, pain and worry clenching his young face. Satisfied, he went back to his business, and Dolly finished with the little girl. A few minutes later we were done with Llerme’s family and on our way to the boat. Robert met us there and climbed into the bow. He sat with his head down, his body clenched into itself.
Robert was only fourteen. His mother was gravely ill, short of breath and having headaches. Local medicines from the woods weren’t working. She needed immediate help. The boy’s father, who was a womanizer and often not home, worked a cargo ship out of Iquitos on the river and was unavailable. Money was practically nonexistent. The boy was the only decision maker in the family, but not old enough for any of the other families to loan a speed boat to loan him to get his mother to a clinic.
Dolly has known and worked with Robert since he was eight years old. His mother, who is illiterate, paid for the boy’s homework with a chicken, costing her family a meal, when he struggled at times. She was at a loss to help him herself. Her biggest wish for her children was that they would read and write and not be ignorant like her, explained Dolly. “She was willing to do anything to help them rise above their circumstances.”
“That’s commitment,” said Dolly. “I have to help them. This is what it’s like for people here.”
Their house is a war zone, the sleeping area a tumble of clothing and bedding covered with multiple mosquito nets. The house itself is a mass of junk, smelly clothing thrown willy nilly, dirty dishes left everywhere. It is the picture of abject poverty. The only food is a bunch of green plantains on the floor. The walls are open to the elements in places, allowing for winds to blow through in storm season. Dolly is determined to help the mother support her commitment to the kids, especially since this fourteen year old boy has to act in place of the absentee father most of the time.
Robert would be transporting his mother along with his four younger siblings to get help. Dolly would provide them money for food and medical care at the clinic, neither of which they had funds to pay for. Dolly also provide a note to the clinic, which also operated like money, to ensure health care for his mother. The clinic is another facility that is sponsored by AofA.
The boy hunched over in the breeze as we approached the lodge. Worry wracked his strong young body. He was close to tears. He jumped out of the boat and pulled us to the dock. As l left the boat I grasped his shoulder and squeezed it.
He was in good hands.
Estelita Loayza Ijuma
Estelita’s warm brown skin shines in the warmth of the Amazonian day, although we are cooled by the breezes that waft through the huge Artesan Center that she and the artesan members helped build. Her round face and bright eyes are framed by short, spiky hair. At times her expressive face quiets. Her eyes redden and tear up with the memory of her abusive father and the mother she sought to protect from his raging abuse.
Dolly Beaver and I are talking with Estrelita in the quiet cool of the new Artesan Center which was built with the help of Angels of the Amazon. AofA is Dolly’s brainchild, a not for profit concerned with the social, educational, health and economic needs of the villages of this part of the Tahauayo River, about twelve hours from Iquitos, Peru by river bus.
“The other kids would run when he beat her,” Dolly Beaver translated for her, “ and I feared for myself.” She halted momentarily to get her composure. “I worried a lot. I wanted to get my mother out to save her.”
Estelita still feels this pain in other families where there is abuse. Like many other Amazonian families, her parents were illiterate.
Her mother told her that her husband would do the same to her when she was married. Her father “gave” her to a man she considered a brother, much older than she, certainly not someone she loved. He’d asked for her hand, and that was that. She’d had no say in the matter. Eventually she gave him a daughter and a son. He wasn’t an abuser, but by the same token he didn’t have any faith in her ability to do anything for herself.
Dolly had become an advisor and friend at that point, and Estelita said that this gave her hope. “I had no idea how to get things done, how to do things for myself. Dolly made me feel like I could. Like I was able,” she explained.
Estelita became an artesan, part of a growing community of women who used fibers and materials from the jungle to make products which they would weave into items to sell to tourists at the Tahuayo Lodge. The Lodge, created by Dolly’s husband Dr. Paul Beaver, is the largest employer in the area. Estelita wanted to use part of this money to put planks into her family’s home to make it more attractive.
“My husband got upset, he didn’t like that I got up at 5 am to go to the lodge,” she remembers. We were constantly fighting.
At times Estelita would gather her craft materials in a pile and stand over her them, dangling a lit match, burning with tears and frustration. Eventually, she threw the match away, made what she needed and put the money into hiding.
Finally when she had enough, she hired a workman to cut the wood and put new planks in the house. Her husband begrudgingly noticed…and began asking for money for drink and food. She began hiding her hard-earned cash from him, and parcing it out sparingly. Slowly but surely he began to respect her new status as a wage earner and what that brought their family.
Then came the idea of a store in the house for the village. Initially her husband responded by claiming that he hated selling.
At this, Estelita’s smile nearly splits her pretty face in two. “Now HE’S the one who’s after me to upgrade the store!” We all laugh. Estelita’s house is a centerpoint for the village. Not only do the tourists use their toilet, but they walk right by the store to get there. A perfect setup for sales. No wonder he loves the store and wants to expand it now.
Estrelita’s daughter attends private university in Iquitos, and gets support from her mother to insure a better life. Dolly is her godmother, so she’s got plenty of moral support. Not just moral support. Dolly had known her from birth. This growing child approached her at her quinceanera (15th birthday, a big deal for girls in Latin America) and asked Dolly to be her godmother. Not wanting to end up with hundreds of godchildren, Dolly paused, but eventually accepted. She was then daunted by what to provide her for this coming of age anniversary. She had found out from Estrelita that Danixa needed a laptop, which confounded Estrelita, who’d never heard of such a thing.
Dolly provided one from the States, which ensured Danixa’s success at school. The girl was already saving every penny to purchase one in Iquitos, but could never get ahead given the cost of living.
Estrelita is still stunned by the idea that her daughter is at private university in Iquitos using a laptop, a tool of modern technology, when she barely had ever touched a book. To her this is astounding.
Estrelita’s a big supporter of the Artesan Center, and of the new high school. She sees a new future for kids like her daughter and those of other families like hers.
“My mother supported education so that we could get out of the house and away from my father,” she explained. “I hear resistance from older people in the village like my dad.”
Estrelita, with mentoring and guidance from Dolly, is increasingly taking over leadership and mentoring roles. She realizes that because of her experience and what she has been through, other women in the village lean on her for advice with their husbands and parents. This gives her a whole new sense of purpose.
Dolly beams at her. As we hug, I feel the strength in her compact body. Estrelita heads off to go change a bit more of her world.
The small village of El Chino, located deep in the Amazon on the Tahuayo River, was once a place of good hunting and fishing, some twelve hours by river bus out of Iquitos, Peru. About 130 years ago, a man with Asian features (common to many Peruvians although they are not of Asian heritage) began to hunt and fish regularly in the area. Eventually he moved here. Word got around about the bounty and others arrived, telling their friends and family that they were moving near El Chino, or the Chinaman. While it was technically inaccurate, the name stuck.
More and more people came, and the town was incorporated. By then El Chino was so commonly known as such there was no reason to change the name of the village to something new.
Today the population is a little more than 200 people. Most farm, fish or hunt according to the season. The average income ranges from 50 soles to as high as 350 soles a month, unless a family member works at the Tahuayo Lodge. There they are paid the minimum wage of 850 soles a month. Families who have a refrigerator or television usually are supported by working family members living in larger cities like Iquitos or Lima, or where a spouse sells crafts to tourists or gets enough tips to provide for extras.
Years prior, families had from eight to twelve children. Today that number has dropped to around four to six per family, with pressure to have fewer due to the poverty rate. Since common law marriage is typical, men can and do leave women with kids, creating mixed families when the mothers create new relationships. The children by the previous father aren’t wholly accepted or supported in many cases by this new dad, leaving the mother to support these first children on their own while also caring for the new father’s kids.
