2. When Girls Lead...

I rock back and forth on the shaky unsteady stool waiting for a group of women to show up for a health workshop.  I have a heavy head, feeling demotivated and down, thinking how nothing is clear to me.  I don’t understand Spanish nor Kichwa to the level I would like, I am an outsider looking in, I will always be, will I ever fit i? I take a deep breath as I look around the community center or casa comunal; an adobe room, no electricity, corn husks piled up in the corner, empty broken liquor bottles and garbage from the weekend fiestas around the room.  I sit, I wait, I ponder, wait some more and then it comes to me WTF am I doing here? 

An older man in a dark wool poncho and long black braid comes into the casa communal, approaches me carrying a bottle of alcohol, shakes my hand, and speaks quickly in Kichwa.  I assume he is saying, “Welcome to our community.”  To this day I have no idea what he said, I had many moments like that where I had no idea what people were saying to me. I trusted with the language barrier, there was a universal understanding of good intentions and efforts even though we didn’t understand one another. I shake his hand, nod my head and repeat “Si” or “Yes” a few times and “Claro” meaning clearly. I find myself using the word “Claro” hundreds of times throughout the day as an instant response to anything I didn’t understand.  Ironically, I was never actually “clear” on anything, it is a normal reaction that comes out of my mouth, I have never been more lost and unclear as I try to navigate through this cross-cultural experience. I smile, be kind, be myself, hoping my good intentions will translate.

I glance at my watch and am now waiting almost 2 hours for the women to show for my workshop on women’s health; breast cancer awareness, cervical cancer prevention. I had worked on colorful, vibrant signs in Spanish that I put throughout the community to let the women know the time, date and place of the upcoming workshops.  One sneeze comes after the next as I wipe my watery eyes from the dusty conditions.  A guinea pig runs by me as well as a chicken, I zone out, I am doing absolutely nothing, waiting, waiting some more, ‘being’ and doing nada. I want an agenda, a schedule, I want to feel productive, I want purpose. That’s not happening, it was me the guinea pig and the chicken all ready to be cooked…

As another guinea pig scurries by, I look up to see one of the little girls from my school scoop up the guinea pig and plop right down next to me.  “Buenas tardes Dana.” I look behind her and see two girls from the school where I was teaching (the same girls from Remember Why You Started). I smile, I’m not alone anymore, thanks for showing up I have nothing to teach you.  These girls have been walking on my heels since day one; forming a barricade around me wherever we would walk, giggling, talking a mile a minute and usually pulling on my mountainsmith waist pack, arguing in Kichwa who gets to wear it around their waist as we walk the community. Anytime a male would approach me, their inner circle would get tighter and quite protective.  They would up the speed of their Kichwa and get a serious tone with these older men, I wouldn’t understand what was going on, bust out with one of my ‘Claro’ but knew the girls were protecting me and letting the men know, don’t ‘eff with our Dana. Remember these were 9-12 year old girls courageous and fierce, it always boggled me how shy and reserved they would be until someone pissed them off. 

Sneezing away, my head is heavier and their laughter is like an instant decongestant for me.  All lined up in front of me with their dusty old notebooks, broken pencils and their best attire ready willing and fired up to learn.

I smile, ‘Thank you girls for showing up but I am waiting for the women and adults to show, the information I have here isn't appropriate for your age group, you are too young.”   Here come those giggles, and more mumbling in Kichwa and they stay locked at the hips together like a little pack.  After many failed attempts, to get the women to show up, I surrender and ask the girls for advice.

Girls, why aren’t the women showing up for my workshops?

“Well Dana, they don’t understand Spanish.”

Oh, good point, I should redo these signs in their first language Kichwa!” “Great idea, thank you so much!”

The girls look at me enthusiastic, but didn’t provide more input if I didn’t ask them specific questions.

Enthusiastically, I double my inventory and make new beautiful signs detailed in Kichwa with the workshop description, date, place, time, and in florescent colors to post all over the community.

A week later, I wait patiently and my first participants arrive and they were all under the age of eleven; my same fabulous four. Sitting in the front row on a broken bench and the same dusty old notebooks and pencils ready to take notes; they were eager to learn about women’s health. Again, I greet the girls, “You are more than welcome to observe the session but the class was more geared at the older women and they are just about to arrive.” The girls smile, chuckle away and continue conversing in Kichwa, whispering, speaking fast, and sitting patiently.  About 45 minutes goes by and still no women show up. I am really confused, after all, my beautiful signs and all in Kichwa. What’s going on here? So, I went for it. I sat down at the other end of the bench and look at the girls.

“Why aren’t the women here?” 

“Well Dana, they didn’t know that you were teaching today”

”How did they not know? I made new signs in Kichwa because you told me they didn’t understand Spanish?” 

