4. Art in the Time of Cholera

It's raining hard outside the window of the casa communal. I look through the clouded, gritty window, waiting, and waiting some more.  People slowly making there way for today's workshop on boiling water, hand washing, food preparation and the importance of latrine use.  A small group of women enter the dim, dank, cold adobe room and I see sad faces.  “What’s going on?”  They explain that there is some type of virus making its way through the community and  some of the little girls and others are sick with symptoms of fever, diarrhea and vomiting.  

A few weeks earlier the Municipality gave the community materials to build latrines since the forest has been the community's 'go to,' hence increasing the risk of environmental health problems.  After days of work building 30 latrines, the job was done and it was time to adapt, adjust and use.  All 30 latrines sit in the community immaculate, clean, and not being used. 

“The latrines are too clean and nice to go to the bathroom in, I want to keep it clean and use the forest to do my business,” one man shares with me. "Why did you want the latrines in the first place?" I ask.  “Well the community across the way has the latrines so we want them, too.  But, we don't want to dirty ‘em, so we’ll just continue to go to the bathroom in the woods and by the river.”  

As the day goes on, I too, start to feel weak, feverish, my legs are wobbly, I am about to collapse.  G.I. funk comes on like a freight train, I am sicker than I have ever been.  There’s a knock at my door. It’s some of the women and girls coming over to check on me.  I hear fast Kichwa and yelling and just feel limp. I am hunched over on the ground.  “La colera,” someone says.  “What? I didn't hear you, what did you just say to me?” I ask. “You have cholera, there has been an outbreak in our village.”    

Cholera gets transported from fecal matter to the mouth via flies. The lovely flies that land on my rice or bread were probably hanging in the same woods where my community was literally pooping.  And the poop makes it into the river and the river water into my cup when I am offered a glass of cold water.  We get news that two little girls have died in our village from la colera.  I imagine it’s from the dehydration that comes with violent diarrhea and vomiting.  I am now the third case and I ask one of the women to call the Peace Corps medical officer to let them know how sick I am, what my symptoms are and about the outbreak in the community. 

Peace Corps tells the women to go to the pharmacy and get me tetracycline, which is used to treat and cure cholera.  You don’t need a prescription to get antibiotics in Ecuador so they are able to access it for me instantly but unfortunately it was too late to save the little girls. The women get me my dose of tetracycline and I down it with water and try to hydrate.  When I wake up the next morning I am woozy, weak and dizzy.  But, I am alive.  

I am in shock that the two little girls died.  I didn’t know them directly, I am heartbroken and destroyed that they died from something that could have been prevented and even treated.  This experience catapults my interest in pursuing a Masters in Public Health since diseases such as cholera are preventable and treatable with education.  

It was a dark week after the cholera outbreak and the heavy rains. My girls are down and not motivated to do community action work.  They are upset about the latrines not being used, the lack of interest on the community’s behalf and the constant push to get people involved with their own projects.  I ask the girls if they want to go for a hike down to the river for a change of environment and to clear their heads.  Puna, Pauli, Anita, Gladis, Miriam, Tere, Rebecca, Marlene, Laura and Elsa and I go for a walk down at the river.  We sit quietly for a bit trying to figure out what to do in the afternoon.  We notice tons of garbage along the river and in the forest around us.  It’s sad that the forest and river are used like a landfill. 

Garbage and plastics are burned regularly, or dumped near or in the river.  This, along with pooping in the woods, is deeply affecting people’s health and the environment.  Unfortunately, even though folks know this is bad for their health and the environment, their attitudes, behaviors and actions aren’t changing.  It’s easy to accuse them of being ignorant, uncaring or lazy but the Municipality doesn’t have a solid waste management program in place.  This community truly has no idea what to do with their garbage and they also have no guidance, assistance nor help from the local authorities. They do what they have done for generations.  

We find ourselves in a eucalyptus forest with the beautiful Andes Mountains surrounding us, hiking through garbage.  One of the girls says, “Why don’t we pick up all the litter and trash along the river as we hike?”  I love her idea.  The other girls hesitate as it is dirty and they are in their clean, traditional, and colorful clothing and don’t want to get dust, grass, river water, and garbage all over themselves.  I always have a few plastic bags rolled up in my backpack, I pull out the extras and we start to pick up the trash and we fill up the two plastic bags immediately.  

The next day we return and make an afternoon out of it. We invite other people to bring big black garbage bags and then take the bus to the big city with the garbage bags to bring them to the Municipality and dump where they dump.  The city has a waste management and garbage program but the rural communities do not.  The next day we spend hours picking up litter and trash and still have more to do.  Puna looks at me and says “ Look at my community now, it’s glowing, clean and beautiful.”  She's beaming with pride, spinning around and seeing instant results from her efforts.  She says she wants to do the same at her house and will teach her little brothers and sisters to do the same. 

Paulina has always worried about the planet and her community and the animals and plants and I have a feeling she will grow up doing to do something related to the environment or community action based. She is a natural when it comes to 'doing' for the environment and for others.  

I share with the girls that a friend has taught me the basics of how to make recycled paper. I ask if they would like to learn how to recycle garbage into art.  The girls jump, eager to learn. They run with the idea and share that they want to make this an environmental project.  The first step for raising awareness in the community is to have a brighter and better environment to live in.  

The next day we get ahold of the basics; a blender, paper, mesh screening material, and wood.  We also find paper that was dumped around the community. We begin the step by step process to make recycled paper art. 

With time we get better and better at it. We hike by the now cleaned up river and collect flower petals and plants. Our paper dries with petals, plants and flowers sprinkled throughout it.  

The girls start to cut the flowers and eucalyptus leaves into shapes that create stories about living in the “campo” and of their community, their lives and of the lives of others.  They make cards of women around a fire, women working in the fields, families, the mountains, the sun, stars, and the moon.  Each card is one-of-a-kind.  The more time they put into it, the better the quality gets. 

We use the paper for the girls group and make notebooks they can use at school and at home.  They each make their own design and are so proud of the paper and designs they are creating.  We develop an art club and community members begin to ask why we are doing this. The girls proudly share the importance of cleaning up the community and spread the word about stopping littering and encourage their neighbors to reduce, reuse and recycle.

As time goes by the girls are getting better and better and one of the girls has designed a way for us to cut the paper into envelopes.  Next thing I know, the group is producing stationary.  We discuss the idea of selling at the artisan market on Saturdays, which is one of the major Artisan Markets in South America.  We speak with the parents who love the idea.  These are the same parents who earlier on in my service didn’t want their kids working with me (read: FOMO vs YOLO)  because they didn't think I would be teaching them how to be responsible. With the club we are able to see the benefits of kids just being kids and now that their girls can learn to generate an income from this as well, the parents are now supportive. We get the girls’ mothers involved so with the business side of things we have adults from the community leading.

We go to local market make arrangements with several cafés to sell the cards on consignment and we also get a booth where we can sell directly.  One of the women already has a booth where she sells her woven goods and agrees to place the cards out at her booth.  Tourists and locals are buying the cards and the girls are generating an income.  

Scarce resources; no art supplies, no colorful crayons, no magic markers, no glitter glue.  The girls were able to take a dirty river and a community filled with garbage, and recycle to create art while generating some income and learning basic business skills along the way.  These are some serious girl bosses; they didn't let the  cholera outbreak set them back, they converted their fears into action and brought change to their community.