Often one or more members of the family leave for Iquitos to find work. Depending on what they find in the city, and the mental and emotional capacity of that individual, they may find themselves completely swept away by the constant financial demands of city life or they may thrive. It’s not at all uncommon for those family members to create new families which keeps those people from sending critical funds home to El Chino, and the second family responsibilities tear up the existing families back home. The reality of what happens to young girls sent to Iquitos to attend school or find work is all too real and is one of the many reasons why parents resist sending their daughters to Iquitos to further their educations in private or public schools. Whether it’s temptation or being taken away by older men, all too often the child comes home with an unplanned baby.
The Tahuayo Lodge is one of the largest employers in the area, providing steady employment for any number of around seven local communities in this area. El Chino in particular benefits due to its close proximity to the lodge. Dolly Beaver, 45, wife of the founder, Dr. Paul Beaver, was born in Iquitos and long ago made a commitment to be deeply involved with the economic, educational, social and health issues of the river communities. Their needs led to the formation of Angels of the Amazon.
Today, El Chino sports a brand new high school, new teachers, and a lovely new Artesan Center which rises in the middle of the village. With the help of Angels of the Amazon, Dolly’s hard work and the commitment of many in the village (especially the women), quality of life is changing. So are the opportunities for the kids. While the current illiteracy rate hovers around 40%, that is rapidly changing as more kids are enrolled and engaged in kindergarten and stay on through high school. The Peruvian government also helps out by providing breakfasts and the teachers which keeps kids awake and engaged during their studies. Hunger endangered elderly also get breakfasts which eases the burden on very poor families.
With more income available through sales of colorful plates, ornaments, vases and many other products to tourists at the Center, women have been able to improve their home lives and pay for their kids’ educations. The high school now offers more advanced schooling which provides increased opportunities for children- including girls- who see different futures for themselves other than marriage barely past puberty and immediately having kids.
Increased wealth, even a small amount of it, brought in by women has given them a sense of pride and accomplishment. This has given them authority in some cases over money spent on alcohol, which is a real problem in these river communities, and all too often leads to spousal abuse. Extremely cheap rum is widely available, and the distress of constant poverty leads to alcohol abuse. The promise of increased income through the village’s women is a bright spot, for they not only become providers, but they also become the arbiters of how the money is spent. The wives are increasingly vocal about not being attached to “men who bring them down.”
Dolly has also worked to create better health care for villagers to prevent loss of life from neglect or lack of prevention. While Adolfo, the local shaman, and others like him can provide herbs and forest remedies, some illnesses like cancer must be screened. In the past those lives were simply lost. Today with Dolly’s help and government backing there are nurses who provide ob-gyn and other services within reasonable time frames and distances. In most situations, severe cases can be transported to Iquitos in an emergency. Hygiene and ignorance about basic health care are still issues but practices are changing slowly with education and new generations.
Social change in the Amazon is a delicate balance. The forest needs to be protected for future generations of villagers, and for the tourists who wish to experience it as the treasure it is. In addition it needs to be sustained for the posterity of the world at large as the tremendous biosphere it represents. El Chino’s challenges are representative of many river villages. What can be solved here can potentially be reproduced elsewhere. Peru’s macho culture, which can breed violence against women and a resistance to education and development for girl children, needs to change especially in remote communities if health and welfare are to improve. The most significant changes often happen through education of its women.
In El Chino, Angels of the Amazon has been among the biggest engines of those social changes, motivating and energizing the local women to learn new skills, support and help pay for education for themselves and their kids, and improve the lot of their families and their childrens’ futures through their crafts.
Norma Torres Rojas
Norma Rojas loves to work. It’s in her DNA. Her deep brown skin and high cheekbones declare her strong heritage. She is quick to smile broadly, her back is straight and strong. She’s never known anything but work. Yet once she had a dream to be a nurse.
Norma grew up one of the daughters of the village shaman of El Chino, a river village some twelve hours by boat out of Iquitos, Peru on the Tauayo River in the Amazon. Norma became interested in healing. She was willful, determined. After elementary school, the limit of what was then available in the village, she demanded to be allowed to go to Iquitos to continue her schooling. It was her one great dream to become a nurse. She was twelve at the time, and back then there were no more educational options especially for girls.
Her parents, fearful that she would come back pregnant like so many before her, denied her the opportunity. They didn’t have the funds to send her, but they also refused her the chance to make her own way.
It broke her heart. They had no faith in her will to put herself through school, to make her dream come true. They didn’t know their Norma.
In retaliation, when she was seventeen, she moved in with Ezequiel, who was 26 at the time, to rebel against her father. Adolfo, her father, was furious. He responded by striking her hard across the face.
Initially, the couple farmed together, and Norma worked as hard as he did. There were no issues back then.
Then Ezequiel began to complain that the farm was “too much work.” He was by then a member, and later a leader, in the local evangelical church.
Norma joined the Mother’s Club which distributed milk to families and got increasingly involved. Ezequiel, threatened by her involvement away from the house, forced her to quit. On the other hand, Norma explained, he brought in little money and even less food from hunting or fishing.
Ezequiel had a serious control problem. Norma later joined CASPI, a micro loans fishery program to help buy fishing nets, but he pulled her out of that. He accused her of being unfaithful and was verbally abusive. Norma often found herself in tears.
At the same time, while he was a leader of the church, he was sleeping with a woman three houses down. That woman became pregnant with his child. Ultimately she had to leave town because of the pressure from the village and the church.
Ezequiel, an illiterate man, had limited skills. Norma had to teach him how to weave the leaves for their roof. He was abusive and angry and controlling, and accused her constantly of the very actions he was committing against her.
Meanwhile Norma was spending time with Dolly Beaver, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who had created the Tahuayo Lodge. The Lodge and Research Center were the largest employers in the area. Dolly had created Angels of the Amazon, an organization dedicated to the advancement and support of social, health, educational and economic causes for the people of the village. This included training women in craft designs, which would increase their income, and provide them with economic power in their families.
Dolly made regular visits to Norma’s family. Ezequiel was always friendly, always welcoming. Dolly often advised Norma, asking for permission for Norma to come to classes to learn these skills. Since Ezequiel interpreted this as respecting him as the master of the family he often allowed this to happen.
Often when he got argumentative and found out that his baby daughter would cry when taken along with Norma during her workshops, he threatened to keep her from attending.
Norma would then have sex with him in the morning, and after he fell asleep, she’d sneak out with the baby and head off to the workshops anyway.
Eventually it came to a confrontation.
When Norma became involved with the Artesan Center project, Ezequiel became unglued. He demanded she stop going and come home.
Norma stood her ground. “You pulled me off the Mother’s Project. You pulled me out of the CASPI Loans Project. You will NOT take me off the Arestan Center. You don’t work. I DO. I am going to pay for my kid’s education. “
He accused her again of having another man. His behavior had become almost ridiculous.
Finally he attended one of the classes, to which she responded with dripping sarcasm, “Thanks for going.”
He argued that he could bring in money from hunting. In one day selling her crafts at the lodge, she sold 50 soles worth of goods, and he brought in nothing. It was far more than he had brought in for weeks.
On other days she would go out to work with a group of men and be the only woman in the entire group. This deeply embarrassed Ezequiel.
