Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reflection from a Volunteer


By Madeleine Spencer

 After four months of volunteering with Fundación En Via I´m still not sure how to adequately express my feelings towards this growing organization and the women who are a part of it. In fact it wasn't until I left Oaxaca for a two-week trip to Guatemala that I even realized how much my experience had changed the way I see things.

Sitting at a juice stand in San Pedro la Laguna, it wasn't the beautiful lake or the delicious juice I was thinking about, but how much Angelica, the owner of the stand, had paid for her two juicers, and if she had to take out a loan or if she had saved up for them. I looked at the fridge she had running with the help of extension cords and wondered how much the electricity was costing her, and if she thought to include it in her business costs as is taught in the En Vía business classes.


Juice stand, Guatamala

I asked where she bought her fruit and if she had to go to the market everyday. I listened to her and her sister speaking to one another in Tz'utujil and looked around at the messages written on her stand in languages ranging from English to Japanese. I couldn't help but to marvel at her success, and even more when my friend leaned over and told me that when he visited last summer all she had was a table with a small hand juicer on the side of the road.

This reflective experience continued as I walked down the street and encountered multiple women selling banana bread. I thought about the competition they must experience and if they were able to sell all that they made every day. When I found a women also selling cinnamon rolls, I couldn't help but wonder it if was to set her apart from the other bread makers and reflected yet again on the strength and ingenuity of the people who I have been lucky enough to meet in my time with En Via.

Each day working with this incredible organization presented something new to learn and experience. The first week I was here I went to meet the women of Teotitlán at the weekly town meeting. And after a few minutes of panicking that my Spanish had deteriorated even further than I thought it had in the seven months since I’d last been in Oaxaca, I realized I was hearing Zapoteco, a language that I would come to greatly enjoy the soft sounds of over the next few months. 


Maddy with Juana and Enedina in their weaving workshop, Teotitlán.


I was lucky enough to witness a major achievement in the En Via community later that week when Teresa opened her café. And after going on my first tour and seeing first hand what I was going to be a part of, I was completely in love.

As an intern I got to experience many different aspects of En Via. I did everything from leading tour groups, to teaching English classes in Tlacochahuaya, to getting to know the amazing volunteers and visitors that make all the work possible, to the daily tasks of just keeping things organized.  Each week on tour I got to meet new women and learn more of their stories. Every month we had new volunteers join us from the world-over who each brought their own ideas and enthusiasm for the project. And each day I was able to come to work feeling that what I was doing was something worthwhile.


Maddy with a group of visitors outside the church in Teotitlán.

 Needless to say, it will be a hard adjustment returning home and leaving such a wonderful community. I am going to miss En Via; both the people involved and what the foundation is achieving. This experience will be one that I remember and appreciate for the rest of my life. If there is anyone out there who has thought about volunteering, or coming to visit, I’d say “go for it – you won’t regret it.” These wonderful women and the city of Oaxaca have a way of getting under your skin, and I believe, the experience will leave you a better person for it. 



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Daughters of Empowered Women.


The impact that microfinance can have on a woman’s family is significant. We regularly see women borrowers investing profits from their businesses in things that directly benefit their families and insure the well-being of their children. Financial growth is just one important aspect in development. We also recognise the importance of encouraging and creating positive social role models for youth, and especially for young girls.


When I talk to the women in our program, you can be sure that one of the first topics that will come up is their children. I have had the privilege of meeting many of the borrower’s kids, and of having a good run around the patio whilst hearing about their plans. I especially love it when the daughters come to the weekly meetings and business classes. I always wonder about their perspectives on this program that their mothers are involved in. How do they see and relate to their mothers? And what hopes do the mothers have for the futures of their daughters?

Alicia is a new member to the program in Teotitlán who is using her loans to invest in the materials she needs to weave rugs and make bags. When I first met Alicia’s daughters, they were coming home with her after buying a piñata for their cousin’s birthday, and during our conversations I was handed a series of sweets that were meant for its filling. I was very impressed when Margarita, 10, told me that her favourite subject in school is math. Her little sister, Veronica, 7, is of my own heart. “I love stories”, she says, and her mother confirms that she is always reading. Her best subject is Spanish. 


Alicia and her daughters Margarita and Veronica.

Alicia’s dearest wish is for them both to have the opportunity to continue to study. Significantly, just 9% of the 270 women that we currently work with have a high school or higher-level of education and we have noticed that it is a wish among many of them to provide their daughters with the educational possibilities that they themselves did not have. “I want them to be able to move forward in their lives, study, and have work”, Alicia said. “They seem to like the work we do in the family (weaving), but if they want to do something else, then I will support them in whatever that may be”, she says.

Veronica was especially proud to show me one of her first weavings that she had started. It was actually woven onto the base of the kitchen chair that I had been sitting on! This was something she learnt from her mother she said, and was considered as natural as learning how to wash clothes or clean plates.

Veronica and her first weaving.

