Portraits Of Women

A glimpse into life in Kenya, Peru, and El Salvador

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 42
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Patricia Mische is co-founder of Global Education Associates. Over the past six years she has been interviewing women in different parts of the world, asking them to share their images of a preferred future for themselves and their families, for their nations, and for the world. The following, reprinted with permission of Breakthrough (of which Patricia is Editor), are from three of these interviews.


WHEN WE ASK the 20 women who are members of an Ojola women’s group to tell us the story of how they brought water to the people of this region, we are not prepared for their answer. They lead Monica, Miriam (a social work for this region who is translating for us), and me through fields, up hills and down, past mud and wattle homes and shambas (gardens), along a narrow path through elephant grass that brushes our faces and sways above our heads, through six- foot-high maize fields, to a ravine that drops five feet into a dry creek bed. Then we inch across the ravine on a tree limb that straddles the two banks and come to a cement slab. Water and oozing mud have collected around it.

Now the women begin sharing their story. Only they don’t tell it. They dance it. And chant it. And sing it. Facing each other in a circle, their bare feet brush and caress the cement covering they have made and laid over the well and piping that brings them water.

"The water is clean," they sing. "It rains from the skies onto the hills above us. The hills drink the water and pass it down to the valley in underground streams. Before the water was hidden from us. Now we trap it in pipes and hold it in our well."

Round in a circle above the water they move, their bodies undulating to the beat of "tambourines" they have made with bottle caps smashed flat, pierced, and strung on a wreath of wire. In successive verses, the song leader chants the history of their efforts to obtain clean water. The others respond, shaking their shoulders and bodies, gesturing with their hands and heads in a resounding chorus celebrating water and their shared achievements.

Someone hands Monica and me tambourines and pulls us onto the gray slab to join in the dance. Soon more women, curious about the celebration in the valley, come out of the houses that dot the steep and rocky hillsides. Bearing on their heads new yellow, red, or blue plastic pails, or old Pennzoil containers, they make their way down to the well. Some join in the dance and chorus. Others watch from the creek bed below, at the base of the well, while they await their turn for water. Then, hoisting the full, heavy containers onto their heads, they recede back up the hillsides, the blue, yellow, and red pails and swaying bodies becoming smaller and smaller, until they are mere specks on the upper slopes.

The song continues, relating how the women once had to walk many miles to the river. Then the river became too polluted. During the rainy season, muddy water sometimes rushed down this ravine, but during the dry season, there was nothing. They met together to decide what to do. Noticing that water came up naturally from the ground in one place, they asked the water commission to send an expert to advise them. They learned that this water was coming from the mountain above in an underground stream and then springing up here, and that it would be possible to tap into it with pipes.

"Our husbands would not help us," the leader chants. "And we had no money to hire help. So we dug the well and laid pipes ourselves. The first well did not work. So we tried another spot nearby and it was the right spot. We dug an eight-foot hole. We asked the government for cement. We carried sand from the riverbottoms miles away, bearing it on our heads to the well site. We mixed it with rocks and cement and water and laid the foundations and cemented the walls of the well. We laid pipes to conduct the water to the well. We made cement slabs around and on top of the pipes. But the government didn’t give us enough cement. So water and mud are collecting above the well area. The government man advised us to plant some trees to absorb the water and to hold the water tables of the underground reservoir. We are trying to save enough money for more cement and trees."

The song continues, telling how they built the well with three pipes extending from it. Wood stoppers stuck into the pipes prevent all but a trickle from escaping when the water isn’t needed. But when a woman needs water, she can stand in the ravine and pull out a stopper. Then good, clean water rushes into her container. "We don’t have to walk to the faraway river any more," the chorus sings.

Some boys have now gathered across the ravine within earshot of the singing and dancing. The lead singer adds another verse. "Unfortunately, some boys plugged up two of the pipes with sticks and debris," she chants. "Now we can only get water from one pipe. We are angry about this. The boys are not in school and can’t get jobs. They do a lot of mischief. Maybe they don’t know what it is for and how it helps us. This water is near our homes and it is clean, not polluted."