Her income from the crafts began to grow, but he refused to give her credit or his approval. Eventually, however, he began to ask for money: to play soccer, to get rum. She responded by saying she wasn’t a bank. And that he’d have to help her go into the forest to get fiber for her crafts so that she could make more goods to sell.
Initially he felt this was beneath his dignity, so he refused. Over time, she gave him multiple small loans. Ezequiel came along at his own pace.
“One fine day,” Norma smiles, “He says to me, let’s go out and get your fiber. I suppressed my thoughts of anger (about his previous behavior). We started harvesting the fiber together.”
While Ezequiel still provides her with plenty to complain about, the good news is that she is a power in her own household now. At 41 and with four kids, the brand new Artesan Center with its broad expanse of cool concrete floor and almost-finished septic system is a dream come true. Women now come to her for advice dealing with similar husband issues. Her sense of humor is quick and her eyes are merry.
What is perhaps most striking are her creative works. Like so many of the other women, Norma’s fiber designs speak directly of the new freedom that she is experiencing. Today when she tells her family that she has to work on her baskets, they know to leave her alone. Her time is hers, she is free to work in private. Ezequiel respects her time because he knows how it pays off for their entire family. Norma is working hard to ensure that her daughters and sons have the options she did not.
As a result, her high quality baskets explode with color, her work ethic clear in the details of her baskets, jewelry and carvings. Creativity thrives on freedom, and Norma’s spirit is free.
The Artesan Center Craft Presentation
Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon and wife of Dr.Paul Beaver, who built the Tahuayo Lodge, Peru’s first Amazon Adventure Lodge downriver from Iquitos, and I are standing in the middle of a circle of women of the village of El Chino. It’s October 5th, 2016.
Eleven women of varying age, some with small children, have laid out plastic mats and emptied plastic bags, many with colorful Disney logos and characters, of their contents. Deftly woven baskets, handbags, jewelry, carved gourds, vases, friendship bracelets, dainty and hilarious frogs, snails, fish and other creatures fashioned into baskets and ornaments are spread out at the feet of each woman. Each offering is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the skills and artistic competence each individual brings to her craft.
Every woman in this gathering paid a price to be here. “Here,” in fact, didn’t even exist not long ago.The Artesan Center itself was nothing more than a pipe dream back in 1995 when it was little more than a notion. Back then, Dolly had begun workshops to train the women how to weave by learning from the village elders.
For some, these workshops resulted in battery at home, as men were threatened by their wives’ wanting to work. Women would report to the classes battered and bruised, but determined. Over time, once the products began to sell, the resulting income changed more than a few minds.
Then the idea of an actual building theCenterto provide a place to present these crafts was born. More resistance, and fewer supporters. However, Dolly, and the tight group of artesanfamilies persevered. The large Center rose in the middle of the village and we now were gathered in this testament to their will and determination.
Dolly introduced me and I had some questions. Here’s some of what I learned.
For one older woman, the money she earns pays for her kids’ education, for clothing for herself and food. Perhaps most important, those funds provided emergency funds never before available. During a recent challenge, for the first time in her life she had the necessary “padding” to see her through a rough time without experiencing serious trouble.
The women around the room nod in agreement.
For the first time, they say, they can educate their kids. For most of these women, they lost that chance for themselves, although some went to the new high school (another Angels of the Amazon project) to finish their own schooling. But now with families, careers outside El Chino for this group of women are out of the question. However, the craft business is just beginning to take off, and they have embraced it fully.
Others spoke of the new sense of personal freedom. “I can finish this basket in my own time,” said one woman, in near wonderment at the notion. “When I want to do my work I am left alone.”
When gently pressed, the women agreed with the idea that the lively colors and fun designs were an expression of the newfound joy and creative expression born of the freedom they all were feeling for the first time. The right to set boundaries. The economic power. A real voice in their own houses. The ability to say no to giving their husbands money for alcohol, which all too often led to dire consquences for everyone. And it had earned them respect, both for themselves, and from their husbands.
At the end of our discussion, each woman stood by the colorful sign of their center, holding a favorite piece of theirs to display proudly as I took their photos. They beamed, their broad smiles expressing a joy greater than their words could express. These women were changing their community, the opportunities for the kids, especially their daughters, day by day, month by month. As their children observed their mothers working and taking on greater power and roles in the family decision making, they also saw family dynamics change. Boys would see the model of abuse change. Girls could envision themselves having a different life than their mothers. New worlds could open up, supported by the new high school, and money for further education.
El Chino’s story is a woman’s story. The following night, a celebration of music, food and dance would be held in this same center to truly open the building by these women and their families for business.
Work began early the next day with chickens caught, feathered and cut for the meal. As Dolly and I walked through El Chino, the smell of fresh garlic was redolent everywhere as it was being peeled. Women laughed gaily as the preparations gained steam.
The women prepared a big pot of chicken foot soup for us to trundle back to The Tahuayo Lodge by boat as a gift to the staff, a rare luxury. Lots of people would benefit.
It would be a night to remember. A night to celebrate the work, the heartache, the gains, and all that might yet come to pass.
A night to celebrate the women artesans of El Chino.
Just upriver from the small town of El Chino is Buena Vista, a nearly deserted town of just seven families. Once one of a number of thriving and economically successful villages on this part of the Amazon, the increased dangerous high floods of recent years have resulted in a number of families’ moving away. The other factor was the retirement of a beloved teacher, and many families moved elsewhere when subsequent teachers stayed less than a year each. This has left the town devastated, with just a few stragglers left.
Dolly and I disembark and walk up the steep slope on rickety wooden steps to the cracked sidewalk. We are carrying a heavy pink plastic bag of rice and sugar to drop off with an elderly couple she says is food endangered. No one seems to be in the dark shack, but she won’t leave the food unattended.
This old couple is made up of Maria, 83, who is blind and suffering from early dementia, and her second husband, Manuel, 78, who has bad eyesight but can still fish and farm. Their only son died, but managed to leave behind some twelve grandchildren who sometimes come by to panhandle the food that Dolly leaves for them. Manuel does his best to take care of Maria but he is limited given the lack of local family support. Sometimes Dolly and I pass him fishing quietly on the Tahuayo River.
At one point last year, a fly laid eggs in Manuel’s ear while he was sleeping. They hatched into maggots, which fed inside his ear canal. He complained of fever and headaches, which the local clinics merely treated with painkillers. It wasn’t until some time later that Angels of the Amazon got him to a proper healthcare facility which discovered that he was living with fly larvae feeding on his inner ear. The level of neglect is astounding, yet they continue on.
In another instance, the couple’s very old woven leaf roof had deteriorated to the point where it was caving in. Rain would pour into their home. He patched it, then it would tear open on the other side. Eventually Dolly had the roof removed and a new one installed for their safety. In this case Dolly involved high schoolers from Long Island, New York to help install the roof and clean up the house for the couple.
Down the badly broken sidewalk is the shell of the kindergarten, which has no roof. A teacher lived here for three years, collecting a salary for teaching kids that didn’t live here any more. Now the government sends a supervisor to check on the schools in the area to ensure that teaching is actually taking place.
We stopped in to see Marta, whose son Balthamar is being sponsored. Marta barely has three teeth left on her bottom gums. She is developmentally disabled, and has a habit of slapping her shirt up and down to cool herself or wipe the sweat, revealing her naked upper body to anyone in sight. She laughs often, and is difficult to understand. Sweet and affectionate, she understands why we’re here, and brings her 11 year old boy out to sit with Dolly and show his school workbook. Balthamar’s great obsession is soccer. Over the years Dolly has delivered him a number of soccer balls and once, a pair of soccer shoes which he quickly wore out. The sport interests him far more than his schooling, but Dolly encourages him to continue, and he does.
