Building strong women: A unique Cuenca expat program empowers rural communities

Oct 6, 2018

By Jeremiah Reardon

A young indigenous woman with long black hair shaded her infant from the sun in a blanket. In her other hand, she offered packages of plastic bags for sale to traffic stopped alongside a two meter wide median dotted with stunted trees near Cuenca’s football stadium.

Her four-year-old daughter watched me approach. I acknowledged the little family with a greeting as I crossed to enter Supermado Patricia in my quest for size “D” batteries for our water heater. I carried two Coke bottles in my day pack.

“If I get lucky and find cheap ones at the store, I’ll give ’em one of the bottles,” I thought in sympathy. I had only a couple of dollars to make the purchase.

In a few minutes, I stood across from the cashier with two Eveready batteries, passed her my change and glanced back to see the little girl alone in line. She held a small bottle of Coke. Behind her a woman engaged me with a smile in admiration of the tyke’s spunk.

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Outside I waited till she caught up and handed over one of my big Cokes. Her face broke into a beaming smile under her beige canvas sunhat. “Gracias!” she said.

“De nada,” I replied.

As I walked away I watched her run to where her mother stood nursing her baby. I sensed the unity and quiet desperation they endured on the exposed median for God knows how long with little shade.

A few months back I met several indigenous women taking steps to improve their lives. I had learned of their cooperative Kallpa Warmi a couple of years ago. I lingered over a cup of coffee at my friend Rumi’s Cafe Nucallacta, “Our Land” in Quechua, the language of these guardians of the Andes.

Located in Cuenca’s historic district, the narrow cafe with three rooms sells the women’s crafts. On this occasion, I looked up to see a young North American woman arranging wood and textile craft pieces on wall shelves. Rumi introduced me to Alli, a U. S. Peace Corps volunteer. She handed me a brochure and told me how she helped to organize Kallpa Warmi, Quechua for “Strong Woman,” in neighboring Sayausi on the highway to the Andes.

Occasionally, I hike in the 14.000-foot altitude region of Parque Nacional Cajas, the source of Cuenca’s drinking water. From my Transportes Occidental bus window I watch farm women carry bundles along the road secured by shawls or straps to their bent backs, sometimes in the company of a child or a dog.

Familiarized with Kallpa Warmi, I accepted an invitation from Hearts of Gold Development Director Colleen Eschenburg to visit Sayausi and meet with the women. She greeted me on a warm Wednesday morning at her second floor office. Several other community activists sat at a table, sharing coffee and cake. We had been selected by Hearts of Gold as representatives of expats interested in bettering the rural lives of our hardworking craft makers, food suppliers and laborers.

Hearts of Gold works as an umbrella organization to provide legal and financial support to Cuenca area charities and non-profit groups. On several occasions, I’ve contributed carpentry projects for its Christmas galas and 4th of July barbecue fundraisers attended by expats and locals who want to improve the lives of the poor. Its the only organization in Ecuador that advocates for non-profit leaders and supports the women and children who rely upon them.

Once the dozen invited guests had gathered, three cars formed a convoy from the office’s Puertas del Sol neighborhood to Sayausi along the route to Guayaquil. We gathered at the town’s municipal office, InfoCentro, a block downhill from the main street. Evelin, who had replaced Alli, greeted us as sunlight filtered into the high ceilinged space. The Peace Corps volunteer introduced us to her indigenous colleagues, smiling with pleasure in her role as intermediary.

InfoCentro is dominated by computer stations. Several residents sat at the internet screens. Gorgeous color posters decorate walls and promote local guides whose services are available to lead visitors into the mountains and to help tourists fish in lakes and streams abundant with rainbow trout.

Evelin explained, “Ninety women make up Kallpa Warmi. Families and neighbors come together to improve their lives and the lives of their children.” Wool fabric featuring Andean designs, straw baskets with colorful patterns, paintings on canvas, carved wood and glazed clay mini-pots are displayed upon tables which lined the walls, much like I had seen at Nucallacta. Evelin introduced us to Marisol who detailed the different projects featured at InfoCentro. She had pretty Andean features and exhibited youthful energy.

With Marisol leading the way, we trooped uphill on the rutted dirt road to the next stop. On the main street, we entered Kallpa Warmi’s combination gallery and hair salon hidden among competing storefronts. The hair styling station was centered along one wall in the 200 square foot space. Artisan products dominated shelves and counter tops.

We met a few more members, including the shop manager, Miriam, who distributed menus featuring Kallpa Warmi’s food preparation and catering service. “Twenty of us help to prepare and serve hot meals, with the food grown and raised at our member’s farms,” Miriam told us. A meal of cuy (roasted guinea pig), corn and rice is $7. Other restaurants offering this national delicacy charge $20.

Stretched out a block long, we bypassed InfoCentro and headed for an organic farm. The walk along a dirt road in sight of tree-covered hills and the Rio Tomebamba gave us time to share impressions from the day’s events.

The farm’s owner, Maria, disengaged from her conversation with occupants of a truck in the road to greet us. She wore work clothes and had weathered brown skin. We followed her and her dog on the narrow path between her newly-built home and a quarter-acre sized vegetable garden. A son working in the United States had sent money home to build the masonry structure.

Vegetable and herbs, watered by black plastic hoses, partially covered by soil, grew in rows. She answered questions about raising crops and running her farm. “I provide the fruit and vegetables for dinners catered by Kallpa Warmi,” Maria said.

I had met Paola at Kallpa Warmi’s storefront. At Maria’s invitation, we walked together back to the house for refreshments. Paolo shared a video of her farm on her iPhone’s cracked screen. I remarked on a trio of trout ponds dug into land below the farmhouse.

“I usually stop to buy a trout when I return from the Cajas. The water in your ponds look very clean,” I complimented my new friend.

“Gracias, Jeremias.” We supply the trout for meals catered by Kallpa Warmi,” noted Paola.

Catching up with the group, we crowded into Maria’s two-story home and met women and children working in the kitchen. They served hearty bowls of chicken and potato soup along with steaming bowls of potatoes and boiled white corn kernels. I gratefully sat at the dining table and marveled at my good fortune to have been invited by Colleen.

With the support of a group like Kallpa Warmi, the slender young mother I saw on Sunday would not have to stand with her two little ones at the intersection hawking her wares, accepting coins from people in their cars. And the cute little daughter would have children to play with, away from the traffic and pollution.

Kallpa Warmi is a founding member of the women’s empowerment program Mirame (Watch Me) where Hearts of Gold empowers the next wave of community leaders. Among several other groups, it is a sponsored member of Hearts of Gold’s Community Assistance Program.

Join Hearts of Gold mailing list to learn about its partnership with Kallpa Warmi. To follow on Facebook go to: www.facebook.com/heartsofgoldec
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Jeremiah Reardon lives in Cuenca. See his blog at https://jerebelreadoninecuador.wordpress.com.

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