Perhaps it was near the end of the day as we were walking up the long wooden planks back to the Tahuayo Lodge, some twelve hours by river boat out of Iquitos, Peru. Perhaps it was when we were sitting with one of the many kids sponsored by the not for profit Angels of the Amazon, the brainchild of this tiny dynamo, Dolly Beaver, whom I’d been shadowing for several days. Dolly would be sitting head to head with a squirming boy and his brother, both eager for her attention, as they showed off their neat, organized handwriting. Their math scores. Their illiterate, but beaming mother looking on.
She might show up someday at 6:30 am, no warning, just to make sure they were up and awake and getting ready for the school, the brand new high school that her Angels of the Amazon helped build. “School police! School police!” She’d call out, sending the kids tumbling and giggling.
I’m not sure when I realized who the real “angel” was. Perhaps it was as we were walking by the ancient house of Manuel and Maria, an aging couple whose collapsing roof was replaced by a group of New York students organized by her charity.
Dolly is the wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, international expert on the Amazon and the founder of the Tahuayo Lodge, the largest employer in this area of tiny village communities.Back in 1995, Dolly began getting involved locally. Born in Iquitos herself, she saw the plight of the women and children from lack of education, the problems brought on by alcohol abuse, agrarian poverty and entrenched illiteracy.
From taking ill family members to Iquitos for care to helping girls further their limited elementary school education, she saw the scope and breadth of the problems first-hand. The only government- sponsored education that is available deep in the remote Amazonian forest has traditionally been elementary school.
Dolly saw all this, and knew something had to be done. These were her people. And she was the one to make a difference. The only problem was that she couldn’t do it all by herself.
As Dr. Beaver’s lodge drew tourists, the tourists themselves noticed and were deeply impressed by Dolly’s tireless work, and began to offer their assistance. They convinced her to start a non-profit in America in 2006 which would provide a platform to allow interested people to offer direct support for kids, projects, programs. This not-for-profit, with Dolly’s direction and guidance, might alleviate some of the challenges experienced by the river people. Angels of the Amazon was born.
The task is daunting, for there is so much history. The Latin macho culture, assisted by the influx of some religious belief systems such as evangelicals (which often do not support women’s economic independence or fewer children) engender alcoholism, abuse, sexism and illiteracy. Generations of it. Dolly, and AoA, was facing an enormous challenge.
Over the ensuring years, Dolly’s Angels of the Amazon, powered by her singular enthusiasm and supported by the many energetic and generous tourists who have given their time, money and personal support, has begun to transform this part of her world.
She has focused primarily on women and families. By encouraging women to learn the crafts of their elders, training them to weave sustainable crafts to sell to tourists, she began with the simple idea that women could learn a basic skill. Through her constant coaching and advising, women learned to trust themselves through sometimes difficult marital issues, often having to navigate alcohol and abuse. In this Dolly has been careful not to step over certain boundaries, and rather allow the women to find their own way. The women have come to her for advice and leadership.
It hasn’t always been successful. Peru’s laws are not on the womens’ side. But Angels exists to protect and support, and they have done just that. Dolly has taken a cautious advisory role, allowing time and a tip or two here and there to allow a wife to slowly but sure take better control of her life and the futures of their children from a controlling husband.
Dolly’s efforts are herculean to say the least. Her actual physical results stand in the jungle, near the river and in the middle of El Chino, a small village community some twelve hours by river boat up river from Iquitos. These are the testaments to her determination and that of the women and families who embraced her visions. These brave women and their families were willing to do the work alongside her to make them real. A new high school, built with the cooperation of the Peruvian government, was carved out of the jungle. A graceful, brand new Artesan Center, the building created by and with the blood, sweat and tears of twelve artesano families, just opened. A fully-staffed health clinic just upriver in Esperanza Village serving thirteen river communities, with a brand new microscope, birthing room, and facilities for overnight for up to six. Still no running water, but far better than the tiny two-room concrete shack before.
Even if Dolly is sitting with two young girls on the porch of one of the shaman’s daughter’s houses going over schoolwork, she is never really free. Someone is forever seeking her out. A young boy desperately searches for her, in need of a speedboat to take his ailing mother to Iquitos. No one will lend him their boat; he is too young. She has known him for six years. In moments he knows that the boat, and a note (good as money) for health care are his. Still scared but secure in the knowledge he is good hands, he runs towards the river to wait for us.