Someone has written “son of a bitch” in Spanish in his workbook, and Dolly helps him erase it so that he doesn’t get in trouble with his teacher. The boy is an innocent- it’s a prank by another student.
The boy’s father paddles his older son Armando an hour each way to get him to the new high school in El Chino, and again at midday to bring him home. It is powerful testament to the man’s commitment to getting his children the education he and his wife didn’t. The kids get river fish only as the dad can catch. Vegetables are nonexistent here. Balthamar looks pale. He clearly isn’t getting enough iron. Dolly leaves the sugar and rice with Marta which helps, but the child needs meat in his diet. He’s small for his age, especially compared to other boys in nearby villages.
From here we walk further down to visit a bright young girl who is fast outstripping her older sister in school work. A lean, longhaired child in a dirty white top bounces into the darkened room and brings us her workbooks. Dolly and I sit on the benches and go over her work with her.
Adriana Meliza Caro Del Aquila loves math, and loves equations. Work on the board at the front of the class gives her pleasure, she says, and she has fun working out the problems both at school and at home. She loves processing equations in her head.
She plans to be an accountant. She also loves to read, from picking up old newspapers to anything she can get her hands on.
Adriana is the kind of child that delights Dolly. A girl whose eyes are set on the future, who delights in learning. Even given her limited circumstances, she has a real chance to compete her education. With support from Angels of the Amazon, mentoring from Dolly and her own determination, Adriana is likely to make it. She’ll be able to provide funds for her family and the other kids to finish their education, which benefits everyone.
Even more importantly she’ll set an example for her own family. Any daughter she has will grow up in an educated family, a working professional mom and a new set of circumstances. The poverty chain will be broken, with the help of Angels. Balthamar has the same chance, if he can channel his fascination with soccer into his schooling. His parents are already committed. The boys only need to live up to their hopes, and the support of Angels of the Amazon.
The New High School
Jackson Vela, 26, is that kind of youthful, energetic, handsome teacher that young girls crush on. It’s inevitable. When we walked into his classroom he was gesticulating and engaging his class in a discussion about computer science.
Dolly Beaver, the head of Angels of the Amazon and wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who created the Tahuayo Lodge on the Tahuayo River near Iquitos, Peru, along with two environmentalists and I were visiting the brand new high school in the river village of El Chino. Until recently, most residents only received kindergarten or elementary school educations. Particularly the women, who were limited by their options to lives of raising kids and supporting their husbands.
About 40% of El Chino’s 200 or so inhabitants are illiterate, although most of these are older generation. Here in Jackson’s eager classroom, the kids are dressed in their school uniforms and stand when we walk in. Most seem very happy to be here, and while shy, seem curious about these newcomers.
Dolly speaks to the group and asks them questions. Typical of this age group, no one volunteers. Eventually I ask if anyone has a dream. With some prompting, Dolly is able to get the kids to talk about what they want to be. A few want to be policemen, nurses, doctors, one girl wants to be an engineer, others want to be mechanics.
These kids have wonderful dreams, but for many, at this point, without significant assistance (and in most cases far better study habits, says Dolly) these dreams won’t come true. Dolly teases them a bit about this, for she knows them all well. A number of them are sponsored by her organization and she has a vested interest in their success. For many, this extended education is a brand new experience not only for the kids but also for the families. Learning how to learn is just as much part of the change as building the new high school.
Along with the new high school, twelve families in El Chino built a brand new Artisan Center with help from Angels of the Amazon, their own hard labor and funds from sales of their crafts to tourists. This process added to the series of changes that have been significantly rocking this small town, causing waves of responses from old and young generations alike. New income for women has changed the options for many families, who can now afford to send their kids to high school and beyond. Women in particular are enthusiastic about providing their kids with opportunities they didn’t have.
But not everyone is on board, says Jackson.
When he first arrived, “I had to start at ground zero,” he explained. “There had been no ground work. It was hard to get the students to ‘get it.’ There was no background in science, computers, physics. Big difference in grades and ages.”
On the wall in our room were the words “Sexual Reproduction.” I inquired about this, knowing that there were very conservative Evangelical Christian and Catholic believers in town. Jackson smiled and explained that while there was sensitivity, “you look at that age, and you approach it as a scientific question.” So many kids were approaching sexual maturity, and you had to deal with it. If not, suddenly you might have a pregnancy on your hands, and an opportunity lost.
“The biggest challenge with these kids is the parents, because they aren’t engaging or supportive,” Jackson explained. “They might have gone to elementary school, perhaps a little high school, or are functionally illiterate. In so many cases, the kids are on their own. The parents can’t help them at home. The homework doesn’t get done at all.”
In the case of AofA sponsored kids, Dolly visits the houses and helps with the homework. Most of them are now offered a strategy to get the parents involved.
Jackson finds ways to give the kids credit for commitment. As an example, he points out that a girl who lives down near the Tahuayo Lodge finds a way to get to school every day either by walking or canoeing the forty minute distance, rain or shine. Other kids who live right in the village complain they can’t get to school when it’s raining. To Jackson that kind of commitment is worth a lot and it shows up in her grades.
The school had originally been located in town between the cantina and the kindergarten where loud music played, which created constant distraction for the kids. Today, it’s set back in the forest, with plenty of breezes and a separate, clean bathroom. This environment, along with government provided teachers and a government sponsored monitor to ensure proper use of funds for learning, all help ensure a better experience. The Peruvian Government also provides breakfasts for the kids which eases the financial burden on the families and ensures that the kids are awake and engaged during school hours. Providing breakfasts for school kids, infants and hunger endangered elderly is also provided at times through sponsors by Angels of the Amazons.
Jackson smiles broadly. His own story is one of great patience. His first dream is biology, which is why he is so happy to be working at this small school in the Amazon jungle. After a while, he’ll be going back to finish his studies. His personal journey is a perfect example for these kids with stars in their eyes about becoming doctors, nurses, and pilots.
“It takes time and patience,” he grins. “I do this for a while, and go back and work. Eventually I will get there.”
A perfect school lesson indeed for the children of El Chino.
I held my filthy hands out over the railings, the dirt smeared with fragrant purple hand soap. The nurse, Cristiana, poured precious clean water from a bottle taken from the maternity/birthing room over my hands, and the dirt flowed away. I thanked her and returned to the waiting room, where a cranky but beautiful red hen hunkered on her chosen throne of the lone wheelchair. She lays eggs there, and if you try to move her, she will peck your hand until you bleed and squawk loudly enough to scare the many kids in the room with their mothers.
Earlier that morning, Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit organization dedicated to economic, social and health issues that concern river communities along the Tahuayo River, had walked alongside me as we climbed the steep riverbank towards Esperanza Village. It was close to ten am and the clouds were already threatening rain.
Men working in the shade called out to Dolly, also the wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who started the Tahuayo Lodge, the area’s largest employer. We made our slow way to the clinic which was at the far end of a long soccer field.
The original building, which sits next to the newer clinic buildings, is still in use, but not for seeing patients, Dolly explains. It is a compact concrete building with barely enough room to cram a few people under the limited shade or to protect them from frequent downpours. The rooms are now a lab, with a shiny new $7000 microscope, purchased through an AofA fundraiser. This tiny lab now provides critically important swift test results which can sometimes mean life or death for an ill patient.
