This past week we arrived in the communities that we’ve been anticipating meeting for eight months. We barely made it on the rocky dirt roads. Women walked from their communities to attend one of eight meetings held at the centers they created to care for the orphaned and vulnerable children in the neighborhoods. Each two to three hour meeting involved between 6 and 25 local, respected, community-minded Pedi women. They each greeted us individually with strong hugs, prayer and song. We heard voices that could win Idol, and saw strength and beauty in faces like we often attribute to Amazonian women. We said hello, “thobela,” and sit in a circle. Our translator had us each introduce ourselves. Many of these women choose to give their English name because they consider it more professional and easy for us to remember. We then took a walk around the grounds to see what is or is not happening on the property: how the garden is or is not growing, and how the water system works and how rarely it has a supply.
When we sat back down, Krysti lead the first half of the meeting asking their thoughts on the health of the community, what they have learned and want to learn, and about the food/water situation. Then Jazzy led the self defense section. Each community has its own personality with their special focus, yet overall there are similar sentiments we will be working with: Water systems that they can put together themselves, simple rain water catchment systems, nutrition science classes and certifications to add knowledge to the communities, ongoing specialized self defense classes for women and girls, and possibly a few men after the first few months. We are being careful to not give handouts but instead offer our expertise so they can grow their communities in the direction of their choice. Here is how they responded to some of our questions, with our comments in parentheses:
What is your biggest concern about food and nutrition in your community?
There isn’t enough government funding to feed the orphaned and vulnerable children who visit the drop-in centers every day. When we don’t have food, they often don’t show up even for homework help and play time. Also, many adults have diabetes and high blood pressure in the community. Alcohol is a problem with adults and teenagers, men and women.
Who do you go to now to learn about health?
We have a dietitian at the weekly clinic, but they offer idealistic solutions and don’t take into account our lack of funds. They recommend a diet low in salt and sugar and high in vitamins and minerals, but we don’t know how to implement this in our daily diet.
How would a certification from a nutrition science course benefit you and the community?
As caregivers, we can show our nutrition science certificates to the Department of Social Development (who provide funding for food at the drop-in centers). They will be more likely to approve our application for funds every quarter.
What would you like to improve in drop-in center’s food garden?
We need a consistent water supply for the garden. Sometimes it only flows at low pressure for half a day per week. Without a dependable municipal supply or affordable truck delivery of water, we wait for the rains to come in order to plant a small plot of maize (corn). If we had dependable water, we could plant other (more nutritious) vegetables.
What has changed about your health, food, and gardens since you were young and since your parents were young?
There is less water from the ground, but now we have municipal taps (which usually only flow about 2 days per week). Many boreholes (deep wells) have dried up and all of the shallow wells are gone. We used to mill our own corn meal by hand but now we buy the very fine, processed corn meal (devoid of nutrition, similar to our own American transition from whole grain brown bread to Wonder Bread). We used to plant more vegetables like beetroot, spinach, and beans. We also used to keep chickens, but now we buy them from the store.
Why are you interested in learning to defend yourselves?
Every generation of women gets raped, from the kids to the older women. This can leave feelings of stress in a woman. There is a lot of stealing and house break ins where if they see you in the home they will also hurt or rape you. There is sometimes trafficking where men in a van try to steel children. (Many personal examples of rape were spoken of here, in a straight forward manor, unlike I’ve ever seen in The United States).
Is there also domestic abuse?
Definitely, but our culture respects our male partners and mostly we will not choose to fight back.
Has anyone fought back? Why or why not?
Very rarely in a domestic situation, because women are violent if we need to be. But the answer is really no. There is too much fear. The man could pull out a knife or hurt us for trying. (This is where a lot of Krav Maga principles will come in, such as early recognition, and effective responses and response time. Also there will be set guidelines written at the front of the class, including knowing it is a choice to fight back and to understand when it is worth it to do so according to each person).
Does the community talk about these situations when they happen?
Sometimes. For example, if the female is embarrassed that she got raped, she will not talk. If she does does talk, then we as men and women get together, to beat up and sometimes even kill the perpetrator. Very rarely will police or social workers prosecute.
Should the men train?
(This brought on eruptions of discussion and there were opinions on both sides. We came to the conclusion that there are some men in their communities that would not lay a hand on another, so one day if it’s agreed upon, I can train a few good men).
Would your partner support you training or be unhappy about it or even test you?
They would support us keeping ourselves safe from other men. (Discussions will be had regularly to speak about any backlash that may be occurring).
The women agreed that committing to a regular training schedule will cement their new skills.
As they’ve done before, these women will invite other community members to show up at the class times we agreed upon. The ones that still have food for the kids will train with us in the morning so they have time to cook. We will be taken around by a kind young English-speaking man, Papikie, to find young women to hire as translators for classes. Thanks to our funds that we raised, we are able to hire around six community members who are otherwise unemployed. The first six to eight weeks of classes begin on October 9th. Six days per week we will be driving from center to center holding morning and lunchtime classes for both nutrition and self defense, with room in the evenings for engineering projects and more private lessons. Monday through Friday will be for the women, and Saturday will be for the teens and young adults.
We are in good communication with the organization that works with these centers. They educate us on what has been tried in the areas and how they succeeded or failed. We know that there is deep corruption surrounding money and politics throughout the country as well as in the communities we’re working in. Knowing this actually drives us to absolutely act as direct and sustainably as possible, creating permanent change from the bottom up.
We’ve had a variety of in-depth conversations about how these people ended up in the situation they are in. Similar to small towns in America, many of the young, employable people have moved away to larger cities. For those who choose to stay in the limited rural economies, they must be self-reliant and subsist on little income.
Being well aware we are from the outside, as kids call out “magkoa,” a non derogative word for “white person” which literally means “English Speaker,” we are welcomed with bright faces and open arms. They are ready.