“Dana that is true, but they can’t read Spanish, they also can’t read Kichwa, they are illiterate, they can’t read at all.”

As a jolt of electricity ran through my core, there it was my “Ah-Ha” moment, the light bulbs finally going off.  All the “CLAROS” I had been using finally kicked in, I wasn't clear, I was in my own world, walking around assuming one thing and another happening. I loved this moment; this was that moment where after months of being in the dark the fog was lifting. I GET IT! So I stay patient and calm and kindly ask “Well why didn’t you tell me the women were illiterate?”

I will never forget the innocence of a child and purity as she just looked me straight in the yes and responded, “You never asked.

And that was that, she was right, I hadn’t asked. I asked why they didn’t show up, I asked if they understand Spanish and if they understand Kichwa.  But if you don’t ask specific question you won’t get specific answers. This was a big lesson for me right in that moment. I then moved off the bench and sat on the dusty, cold cement floor next to a few broken bottles and plastic bags in front of the girls on the bench and asked “What would you suggest I do to message to the women about the workshops I can provide?” The girls were gazing down at me and responded, “Oh that’s simple, just go to the community meetings on Friday nights and announce it and they will come.”

Go figure, when you listen wonderful things happen

It dawns on me that I had an audience right under my nose for the past several months that I was ignoring and not taking seriously. I always had this vision of my Peace Corps service working with the adults and helping them come together as a community to improve their quality of life and family health. I didn’t envision myself working with young girls, it just never came to me nor did Peace Corps request I do this, “yet” I had these four little girls following me around since day 1, by my side, “wanting” to work with me but never actually being direct and telling me. In the culture I grew up in, things are much more obvious; people will let you know, it’s “in your face” and here I was just oblivious to the obvious. So there it was my moment of clarity I had an audience, I had motivated people, I had those quiet, little Warmis, potential leaders. I had the future in front of me and I was negligent. I had ignored them; I didn’t take them seriously until now, until I let them lead me…

I sit there in my dust pile and thanked the girls for letting me know about the community meeting and that I would go to the next one and if one of the girls would be willing to accompany me and help with some Kichwa translation. Four little arms wave there hand immediately saying “me, me, please pick me.” I smile, “We’ll do this together.” I went on to explain, “I would continue to try to work with the women but had a new idea and wonder if the younger girls would like me to work with them?” Next thing I know, all formalities went down the drain as the four girls started jumping around and screaming in Kichwa so excited about the idea to have their own Peace Corps volunteer; one that would dedicate their time and energy to work with them for the next year and a half. I ask, “Is that a yes” in Kichwa and they screamed in unison “ARI” which is yes in their native Andean language of Kichwa. From my ignorance and not asking direct questions for so long I decide to put into practice my new skills and asked very specifically;

“What themes or topics would you like for me to work with you on?” Next thing I knew they pull out a menu of options that blow me away. “We would like to form a youth group and get some of the younger girls involved, because after school they either work in the fields or do nothing at home. They need help with their homework, they are struggling in classes. Some of the kids are also struggling at school because they don’t understand Spanish as they come from Kichwa homes and there is no bilingual (Kichwa-Spanish) education here so they don’t understand. We’d also like to clean up our community and form an ecological club and meet on a weekly basis to learn about the environment, we’d like to go hiking with you and learn about nature. We’d like to learn about art and beading as we always see you working with beadwork and we’d like to learn too. We’d like to learn about nutrition because we see that you are a vegetarian and do not spend a lot of money on meat and we want to know how we can eat healthy and save money for our families. We’d like to learn about leadership as you mentioned to the women that you could do workshops for them on leadership and we would also like to grow up to be strong women. Can we also learn some English in exchange for Kichwa classes? We promise to also teach you the bad words! Can we learn about pop culture in the United States? What music girls our age listen to? Who is the rapper Eminem and why is he so angry? Can we learn about how you get your hair so silky?” The list went on and on and I just sat there with my mouth hanging open in awe on the amount of work I had ahead of me and these motivated little “doers” and the excitement, enthusiasm and electricity I felt in the air. I was ready and was not going to be doing this alone anymore…

These little Warmis taught me about patience, downshifting my pace to the community’s rhythm and asking specific questions when wanting to do projects that impact others. 

Prior to this day, I didn’t believe or think children could lead adults.  I didn’t ‘get’ the importance of children’s participation in the development of strong communities and how essential they are in teaching the elders.  That day and onward I changed my preconceived notions and was proved wrong.

In my current job as Deputy Director of a USG organization, I go back to the lessons my fabulous four taught me of asking specific questions and not pushing my agenda on others and where I think it should go.  I have been able to do some successful things over my career by listening, asking specific questions, being present and speaking less to say more. In essence letting others lead me.  I attribute these powerful teachings to the little Warmis and the feedback they gave me that one afternoon sitting in dusty Andean casa comunal.