The clinic itself is part of a cluster of small buildings that surrounds the village’s cell tower. In its heart are two dark blue raincatcher tubs. While there are sinks in the bathroom and toilets, the clinic, as my dirty hands forced me to discover, has no running water.
Yet babies are regularly born here in the maternity room, the largest suite of small rooms down the concrete path. There, donated scrubs are packed into the donated shelving, and an ancient birthing table stands in the middle of the room. A single small bottle of water (the source of my clean hands) stands with sterilizers and other key supplies for the birth process and new baby when it arrives. But no running water.
The waiting room was overflowing with mothers and babies, along with one father taking up most of the chairs and benches. The floor was covered with kids. They crawled, leap frogged, cried, giggled, hugged Dolly, hugged me, ran outside, ran inside, slept in their mother’s laps, nursed, chased chickens and generally used the clinic as an impromptu kindergarten.
As Dolly took me on a tour of the clinic, its emergency room, a treatment room, the locked and stocked pharmacia with its shelves full of American supplements and government-supplied drugs, I watched the tableau out front. I realized that the clinic wasn’t just a clinic. As the nurses slowly served their clientele, the women were taking their time and enjoying each other’s company and their kids. This was a women’s center, much like what I had once seen in New Zealand but on a much smaller scale. Here these women had the perfect excuse to get away from their husbands, be with each other, gossip, complain, laugh and relax. Their husbands knew where they were. It was a safe place.
Two permanent nurses, Christiana and Perla have housing right on the ground. Jorge, another nurse, was in Iquitos today. This tiny, water starved facility serves 13 communities legally, and informally at least four more, stretching its resources to the limit. It can house up to six overnight patients. The rooms had no fans or air conditioning. As the communities grew and the word got out that it was a better place to come due to the support of Angels of the Amazon and Dolly’s hard work, more would be coming.
Dolly walked me outside where school kids played a raucous game of soccer, kicking a ball into a netless goal. An ancient yellow dog wandered by, slowly waving his tail at us. Above, clouds began to gather for rain.
She pointed at the barbed wire fence that formed a boundary around the clinic’s grassy block.
“I want to fence this in with concrete,” Dolly explains. “Eventually get a roof up over our heads. Protect the wood from the harsh elements. We need to drop a well if it’s possible and we can get funding. Bring in fresh water, but that’s very expensive. So much needs to be done here.”
Adriana del Aguilar, the tall, lanky student whose home we had visited the previous day, came skipping around the corner. She gave me a big hug and headed into the clinic to sit with her mother and baby brother. Dolly said that this was why Adriana was at home cooking for the father right now.
I walked back inside with Dolly, who began addressing the group in Spanish. I bent over to touch the hen, which immediately went after my hands. I just as quickly began to gently stroke its head and feathers with great care. After three attempts to attack me, she quieted down and settled in under my touch. She was quite content to be stroked as long as you didn’t interrupt her egg laying process.
After a few moments I went out to find the old blonde dog, which was panting in the heat. He ducked his head under my hand, expecting to be struck, but in a few moments was moving in for more attention, then kissing my chin. That’s how my hands got so dirty- and how the reality of the lack of running water was pressed home.
Dolly was lecturing the group. The women were listening, some rapt, some not as much. They were respectful. I caught bits and pieces. When we were back in the boat and headed to the Lodge in the gentle rain, she explained. “The conversation began when they asked me why I only had one child.”
“One of the mothers there just had another baby thirteen years after her last. It nearly killed her. She says ‘every baby is a gift from God.’ I took that opportunity to talk to them about what happens to an older woman’s body when you have kids by talking about myself, why I don’t have more kids at 45. This woman argued that she didn’t know if her tubes were tied and then it hadn’t occur to her to go find out, a simple procedure with the obgyn. I said to her you might not find out for another eight years and by then you might be pregnant again, and it could kill you. That also hadn’t occurred to her. She had said her hips had given her terrible trouble, and I turned that around to explain to her how dangerous it was.
“I don’t get opportunities like this to talk to groups of women about this kind of thing very often but when I do I have to take it. This kind of thing just doesn’t get discussed enough. People just don’t know. Also there was a man there with his wife- he needed to hear this as well.”
Part of the issue stems from the limited diets the women eat, now being challenged by an influx of sugary products being sold at the local village stores. Diabetes is on the rise. Vegetables are very rare here, items like green beans, corn, carrots, beets and other basics are coastal products that have to be flown in and are far too expensive for river folk. River fish, rice, eggs and chicken are the staples, and increasingly people are drinking the ubiquitous sweet sodas and drinks ranging from powdered sugar drinks to Coke and Inka Cola. All this impacts diet, and bone health suffers. Milk and yogurt are largely unfamiliar, and have to be consumed the day they are bought as most homes don’t have refrigerators. Families can’t afford to purchase pill supplements so unless they are provided by the government or Angels of the Amazon, people don’t receive some of these basic nutrients.
A great deal of this can be dealt with through education, although long standing habits are hard to break. New habits being formed through building affection for sweets, Coke and other poor diet choices need to be dealt with directly as they undermine already hunger-endangered families.
Angels of the Amazon and its “Energizer Bunny” of a leader Dolly Beaver represent bright lights in this part of the forest. Through their dedicated work to provide safe and sanitary health care for the many river communities, education and thoughtful discourse on life choices, they hope to continue to improve family welfare, life quality and longevity for the Amazonian people on the Tahuayo.
And the hen in the wheelchair.
The Cost of Carelessness
The local shamans of the forest are dying out. Most are in their sixties, as is Adolfo of El Chino, a small village of some 200 people on the Tahuayo River in the Peruvian Amazon. Adolfo, and Pasquala, the ancient shaman and abuela of one of the village’s female leaders, are herbalists, spiritualists and people that villagers have long applied to for advice with illness and family issues. Pashqita, as she now known, is falling away into her world of spirits, living less and less in the land of the living, as she ages. Adolfo still does treatments with his many fragrant bottles of alcohol-preserved forest medicines and encantations with feathered sticks.
Shamanic treatments which often count on the emotional state of the patient, also can’t cure a truly vicious disease, or one that has progressed too far along.
Infections, snake bites, machete cuts too big and needing stitches, a broken leg will end up in the clinic.
Amalia, a young village woman in nearby San Pedro, had three children by different men in her twenties but by her late thirties, had begun to have miscarriages. Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, heard of the problem. Under Dolly’s guidance, A of A was working hard to improve health care, including women’s health, by providing nurses to the villlage women. Amalia wouldn’t go.
Eventually Dolly realized the situation had become grave.
“I’d go visit her and the smell would be awful,” Dolly said. “I knew we had to do something. In all the years she had never had a pap smear, never been checked. This girl had ovarian cancer and it had spread all through her body.
“By then her kids were from 9-12. The doctor told us that the only option was to send her to Lima. For some reason she was demanding beets, carrots and potatoes- all vegetables that were not available here. We have to fly them in at great expense from the coast. Finally I had to explain to her husband that her cancer was too far advanced.”
The treatment was extensive, and the chemo would take a long time and a lot out of her. Her kids couldn’t go. The doctor’s prognosis was not good, but Angels of the Amazon was ready to pay for the treatment anyway.
Ultimately, Amalia chose to remain in San Pedro, and died with her family around her. This is a sad ending for this family which might have been avoided had an earlier intervention and preventative tests been administered as soon as she began having miscarriages.