The sub-chief and two men who are constructing the frame for a house in the area come by to see what is happening. They, too, are pulled up into the dance and chorus, joining in this celebration of water.

When the song ends, all of us – chorus, sub-chief, house builders, and translator – follow the song leader in a procession back across the tree limb traversing the ravine, through fields and elephant grass, up the hillside paths, over rocks and around boulders, to the home of Sarah. There, dirty and sweaty, we take refuge from the hot noonday sun. Sarah’s earthen home is cool, dark, musky, a welcome haven. All of us – the women, the sub-chief, the two builders, and others who have joined us along the way – sit in a circle around the room. A stillness settles within and among us, as if something of deep significance is about to happen.

It is. Two of Sarah’s daughters appear, one carrying a small blue plastic basin, the other a medium-sized tin can holding water from the well. Everyone watches as the precious water is brought before me.

Slowly, in absolute silence, the washing of hands begins. I cup my hands over the empty basin. The tin is tilted slightly to release a few drops. Slowly I spread the cooling wet over the surface of my hot and dusty hands. Next a bar of soap is offered. I lather more thoughtfully, consciously than ever in my life. The full energy of everyone in the room is involved in this simple act. Then a little more water is poured slowly over my lathered hands. Gray rinse residue drips into the blue basin. The water, so soothing, cooling, cleansing, is received as a rare, sweet gift. One of the women removes her head cloth and dries my hands. Then the tin of water, blue basin, soap, and head cloth are brought before Monica, and the ritual is repeated. Then to Miriam, the sub-chief, the two male builders. Each in turn receives the full energy of the group with the pouring of water. I think of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles. I am in the presence of the holy.

The women do not wash their own hands. There is not enough in the small tin for all. Water is precious. There is a well now, but it is still a long trip down and back up the slopes, a long way to carry heavy containers on one’s head. So the women who have brought clean water to the village do not now share directly in the ritual cleansing. Instead they sit tall, proud, expectant, drinking in our experience of the miracle they have brought forth.

There is not enough food, either. Now that our hands are cleansed, we are offered unsweetened, flat English biscuits from a brown paper bag, along with a choice of Coca Cola or Fanta. Thirsty, I am grateful for the drink; not much on dry biscuits, I am tempted to pass, but I know that I must not refuse this special offering. Here, too, is sacrament. Coca Cola and biscuits – they are from the flesh and blood of these women. They have used the few shillings they could earn by selling bananas and cassava, maize, and other food from their gardens – food and monies which should have gone for the needs of their children and themselves – to buy food they believe will please us. I am humbled, awed by their giving.

A woman brings in fruit she has picked that day. Thinking of the amoebic dysentery that plagues many people and not knowing how this fruit was washed, I hesitate, then eat. This, too, is precious food, not cash-bought, but fruit of this woman’s labor. To refuse it is somehow to refuse her.

The women, too, partake of the fruit, but only after the guests have eaten. I ask whether they would please eat the remaining biscuits. Then and only then, assured that the guests have been satisfied, do they eat. Silently the wafers are passed from woman to woman. Silently we eat, sitting in quiet communion.


The day I meet Consuelo, she has just been released from a hospital. She was found almost dead from trying to self-abort a 14th pregnancy. Her close friend died from a similar attempt the day Consuelo was released. Consuelo has 13 children. "These three have tuberculosis." she explains about the vacant- eyed children in the corner. "My mother died of tuberculosis," she adds matter-of-factly.

"We used to live in the mountains," she says. "But one night hundreds from our village moved to the city. We thought, ‘in Lima, our children will get an education and wear shoes. Life will be better for them.’ So we made straw mats, and then one night we all came here and put up straw houses. In the morning, there were too many of us for the government to send away."

