Interview with Tricia Karpfen, Shanta co-founder and board member
What was the village of Yim Bya like when you first visited in 2006?
When Mike and I came to the tiny village of Yim Bya, we were the first westerners to visit and there was nowhere to stay. We stayed at the local monastery, and families hosted us for meals. One of the first families we befriended was Mejeune and her husband. She and I became instant friends.
In Yim Bya we were struck by the fact that the only school was a primary school (through grade five), and no one in the village had more than a grade 5 education. The overwhelming majority had a second grade education and couldn’t read, write or do simple math. They had to travel long distances to the nearest market. They all got their water, bathed, and did their laundry at one central spring. They worked incredibly hard, and had very little. At the time, we estimated that villagers made less than $1/day.
What was life like for women in Yim Bya?
My friendship with Mejeune has given me a lot of insight into the lives of women in the villages. At 54, Mejeune had a house full of kids under eight years of age. I never really figured out who lived there, and who just came for meals. The kids came to her because their parents couldn’t provide food for them, or because they were still out in the fields working. Mejeune is the local grandmother.
I was awed by how hard the women worked. They farmed wheat on 45-degree slopes—an intensive undertaking. They seeded the fields by hand, harvested the wheat with machetes, and threshed it by hand. Then, they walked their harvest a couple of hours to the nearest market were they were obligated to accept the price dictated by the man who loaned them money for seed and fertilizer.
There was little comfort in the lives of women in Yim Bya: Mejeune would be up at five in the morning to go to the spring and collect water, and upon returning she would start cooking for the day—usually a rice and vegetable curry—and then the kids would get up. She’d feed the children, and then head to the fields where she would spend the entire day farming wheat.
There was no other employment opportunities, and none of the women were literate. There were no businesses and no shops, and women were cultivating crops, like wheat, that were tried-and-true, but not necessarily the best economically. When talking with the women, they emphasized that their biggest challenge was how hard they worked, and that they had very little support.
How has partnering with Shanta impacted the lives of women, both now and in the future?
Because Yim Bya was our first partner village, we spent a lot of time listening and talking with the villagers about their lives and needs, and through that process learned how to work with the village to determine their priorities, and support them in their goals.
In line with their priority projects, we helped the village build water tanks in each neighborhood to save them time and provide them with a clean source of water. The concrete skirts and bases offer them a clean place do their laundry.
In 2009, we brought a nurse midwife, Linda Barnes, from Durango and held a women’s circle in Yim Bya. As we gathered together, I was surprised to hear that the women never sat together to talk about their lives. They loved talking about how many children they had and sharing their birth stories. They were surprised at the thought that they could actually choose how many kids to have. Linda asked them about their birth experiences: where do you give birth, who’s with you? We found out that they give birth by the fire in the kitchen of their homes with a traditional birth attendant, which is someone who has never been trained formally, but who has been trained by a woman before her. We were actually very impressed with the procedures they followed, but there were safety issues around cleanliness, and the fact that they didn’t know how to handle complications like postpartum bleeding, or to tell if a baby was breech ahead of time.
We’ve since developed a program called ‘Village Health Educators’. Together with another doctor, our regional manager—Dr. Nge Nge—developed an educational program to help women understand pregnancy, labor and delivery.
In Yim Bya and every partner village, we train six facilitators (all village women) to teach women about birth spacing, complications of labor and delivery, postpartum care, and pre-natal health. We print information booklets in their local language and with lots of pictures for the facilitators to use, and women love those books! They get together, talk through the book and discussing what they are learning. In one of our villages, two women told stories during the training about the loss of their child because of birthing complications. They told us, “if I’d known this, they wouldn’t have died.” We also educate a nurse midwife in each village who goes through a really extensive training program to provide quality care to her village.
We have two young women from Yim Bya who’ve now gone on to University with support from Shanta, one of whom who came back to teach in the village school. They’re the first women to get beyond a grade five education. One of the noticeable changes in these women when they returned from University was their confidence. It showed when they spoke about their experience, and has inspired more village children to pursue their education.
We also started pig farms for economic development, and the success of that program has had some really amazing impacts on the families, in particular the women.
What’s life like for women in Yim Bya now, ten years later?
In March (2016), I visited Mejeune in her house and I couldn’t believe the changes; her daughter is a savvy business woman now, and Mejeune is too. Mejeune runs a big shop out of her house. Her daughter has a motorbike, which they were able to afford because of the pig farm, and they have cell phones to help them run their businesses. It was just incredible: here was this family just slogging—working, working—and now they’ve redone their house with wood walls and floors, operable glass windows, and a metal roof. And while they’re still busy, their quality of life has drastically improved.
I saw motorbikes at many houses and Mejuene said the women have them to take their goods to market, and that they no longer just go to one market – they go to all the regional markets. They’ve begun to also grow flowers because they less labor intensive, they get a higher price, and they sell them directly to brokers so they don’t have to sit in the market all day.
More than anything, I loved seeing how confident the women were, running their own businesses and negotiating prices.
Another thing that’s really impressive is that this village chooses to grow organic vegetables. One of the early programs we supported to develop economic wellbeing was teaching villagers how to make organic fertilizer. Now they have a reputation at the market for having the best tasting vegetables and restaurants seek them out.
The changes I saw were inspiring and humbling. What we’re doing over there isn’t just a one-off: “now kids have a school” or “now families have a motorbike”. All the pieces are related and they come together so the entire community’s quality of life and sense of opportunity has been elevated by the programs we’ve supported.