A dependence on traditional methods has its place, but there is a time when Western practices have to take over- preferably while there’s still a chance to salvage a life. Dolly is working hard to change hearts and minds about just where that line is drawn. Education is the primary key. By helping the women better understand the workings of their bodies, and the responsibility they have to their families by staying well, Angels of the Amazon is slowly helping change prejudices towards Western medicine.
It’s not about taking away traditional ways of treating illness,” Dolly explains. “There’s an important place for that. However, when it comes to something like cancer, a shaman or an herbalist is limited. We’re trying to help women learn the symptoms, and when something is beyond the skills of a local healer. If we can do that, we can save lives. When it’s provider this is even more important- a mother or father, for example.
The health clinic in Esperanza Village today serves thirteen villages formally, and informally, at least four more. And that is without running water. With three trained nurses, and a manned lab able to provide swift lab results, it is now able to help birthing mothers and overnight patients as well as those in transit to city hospitals.
None of this was possible without the help of Angels of the Amazon, where Dolly is walking the delicate balance of cooperation and education to improve the lives of the villages and community people.
What Gets Measured Gets Done
Jackmer shyly reads from his book while Dolly leans closely to listen to his careful enunciation. His writing is tiny, but very neat, in his spiral notebook. The blue boxed paper is covered with Roman Numerals on one sheet, math equations on others. Jackmer smiles up at her for encouragement as he stumbles on a word here and there.
Jackmer’s mother has high hopes for high school. For the girls too? “Why not?” She says. Jackmer is one of many children being sponsored by Dolly Beaver’s Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit organization dedication to the economic, education, social and health concerns of the communities of the Tahuayo River. Dolly, who heads AofA, is also married to Dr. Paul Beaver, who created the Tahuayo Lodge, the area’s largest employer.
Dolly herself is barely larger than some of these kids. She translates my questions for the mother. Michele, the mother, says that she believes education could improve every family in El Chino, the town housing the new high school built with AofA support.
But not every family is behind the idea.
About thirty percent want the girls to aspire to something better; the rest want them to stay home. History has been littered with young boys who get caught up and trapped in the big city, and their education is lost. All too often young girls come home pregnant with an unwanted child. Parents want the “good old days,” but there were never any. Only poverty, illiteracy, abuse and near starvation. And no hope.
Unlike here, Dolly often finds the reluctant parents unwilling to discuss education. They’re afraid to know how their kids are doing, for the change that is being forced upon them. Part of this is that the parents are incapable of helping the kids with homework. For these sponsored kids, this is where Dolly comes in. She will sometimes show up at 6:30 am to ensure these children aren’t sleeping, and are getting to school. There the government provides a free breakfast, often their best meal of the day. IN addition, knowing that at any time Dolly might show up to push them out of bed or check on their homework is a motivator. They don’t want to disappoint Miss Dolly.
Here, the kids’ sweaty bodies press up against my hips hard in a happy hug in the moist afternoon air. They are delighted Dolly is here and eager to show off their progress. As we sit and listen to the kids read and talk about their work, small black flies bite our ankles and legs.
Next we visit the parents of Billy & Willy, sweet faced boys who crowd around Dolly and lay their books into her lap. Their young father, Guimo, stands against the wall of their house, comments that education is their inheritance. This is what he tells the other parents. I say to him that this is the smartest thing I’ve heard any parent say. The mother already has one success story- a son who is an accountant in Lima. That son was also sponsored by Angels of the Amazon.
As we approach each house, Dolly calls out “school police, school police!” The kids inside squeal with laughter and run to get their school books.
At each house, Dolly brings out photos, a letter and gift card, and a few dollars from their sponsor, and translates the English note for them. The kids invariably forget the dollars and are far more engaged with the sponsor’s photo- someone they know, like and want to see again.
Later we visit Llerme, Norma Torre’s sister, both daughters of Adolfo the shaman. Llerme has two lively girls who are eager to share their work with Dolly as the abuela walks around with another baby on her hip, this one being slowly weaned from the young mother who is inside the house. As the sun makes its way through the trees towards the horizon Dolly questions the girls and has them read.
Each reviews pictures they drew or colored, and like the boys, all pages are graded either with a number or letter system. These girls are no more interested in their brand new crisp American bills than the boys were, and are eager to see the photos and hear what the sponsor wrote to them. Dolly insists on querying them about their artwork to hear their creative thoughts and ideas.
When Dolly and I had visited the school previously we had heard a number of the kids claim they wanted to be doctors, nurses, pilots, police. The simple truth of this is that the kind of money it would take for them to complete that training is considerable. But that’s not the real initial hurdle. More so, what Dolly sees is their lack of discipline around homework. She cites the number of times she goes to family homes and sees the work not being done, either due to laziness or in worst cases, where recalcitrant parents are highly resistant.
Dolly’s direct personal involvement along with AofA’s scholarship (which provides books) and the Peruvian government’s provision of good teachers and a solid daily breakfast each school day all go a very long way towards breaking the inertia around education.
What really makes the difference, however, is that Dolly is engaged. Watching these kids leap to find their homework books- for each visit is a surprise- so that they can show her how they are doing and be told encouraging things about their work- is proof positive that what we measure will grow. With many parents desperate to give their kids a chance but too illiterate to help with homework, Dolly’s intervention and steady care provides the very flame under their bottoms to keep them focused, as if one were needed. In so many cases, these kids are already on the train that left the day they started school. They want more. It’s often the parents’ fear that holds kids back, not the kids themselves.
However, there are those few whose learning habits have to be built. Learning how to learn is just as essential as showing up for class each day and being attentive. Taking good notes, finishing assignments, and learning how to ask questions- good ones- and develop a healthy curiosity are all part of the learning process.
Changing the culture around illiteracy, which feeds poverty, abuse and despair, takes time. AofA began with the mothers, and continues working through them to educate, improve health and hygiene, create better diets, build the economy and uplift family life in the area.
One child at a time.
Faith vs. Facts
The family was desperate. Papa was dying they said. What had begun as a small cyst in in his left lower back had grown until it now affected his belly. It had been there for six months. Treatment after treatment from one shaman after another had not helped. He was in terrible pain. The infection had spread, and he was now unable to walk. His wife had opened the wound and a mass of pus had come out. One shaman had applied mud poultice, an old remedy that worked on superficial wounds, but not on a deep internal one.
The family was convinced Cesar was going to die, and now there was nothing to be done. They were preparing to accept the inevitable.
Dolly Beaver refused to accept this. Dolly, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit organization dedicated to the health, economic, social and educational welfare of the people of the Tahuayo River area, knew that other options were available. AofA had worked hard to provide a proper health clinic in Esperanza Village and she convinced the family to transport Cesar, up the river for more care and testing.
Jorge, the nurse in Esperanza, informed Dolly that Cesar was in worse shape than could be treated at his clinic. His condition had been allowed to fester for far too long. Locals’ belief in the power of their shamans all too often led to worsening of conditions that were beyond the ken of an herbalist or the incantations of a shaman. This was one of those times, and Cesar needed immediate transport to a hospital in Iquitos.
Over the objections of the family and with full funding through Angels of the Amazon, Cesar was immediately transferred to a hospital in Iquitos. The doctors opened and expanded the wound which by this time was very deep, indicating the seriousness of his condition. He was immediately placed on antibiotics to help him heal.
After a while his body began to swell, which startled and terrified the families who were staying, courtesy of AofA, in Iquitos to watch over their father. They demanded that they be allowed to take him home. Yet as the medicines had begun to work, Cesar, who had not been eating, was ravenous. He began eating again, which was an indication of his returning health despite the swelling.