She shows me her house. "We came here with the straw house. But the government made us build more permanent walls like adobe, or they would send us away. So far we haven’t gotten enough money to finish the back part of the house. So we try to keep government men away." The roof has a large hole. There is a mud floor. Several chickens run freely about. "I am raising these chickens to sell to rich people," she says. "I wanted money for shoes for my daughter. But now I must use it to pay for the hospital and medicine."

The only food in the kitchen is a few onions. There is no water. She explains, "Twice a week a water truck comes to the neighborhood. People can bring containers and buy water. This week I had no money for water. Maybe next week." There is no toilet or outhouse, and this part of the city has no sanitation system. "We use this pot. Then at night I send the children to dump it somewhere." She shrugs. "It is against the law, but it is what we have to do.

"When we first came here, I worked for a family. I washed clothes. But now that I am old and have so many children, they don’t want me. They didn’t like it when my children came to see me or were sick. So they got a young girl from the mountains and sent me away. Before I went to the hospital, I worked at a school, preparing milk for children’s lunches. I mixed powdered milk with water and put it in pitchers. In this job, I could take milk home for my children, but I couldn’t earn money. When I went to the hospital, my children had no milk. Now they say my children are sick [with tuberculosis] and I can’t mix milk any more."

Consuelo rarely sees her husband. When he has a job, he goes away for a long time. He does not send her money. He lives and sleeps with another woman. But when he has no job and no money, he comes home for her to take care of him. Then she becomes pregnant again. "Right now, he has no job," she says. So he is here again. She accepts this relationship without complaint. It is the way things are with men and women.

Consuelo is still young – in her 30s. But she looks old. She is short and heavy-set; her small dark eyes stare blankly from her puffy face. They long ago lost their sparkle; they are without hope.


"We were very concerned because our bishop seemed to ignore the needs of the poor. So we made a community decision to convert him."

The woman speaking was the provincial head of a congregation of Roman Catholic sisters in El Salvador. Like some others in her community, she was from a well-to-do Salvadoran family. She was young, attractive, and, like many others, committed to the needs of the poor. She believed their situation would improve only with major social change.

"We wanted to open our bishop’s eyes, not by confronting him, but by having him experience the people’s situation and knowing them personally and coming to love them as we did. We gave ourselves three years to accomplish our goal. Our strategy was to invite him to visit each of our projects and convents, where we would make a special effort to welcome him warmly and make him feel at home, so that he would want to return often.

"Our plan worked. The bishop felt so good about his contact with the people that he began asking the sisters whether he could continue to drop in when he had time off, to relax from other pressures and just be a human being. The more he mixed with the people, the more he loved them and empathized with their needs.

"It was not part of our plan, but another thing that happened was that the bishop began to notice and appreciate the work our sisters did. They were well-educated, very competent, and loved by the people. The people looked to them as leaders. Because there was a shortage of priests, many people rarely received the sacraments. The bishop asked some of our sisters to assume some priestly tasks. They became administrators of parishes, keeping all the records. They also baptized, heard confessions, witnessed marriages, gave the Last Sacraments, and buried the dead. They offered eucharistic liturgies. The only difference was that they had to use pre-consecrated hosts, which a priest would bring every few months.

"The bishop was so pleased that he wrote to the other bishops of the country, commending the work of these sisters. Some of the other bishops were disturbed by the role he had given these women and complained to the Vatican.

"Meanwhile, the bishop also began speaking out from the pulpit on the needs and rights of the poor. He called for social change. This disturbed those with power who wanted to preserve the status quo. If he didn’t stop, he would be killed, they said. But he spoke out all the stronger. Our sisters supported him in this, but we feared for him.

"The bishop was Oscar Romero. When he was shot one day while offering Mass, it was terrible. We still grieve for him. We loved him. The best way for us to honor his memory is to continue our work among the poor and our work for social change in our country."