The Women's Self-Reliance Program
purpose of this program is to bring to women in economically depressed
areas information and courses of action which, when used in conjunction
with their own skills and knowledge, will help them to provide a
healthier and more comfortable life for themselves and their families.
Information in the areas of nutrition, intensive vegetable
gardening and micro-enterprise are offered.
nutrition segment provides a basic knowledge of our nutritional
needs and how to meet those needs with the foods that are available to
the women participating in the program, supplementing their existing
menu, where necessary, with foods that will provide any nutrients that
have been missing from their diet.
gardening method offered is an intensive gardening program, which
has been developed under the names Square Foot Gardening, Square Meter
Gardening and Global Grid Gardening.
This method of growing, when
combined with the use of biodynamic soil preparations and seeds, can
contribute significantly to a family’s fresh food needs even in areas
where there is very little arable land available.
micro-enterprise segment concentrates on providing information that
relates to operating a very small business, in other words, the basic
skills of self-employment.
is the intention of this program to respect, honor and learn from the
people with whom we share the information we have gathered.
We fully expect to learn as much, if not more, than we offer.
It is our hope that whatever of value that we are able to bring
to the situation will be shared with others who will in turn benefit.
It is also our intention to take what we learn from the
participants and integrate it into our program, thereby making it a
living, growing, ever-improving product.
have much to learn from one another and it is only through mutual
respect and appreciation that we will be able to co-create a better
|Dear Friends and
|As many of you
know, about ten days ago I returned from a two week visit to El
Remate, Guatemala. The village of El Remate sits in the
middle of the Peten region on a huge volcano-formed lake called
Peten Itza. I went to El Remate as a representative of
Global Coalition for Peace, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization
that I helped to found three years ago. The purpose of the trip
was to work with some of the native women on nutrition education
and show them how to do something called intensive gardening.
Many of the people in the region suffer from poor nutrition
which exacerbates the very prevalent yeast and fungus
infections. The infant mortality rate is 35%.
|This was my first
trip to what is commonly called a "third world
country" and it was an adventure right from the
start. My associate, Martha Luz Atkinson, and I flew into Belize
City and traveled across the tiny country of Belize to the
middle of the Peten in a small bus, about the size of a large
van. All through Belize we passed small villages consisting
largely of little tumbledown shacks with thatched or sheet metal
roofs. There were lots of skinny children and skinny dogs in the
villages and an occasional horse grazing along the road, which
was inevitably also very skinny. Most of the villages had at
least one nice-looking concrete house but the rest looked like a
good wind would blow them over. Every single village had a
church and even though it was Wednesday evening, the churches
were lit and filled with people.
road through Belize was not too bad but the quality sharply
declined when we got to Guatemala. Martha Luz is from Honduras
and has lived and traveled throughout Central America. I looked
at her after about ten minutes of travel on this road and said,
"Surely the whole rest of the trip can’t be like this,
she said laughing. "It certainly can."
it was. The funny thing about the roads in Guatemala is that
even though they consist of large rocks, roots, and ruts that
make Pittsburgh’s potholes look tame, they have frequent,
rather intimidating speed bumps. Go figure.
Night fell during
our bus ride and at one point I turned from my conversation with
Martha Luz to look out the window. I actually gasped at the
incredible starlit sky. I had never seen the sky display so many
stars, so bright and seemingly close that I felt as though I
could reach out and touch them.
|We arrived in El
Remate at about 8:30 in the evening, each of us with an
oversized suitcase, and a laptop computer, and me with a large
and heavy box full of seeds, books and other teaching aids. Our
hostess, Anne Lossing of Project Ix-Canaan, met us where the bus
dropped us off and a driver was supposed to pick us up and
transport us to the lodge that would be our home for the next
two weeks. The driver never showed up but, with a good deal of
effort, Anne managed to recruit someone to drive all three of us
to the lodge. It was not quite what I had expected.
|Although I had
been forewarned a few days earlier that the lodge did not have
electricity, I pictured a sort of rustic version of the Hampton
Inn, perhaps with gas-burning lamps or something on that order.
As it turned out, the rooms in Hotel Gringo Perdido were not
completely enclosed. They had concrete walls on three sides but
the fourth wall consisted of a door, a half railing and a large
open window over which one could pull down a heavy tarp for
privacy. The floors were also concrete. The doors did not have
any kind of lock or even a latch so anyone, even the lodge’s
pet Labrador Retriever, could enter at will.
|Anne first showed
us to a group of attached rooms that sat up on a hill and had
shared bathroom facilities which were on a lower level.
Fortunately, Anne had a flashlight for us to navigate the
multi-leveled landscape or the only light we would have had to
see our accommodations would have been the beautiful starlit
sky. She next led us to the dining area and showed us a second
choice of rooms right next door to the kitchen. This room had its own
bathroom. Being someone whose middle-aged bladder demands to be
emptied three or four times a night, I leaped on the second
choice. We found out that the lodge had a generator that
supplied electricity from 6:00 to 9:00 PM and each of the rooms
on that level had a single light bulb over the sink. Other than
that we would have to rely on a kerosene lamp for light. There
was a bunk bed in our room and a double bed, both with thin
mattresses over a wooden board. Fortunately, there were two
single mattresses on the double bed and after a few days I put
one on top of the other which was much more comfortable. Martha
Luz, who had chosen the bunk bed, doubled up her mattresses as
well. We did have the luxury of good mosquito nets around the
we got up the next morning, we found ourselves in the most
beautiful setting imaginable. The gigantic lake, spread out in
front of the lodge as far as the eye could see, was bordered by
a lush variety of palm trees and tropical shrubbery. The open
dining room, topped with an elegant thatched roof was
beautifully decorated with Mayan masks and artwork. We walked
out onto one of several docks and found the lake water to be
crystal clear, warm and inviting. It was truly a tropical
paradise, complete with large spiders, roaring monkeys, parrots
and even an occasional scorpion (actually, we only saw one.).