The treating doctor fought back. When the family insisted, he said that that he washed his hands of the matter. He required them to sign a release that said they took responsibility if Cesar died as a result of taking him off the treatment.
Dolly also spoke at length with the family. Her arguments bought the ill man two more weeks of treatment. Ultimately the family prevailed.
Dolly remembers,”I made a deal with them. They agreed to keep him on the pills, although they were taking him back to the shaman. And they did- he stayed on the doctor’s pills while the shaman also treated him.
They will argue that the shaman healed him. I know it was the Iquitos doctor who saved his life. But let them think what they want.”
Last night as Dolly and I motored from El Chino to the Tahuayo Lodge, we passed an old man in his fishing boat. It was Cesar, who turned to greet us merrily. He was healthy and hearty. A few nights’ prior he had attended the opening ceremony for the brand new Artesan’s Center in town.
Herbalists and shaman hold a great deal of influence in the remote villages of the Amazon and their cures often work extremely well. However, when there are cases such as deep infections, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, snake bites, large machete cuts and other disorders, an herbalist can only do so much, and a shaman’s incantations and potions cannot stop a raging internal infection.
Dolly said that today, Cesar’s wife admits that health might be from the shaman, but it might also be from the care he got in Iquitos. She’s beginning to realize that no one treatment is the answer. And that’s what Dolly’s hoping to achieve.
Part of Dolly’s job is educating people to understand where the line with a life or death decision involving a beloved family member- when it’s time to bring in modern medicine or lose someone when relying solely on faith. She realizes it’s a mix of the two, and it’s going to take time, and a series of successes that the villages talk about to turn that tide. Mixing the old ways with the new is a delicate balance, and one that honors both practices. They have a place side by side in today’s Amazonian communities, but finding that delicate point where families are willing to entrust a doctor in a hospital is an ongoing challenge. She knows that arguing isn’t the answer. People with strong tribal beliefs need to come on their own time.
Dolly, and Angels of the Amazon, is up for it.
Romelia’s house sits on a corner of the large soccer field that makes up the center of El Chino, a small town on the Tahuayo River of the Peruvian Amazon, twelve hours out of Iquitos by river bus. There is a small , brightly colored flower bed in the front, protected from the chickens with mesh. From her gardens, Romelia harvests herbs for herself and her clients.
Inside her spotless large and airy home, a few of the neighbor’s kids wander in and sit next to me as Dolly Beaver and I sit to talk. Dolly is the head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit dedicated to the social, economic, and health of the river communities of the area.
Romelia’s pretty face, surrounded by lightly greying hair, glows with health. Unlike so many of the village women, she does not suffer from obesity or the large belly that exemplifies river women. In her late fifties, she looks much younger. Her neat, wide open home speaks to the care she takes of her surroundings. This is in stark contrast to the “war zones” that Dolly and I have visited, where alcoholism, illiteracy and deep poverty are rampant. There, trash, piles of dirty clothing and tumbles of dirty dishes are everywhere. This house even has a flush toilet, which is nearly unheard of in El Chino.
Part of her lifestyle and the nature of her family environment is driven by her husband, Jorge.
Jorge supports her strongly in everything she does, from her herbalist work to her artesan creations. Part of this is because of his family background. Romelia explains that Jorge’s father expected the young man to carry on as a forest farmer as he had, and expand their cattle and lands. Jorge wanted no part of being an illiterate farmer, and wanted to move to the village to make his own way. This caused no end of problems for him, but he was determined. As the only boy in the family, he took the brunt of his father’s anger and disappointment for not fulfilling his father’s wishes.
Jorge today is an enthusiastic supporter of education for his own kids, his wife’s work, and any project that moves El Chino forward. Any meeting he attends he makes sure that people understand that he represents both his wife and himself, and vice versa. This ensures that his wife has equal power in their marriage which is an anomaly in this macho culture. Other men would simply say “I don’t know what my wife would say.” Romelia laughs. “We speak for each other.”
Jorge, unlike so many village men, is a careful drinker, and when he does drink, it doesn’t lead to violence. This is just one of the many differences in this family that marks this clearly more prosperous household.
They have six girls and two boys, the oldest are professionals in university. One is learning to be an anthropologist, a daughter makes shoes, another is a seamstress.
Jorge’s sister, Pilar, is illiterate, like the parents. She now regrets not getting an education, and she blames her mother. She married a much younger, but also illiterate man. She still attacks her elderly mother today for not ensuring she learned to read.
Romelia agrees that this isn’t productive. Both Pilar and her husband could choose to hire a tutor to help them learn how to read, but they believe they’re too old and settled in their ways. Pilar is among the twelve artesans who create the weavings that are sold to the tourists.
In another example, Romelia’s sister sent her boy to school, but he was rebellious. Halfway there he would take a detour and never show up, spending his time at a friend’s house. He never studied. Now in his thirties and illiterate, he deeply regrets having not applied himself. He lives in Iquitos and struggles daily to find work in a place that punishes ignorance. He’s deeply sorry for not listening to his parents.
Romelia and Jorge’s family stand in stark contrast to some of the homes that speak to ignorance, poverty and despair. Romelia’s robust health late in life, the education level of her kids, their bright futures, the peace in her household and contributions they make to their community all provide strong threads in the “basket”that is El Chino. All 200 some residents are part of that weave, some strong, some weak. Dolly’s work is too make sure that all El Chino’s residents, young and old, eventually become powerful and vibrant threads in the community basket of this small river town, just like the gaily woven crafts she has helped teach them to sell at the brand new Artesan Center.
You Won’t Get Rich or Famous Here
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that in Third World countries, tourists all too often bring inappropriate gifts or hand out money and candy to children and adolescents. While at times this helps them get a great photo, it results in cruelty to the kids in the long run. The kids get cavities, they learn to expect things for free, and all too often turn into annoying beggars demanding handouts when they should be in school. Twenty years later they are adults, dogging the steps of tourists at bus depots and outside airports, doing what they learned as five-year-olds. They become bitter, illiterate adults, a danger to tourists and a burden on society.
This isn part because too many tourists treat children like cute zoo animals, without regard to the lessons they are teaching them.
Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit dedicated to the social, economic, health and educational development of the river communities of Amazon’s Tahuayo River in Peru, sees this all the time. In fact, she even had this problem with a visting anthropologist on her board.
“We were friends initially. Then she would bring gifts to the kids. For example, battery operated toys, which later needed more batteries that these children had no money to replace. These toxic batteries ended up in the ground under the house in the garbage. Then it became a quid pro quo, with the expectation that the kids had to give her something in return. She did it all the time and I asked her not to. She would do it behind my back, and argue that the kids loved her. Of course they did. But I am trying to teach them they have to work for something. You give them candy, in the other hand you give the toothbrush and toothpaste. She got very angry at me, “ Dolly remembers. “Part of this was because she saw me giving gifts to the kids.
“And I was- but each gift had a price and a history. High grades, or from a sponsor, based on improved school work, or a birthday gift. The anthropologist didn’t want to hear about this.”
The woman had become Dolly’s shadow in her movements around the area, and tried to lecture her about the culture. “I was born here,” said Dolly. “I know my culture, what works, what doesn’t. You don’t tell me about my culture. I live my culture.”
The woman was deeply insecure and narcissistic but at the same time, very ambitious, said Dolly. “I told her, you’re not gonna get rich or famous here. She wanted to be on the board of Angels and make a name for herself. I fought that. She was giving what I call ‘toxic gifts.’ They ruin a community and teach people the wrong things.