Just around the corner from Alicia, in Teotitlán, you will find Teresa, who uses her loans to invest into her own little business of sewing and selling curtains to shops in the town. On a recent visit I was introduced to her daughter Adriana, who is 7 years old. I could tell of course that Teresa loved her three sons, who circled me excitedly as we talked, but from the way she spoke of her “only daughter”, I could see that little Adriana was especially adored.

She really gave us a scare a few years back”, said Teresa, as she pulled the little girl close. “When she was just 5 years old, she was so sick that the doctors had given up on her. It was a blood virus. I didn’t know what to do”. At this point I almost dropped my camera as I put my hand to my heart and sat down. “But she had so much faith,” she continued. She prayed to God, and she told us, ‘I am going to get better.’ And she did.”


Teresa and Adriana

Now that you have moved through such a difficult time, what is it that you want for your daughter’s future,” I asked her. “What she decides,” she answered without hesitation, “I will support her in anything”.

Adriana told me in a whisper, as her mother smiled on encouragingly, that what she would really like to be is a nun. Just as I was about to leave, very quietly, almost from underneath the arm of her mother, Adriana told me that the thing she liked most about her mother was that she is always there for her, ready to give her the things that she needs.

Perla, from Tacochahuaya, has opened a hairdressing salon with her loans. One thing you will notice about Perla is her wonderful laugh.  The first time I heard it she was laughing with her little daughter Fernanda Estefania who is 14 months old. “She is a happy girl,” she told me, “and naughty. She is always moving about, and likes to dance”.  At this moment in the conversation, little Fernanda proved the point beautifully by making a dash toward the front gate and the street beyond. “She is my first child. I’m doing it all for her,” said Perla, as she scooped up the little one. “I have a lot of hope for her”.

Perla and Fernanda Estefania

In the town of Díaz Ordaz, Annabel invests her En Via loans into her baking and pastry business. Her daughter, Gabreila, 10, can frequently be found leaning on her mother’s side at the weekly meetings. When I asked her about the most important things her mother has taught her, she rattled off familiar motherly advice: always share your things, play nice with your brothers and sisters, and keep your room tidy. And then, without prompting her, she shared that what liked best about her mother is that she is caring and affectionate.

Annabel and Gabriela

After I learnt that English was her favourite subject, I stopped using Spanish. She said she also likes numbers, and that she would like to be an accountant or a secretary when she grows up. Though she does wants to learn how to bake cakes like her mother, I believe that aside from baking, Gabriela might soon be helping her mother to keep her accounts in order!

I do not know these girls well, but I do know that the example being shown by their mothers is very important for their futures. En Via aims to provide the women borrowers with the tools they need to create their own success stories. We are excited to learn and share in these stories, and to know that the positive effects of the program reach even further than financial development in the form of encouraging positive and inspiring female role models within families and whole communities.

This blog is especially dedicated to my own mother, Kerry, and to all the mothers and daughters in our network of friends who have supported the work En Vía does to empower women.  

Louise and Osmara with thier mothers on an En Via tour in April this year. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

New Loans in Santo Domingo Tamaltepec.

Last week, 9 women in the town of Santo Domingo Tamaltepec graduated from the business classes and received their first loans with En Via. We are delighted to welcome these women into the program and are looking forward to getting to know them and their community in the coming months.


The word Tomaltepec means “On the hill of tomatoes” in Náhuatl, and apart from tomatoes, this town of a population of 2,061 also enjoys the production of corn and beans. And while half of this population dedicates itself to agriculture, we learnt the other 50% are dedicated to making bread or working leather. In fact, in April the town enjoys a festival, la Feria del Pan y Talabarteria, to honour these two industries and to give the producers a chance to showcase their talents. “Oh, so the bread and tamales are like the ones from Tule?” Carlos asked, casually referring to a neighbouring town. “They are much better than those!” Said one woman, Florina, with a smile and obvious pride.


When they came to receive their loans, Carlos spoke to the group. All eyes were on him, and apart from his voice it was so quiet that I could hear the crickets in the patio. I felt immediately that this group was entering the program with all seriousness as well as enthusiasm. Carlos spoke about the importance of collective solidarity and efforts, as they move through this new process and experience together, and I saw a few warmly encouraging looks exchanged amongst the group members.


After saying our goodbyes, it took us a half hour to walk back to the car because everyone we met on the corners wanted a chat. My first impressions of the town were of these kind women. I noted the narrow unpaved streets, swept clean, with rusty old bicycles, crossing at every angle. Fertile fields were in the foreground and the city lights of Oaxaca in the valley beyond.

We were invited to a town party that was held last week to honour their patron Saint. At this event the women of Santo Domingo shared a unique tradition with us. Imagine 40 honoured women waltzing through town holding small structures called castillos (castles) above their heads from which large amounts of fireworks shoot off in all directions. Quite a dangerous, but I image, exhilarating responsibility. En Via’s very own Armando attended the festivities, and will forever be marked by Santo Domingo, after a large firework ember fell on his shoulder!

We look forward to learning more about the town's traditions and the community as we begin this relationship with its businesswomen. I have no doubt that their participation will bring about unique developments and new potential for everyone involved. I will keep you updated, friends and supporters, as we break bread with the women of Santo Domingo Tamaltapec.