to view pictures
Anne arrived with
a pick-up truck and driver and after a wonderful breakfast of
yogurt, eggs, beans and tortillas, we set out for the village
and our first meeting with the ladies we would be working with.
|On that first
morning, seven ladies showed up but two more joined us as the
day went on. Eventually we were working with fifteen women
ranging in age from thirteen to fifty. We introduced ourselves
and showed them a film about intensive gardening (also known as
"square foot gardening") and then we set out to find
some good soil for our first planting. They did not have any
pots or even paper cups in which to plant their seedlings but
Anne had a supply of small plastic sandwich bags. We filled them
with good rich earth from a low spot in Anne’s yard where the
rains had washed both soil and some of the compost from Anne’s
huge pile. Then we proceeded to the brand new library that had
been built by Project Ix-Canaan, but had not yet been furnished
or stocked. We spread a tarp on the floor, set our bags of dirt
down and started planting our seeds. In the afternoon we
held our first nutrition class.
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|For the rest of
the two weeks we worked on constructing the gardens every
morning and had classes every afternoon.
gardens are very small (4’ by 4’) raised beds which are
framed and divided into sixteen one foot squares. Each square is
planted with a different crop and as the squares are harvested,
more compost is added to the soil and a new crop, of a different
variety, is planted. When the frames have been made and filled
with soil and compost, a permanent grid is put over the top to
make the sixteen squares. This method of gardening has proven to
produce five times the amount of produce on the same land area
as conventional gardening. The goal of our program is to bring
this method of gardening, which also requires much less water
than conventional gardening, to women of the world who have
limited land and water so that they can grow a variety of
nutritious foods for themselves and their families. The women of
El Remate have small lots around their homes which sit on the
higher spots where heavy downpours during the rainy season have
washed away all the good soil and left only a solid bed of
limestone. As of recently, most of the homes have one spigot
with running water supplied by the lake, but to haul water to a
remote garden would be a problem. We wanted to put the gardens
as close to their houses as possible, convenient to the water
supply and also to their kitchens.
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|By far the most
wonderful ingredient of my Guatemalan adventure was the women of
El Remate, these warm and beautiful descendents of the
once-majestic Mayan nation, so strong and energetic and so eager
to learn. Some of the information we brought to them, especially
in the area of nutrition, was too advanced for their limited
level of education. They had no understanding of protein,
carbohydrates or calories. But they were willing to learn all
they could. They were untiring when it came to putting in the
gardens, even though we had to haul the soil from other
locations and pick or sift the rocks out with wire screening.
Martha Luz and I had all our meals made for us, our beds made,
our laundry done, etc. and we would fall into bed in exhaustion
at night. But they combined the same strenuous work with
preparing meals on a wood stove, childcare, hand washing of the
family laundry, walking their children to the little school
about a mile from the village and all their other chores.
|The women of El
Remate do not have bathtubs or showers. They wash themselves in
outdoor stalls with a bucket of water. Their clothes are
purchased from a local woman who gets secondhand clothes from
the States and re-sells them. Yet they are clean and their
children are clean. I noticed that they would often return to
the afternoon classes with their long black hair freshly washed
and wearing a clean set of clothes.
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|On the second day
we asked the ladies if they would like to learn some simple
exercises called yoga. They were very receptive so we showed
them a few postures. Martha Luz and I are both students of the
Shanti Yoga School of Life in Bethesda, Maryland. Many of the
women brought their children with them to the classes and they
eagerly joined in the yoga. Once they got a taste of it, the
women wanted to do yoga every day. They would make every effort
to do the postures to the best of their ability, laughing all
the time, and by the end of the two weeks some of them were
getting quite good at it and some of the kids looked like
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|Another facet of
our program was to introduce the women to the concept of
micro-enterprise. While the first week of afternoon classes were
dedicated to nutrition, the second week’s classwork consisted
of some basic principles of self-employment. They were much more
capable of grasping this material than the nutrition information
and we left there with a dozen simple business plans.
|Many of the women
carve beautiful figures of animals from the native wood and
their business dream is to find a bigger market for their
products than the small local tourist industry can provide.
Other business plans involved developing a small chicken farm,
opening a book store, having a bed and breakfast, and opening a
|The women of El
Remate are not strangers to abuse, alcoholism, rape and
abandonment. We planted several different kinds of seeds there,
some which, if nurtured, can bring better health and some that
we hope will offer them options and put them on the road to
greater self-reliance. But just planting the seeds is not
enough. All too often, we are told, a project like ours comes
into a third world community, gives them that seed of hope and
then leaves, never to be heard from again. Just like the garden
that is not cared for, the well-intentioned project that is not
nurtured, will not bear fruit. So Martha Luz and I will be
keeping in touch with the ladies of El Remate and, going back to
that village in the Peten. We will be re-designing the nutrition
component to better suit their level of education. There will be
gardening problems to work out. And we are working at locating
some financing to help them get their business plans off the
ground. Once we procure the financing, we will help them to
establish a peer lending program. There is much to do.
|And what do we get
for our effort? For me, getting to know the women of El Remate,
has rejuvenated my belief in the dignity, industriousness and
love of family that is common to women all over the world. Being
the recipient of their friendship, experiencing their warmth and
openness has given new meaning to the concept of "oneness.
Yes, "We are all the same." I would like to thank the
ladies of El Remate, for reminding me of that and giving me
their precious gifts.
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|Peace Be With You,
P.S. If you have
any ideas on how to finance this program, we are open
to suggestions (and donations).
for Peace, 4217 East West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814