On another day we visit his mother, still ill, and hiding under the folds of mosquito netting. On another, we seek out the tiny, terrified wife of a drunk, burdened with four kids and the ache of poverty. All through the village Dolly is hugged, called on, pulled aside, asked for advice. I see her push back every so often, press these women to begin to choose for themselves, decide for themselves, lean on their own wisdom. Trust themselves.
The men respect her. In this culture this counts for a great deal. She walks a fine line between developing the skills and economic power of the women but without offending the men. This goes well beyond just being the wife of the big boss. Dolly has earned this by being respectful of their role in their marriages, but by also helping the women demonstrate their ability to bring economic value into their homes, increase the quality of their families lives, and do it without trauma in most cases. While sometimes the men didn’t always understand what was going as their women were learning skills and getting advice, ultimately, they benefitted. And as a result, most now fully support their wives by providing them either with direct effort in their craft work or at the least, private time to get their work done.
In a world where traditional shamanic beliefs, herbal medicines and Western treatments have at times clashed, Dolly has also proven to be able to find balance. On a number of occasions, she’s had to help families make decisions about care when a loved one has reached a point where a shaman can no longer provide treatment. It hasn’t always worked out. In other cases, it has. What has proven key, and it strikes this writer as essential in being able to allow a community make good decisions, is to provide options. Dolly doesn’t argue one way or the other, but asks a family for a deal. Take your loved one home to your shaman, but promise me you will continue the pills. She is wise enough to not need to be right about why the family member got well. The truth is that no one really knows. That allows the family to question as well- and potentially bring a sick one to a clinic sooner next time traditional treatments look like they may be failing.
It takes an extraordinary person to understand the complex shadings of culture, the importance of allowing time, not forcing issues, and sometimes allowing suffering to be a teacher. When one family succeeds and another next door does not, people can come to their own conclusions. When many families succeed and the reasons become similar, the community begins to take notice. Dolly and her Angels have been behind many of those successes, and they are almost always the women who have begun to work independently.
Dolly’s quiet hand is behind so many things. Revered and perhaps a little feared, depending on whom you speak with, she has tremendous influence. She is careful how she uses it. At 45 and having just lost her father, with a mother approaching 90, she is also mindful that the torch has to be passed to local leaders. That is why she insists on making more of the women take on leadership roles, think for themselves, solve their own problems and take on larger roles rather than run to her.
While Dolly is at the Lodge, it is nearly impossible for her to eat or get a nap. People are constantly calling on her. This person or that complains about not getting a flashlight. This small problem, that small problem. It is on one hand a statement of love, on the other, an annoyance, for she wants people to be more responsible. They treat her like a mother. Sometimes it can be a challenge for her to be in the Amazon and enjoy the place for itself, which we did for a few hours, just looking for birds.
As we explored the tributaries of the Tahuayo, we were passed by young families out to go fishing. There was Jetmer, whom Dolly and I had sat with the other morning, a child that Angels was sponsoring. Out to fish. On our left we were passed by Estelita and her husband, out to harvest fibers for her crafts, some of which I had already bought. Estelita is one of the women taking on a much greater leadership role. Each boat we passed held someone we had met, whose life was being touched by this tiny earth-angel in the boat next to me. Off to our right was Manuel, whose roof was replaced by the New York kids. Further down, Cesar, whose family had insisted that the shaman heal him, but agreed to have him continue the doctor’s pills. He waved merrily.
This tiny, sub-five foot woman touches the lives of every employee at the Lodge, every family in El Chino, vast numbers of families in the river communities of the Tahuayo and beyond. For the children of these families have kids that have graduated with her help and have gone on to jobs in Lima and Iquitos. More are coming, because of the new high school. That school spells hope. The clinic in Esperanza Village spells hope, hope for healthy babies and saved lives. The Artesan Center is a living, breathing example of an idea brought to life now providing income, income that improves lives and pays for education, changing the options for previously optionless women and their kids, as well as their husbands.
Dolly tends to toss it all off. She warns anyone who wants on her board that Angels is no place to get rich or famous. It’s about service. Her passion is deep and rich. However, while humble, it’s not a good idea to try to lecture her about her culture. She is highly protective of her people, and of ensuring that what they care about, their culture, their traditions and what defines them are not defiled or damaged by the outside world. Bringing in enough growth to ensure sustainability without ruining what makes the river communities what they are is anextraordinary task.
Dolly Beaver is getting it done. She is the real “Angel of the Amazon.” And she is working hard to make sure that there are many more just like her in her stead.