If you just give handouts people learn nothing. If I keep helping out a poor family with an alcoholic father, all they learn is to be dependent on me. He has to work. Same thing with the kids. You don’t get candy because you’re cute. This woman just didn’t understand you can’t buy love.”
Eventually the anthropologist moved on, and Dolly heaved a sigh of relief. El Chino-and any Third World village like it- is not a place for people like her with a personal agenda, where lives can be ruined by such self-aggrandizement.
Dolly is determined to teach self-determination and responsibility to these communities and not have them become dependent upon the largesse of NGOs or any other source. It’s the essence of the notion that you teach people to fish. In Dolly’s case, she has taught the women to weave, as fishing isn’t as sustainable as it used to be, and the crafts bring in money for the women and supports education for the kids as well as better nutrition for the whole family.
“They don’t need handouts. They need to learn to have pride in their work. To earn what they get,” says Dolly. “That’s what makes a strong community.”
The Cost of Illiteracy and Alcohol
A tiny enclosed home sits off the sidewalk that borders the large central soccer field that is the main feature of El Chino, one of a number of small river towns on the Tahuayo River, about twelve hours by river bus from Iquitos, Peru. Deep in the Amazon, these towns were once thriving centers, until over fishing and hunting, and more recently, climate caused damaging floods have caused economic challenges.
Villages like theses have long been populated by people with no access to education at best beyond kindergarten or a few years of elementary school, leaving most illiterate. Most farm and fish, and up until recently the women gave birth to between eight and twelve children. Those children went on to poverty guaranteed by illiteracy, also fueled by alcohol driven by cheap rum easily obtained locally.
Until very recently most of the river towns had no access to a high school education. That has changed. Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit dedicated to educational, social, economic and health issues of the river communities, has been working hard to change all that.
A brand new high school recently opened up in a clearing in the jungle just behind El Chino, but for some it was too late.
Dolly and I walk up a plank into the wide open home of Judith,, a thin, frail women of indeterminate age (she thinks 32 but isn’t sure) whose four children hide behind posts or wander around the yard. A smoking stove is in one corner. There are no walls, and biting flies attack us at will. The elements will pound into this house during rainy season. The roof leaks. Judith’s husband is rarely sober enough to repair it so the family is miserable during storms.
A seven month old baby rocks in a hammock with an net over it, the latest of her children.
Dolly explains to me that the husband is a problem. At times he beats his wife. When I reach out to greet her, rather than a hug around the neck and a kiss on the cheek typical of other wives, she avoids eye contact and barely touches my hand. She casts her eyes downward. Her voice, when she speaks at all, is a dry, hoarse whisper, sounding like an 80 year old woman. She sits curled into herself.
The house is a riot of trash and piles of clothing heaped onto clotheslines strung across the middle.
Judith’s husband has at times worked for Dolly, but she has offered to hold back his wages so that he doesn’t drink them all away. He’s at times agreed. That periodically means a meager income for this family of six.
The real “father”of this endangered family is the eight-year-old boy, who today is out on the Tahuayo River fishing to provide food, as the father is nowhere to be found. If not for this manchild, there would be nothing to eat.
Judith squats on the floor (there is no furniture but for a hammock and a worn bench) near her baby. She avoids eye contact and speaks with the numbness that addresses the extremity of her life.
Dolly explains Judith’s husband used to work for her, but he would drink away his wages and nothing would be left for the family who were often left hungry and to fend for themselves. At that point, Dolly stopped hiring him. She gave food baskets directly to the family to ensure they could eat, without providing funds to the husband to drink away.
In addition, she has been clear with all her male employees: you beat your wives, you can’t work for me. The wages offered by the Tahuayo Lodge are the best and most steady in the area. The work here is prized by most. To lose it in a fit of drunken rage could devastate a family, which is why she uses this as a social lever. It fits in with the notion of earning for pay.
It’s a battle of methods at times. One only needs to go to certain African countries to see where too much tourist and NGO charity and handouts have backfired to highly aggressive panhandling and “tourist taxes,” where a traveler in a safari car is charged an extra payment at a makeshift gate for “seeing our town.” The town might be a complete dump of cattle manure and foul smells, but this is the outgrowth of handouts and the flaunting of wealth. In other countries where it’s banned, people want to work for that same money, and would be embarrassed to beg.
This last is the value that Dolly hopes to instill. Even where desperation grinds out daily and women and kids suffer, and sometimes the women are part of the problem, she won’t give in to temptation. She demands change, creates work opportunities and works hard to establish the effort for wages or tips value system that can be passed along to children so that the poverty cycle can be broken. Otherwise women like Judith, imprisoned in an open shack, her children hunger-endangered and lost, would be the norm.
Somehow, whether by education for Judith’s eight year old son, or by sponsoring her other children, Dolly hopes to break the cycle of poverty that wracks this family. Until one or more of the children sees the possibility of another life, the cycle will only continue. Angels of the Amazon works hard to provide training for the women, providing education and work, and offering options. However, the women have to choose them in order for change to take hold.
Dolly always has hope.
Sunday is market day in El Chino, one of many small river towns along the Tahuayo River about twelve hours out of Iquitos, Peru by river bus. Market day is for the women who make up the Artesan Center families to lay out their baskets, crafts and jewelry for tourist groups to purchase.
Each woman has laid out her goods on a plastic sheet on the smooth concrete floor. The brand new building had just been celebrated in a dinner and dancing party two nights prior, the families drinking champagne and eating chicken and rice and salad to acknowledge the long, hard road the community had taken to come this far.
In a few moments, Claudio the guide is going to bring his group of four women in to review these crafts and see if they want to buy anything.
Spread out in front of each woman is a riot of color and creative invention. From animals made into tiny boxes of snails, frogs and manatees to tightly woven fruit baskets or wall hangings, the naturally died fiber goods sing of the women’s love of working with their hands- and of making something others value enough to buy.
I have just enough time to walk the floor and make last minute purchases of my own. Another spider ornament. A brilliant yellow and purple basket. A tightly woven open basket of riotous colors . A half gourd carved by a nail, showing a parrot and a toucan. So far I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars here, a fortune in local money. My Christmas presents are taken care of- especially the set of piranha teeth for my best friends’ grandkids, two boys who love sharp jawed and evil looking things out of the river. I’m going to be a hero.
Claudio walks in and the women immediately kneel and begin to inspect the bracelets, earrings and baskets that Pilar has made. Everyone, including the visiting women, speaks Spanish, so they discuss each. As they make their way around the large center. They begin to buy. The women beam, their kids are animated. I take photos of deals being made.
At the end, Dolly tells them about the Center they are standing in, and the story of the women artesans. The ladies listen respectfully, and then ask for a photo with all the artesans. The village women are only too happy to comply. Everyone has sold something today, and they are going to take the rest of the day off.
The money they made will go towards good food, more clothing, and in many cases, additional education for their children in the new high school that Angels of the Amazon has just helped build.
We gather in the middle, for today I leave for America, and I have spent a lot of time with these women. Heard their stories, talked to their husbands, their children, and know their struggles. By now, they are part of my family, too.
Romelia wants to know when I will be back.
“I haven’t even left yet!” We laugh. However, I know I will, for I want to know what comes next, for these extraordinary women. Not long ago, this building was only an idea. So was advanced education, and a viable healthcare center.
Through the work of Dolly Beaver, her Angels of the Amazon and the dedication of the women of El Chino, not only have all these wonders come to pass, but everyone standing with me in this circle today knows that much more is possible.