Our visit with CODECOT yesterday was a spiritual experience with a welcome so genuinely warm and loving, speeches filled with blessings for us, and a candle-lighting ritual, I teared up again and again. Delia and Ayida, the two midwives who participated in my break-out group, both shared their “becoming a midwife story with us,” and both stories were filled with a sense of destiny and purpose in this work.
Ayida was 9 when she got training to give injections (for vaccinations and when people were sick) on the finca (plantation) where she lived. Shortly thereafter she dreamt a dream of outstretched arms and receiving babies in her open hands. At age 17, she delivered her own sister because her father couldn’t get the midwife in time. From then on she was considered a midwife. She said that that first experience was frightening, very unlike her dream, but that dreams have served her in other ways. Another time she dreamed about delivering twins. Not too long after twins were to be delivered, a complicated birth for which they needed to get to the hospital, but the roads were washed out because of rain. She let her memory of what she did in the dream guide her through the successful delivery. Later still, she delivered her own daughter without the help of another midwife!
Delia told us that there is a spiritual test for each woman who becomes a midwife. For her it was severe back pain for which she could get no relief from either Western nor traditional medicine. She said that when she became a midwife 15 years ago, the pain went away! I, who was sitting in tremendous discomfort (as I have been for much of the trip due to a pinched nerve), asked how soon I could get certified to be a midwife!
The AJWS sign logo and name appeared throughout their building (which consisted of offices, meeting rooms, and an exam room for prenatal care). Three of the rooms were built with money from the municipal government, following a long process of advocacy to be recognized.
My colleague Rabbi Nancy Kasten, in introducing our group to the CODECOT women (we take turns both introducing our group to the NGO and then thanking them at the end), invoked the memory of the midwives Shifra and Puah from the book of Exodus whose courage saved the lives of so many baby boys, including Moses, our redeemer. It was a perfect connection to make with them from our tradition.
These women serve as gynecologist, pediatrician, medicine woman, bone healer, spiritual guide, and Mayan priest. As a group, CODECOT is advocating for recognition as midwives, as they are discriminated against by the Western medical system of Guatemala. They have become great advocates for themselves and while that battle led to recognition from the Ministry of Health that they should be given hospital access, it is still an uphill battle. They want their work to be valued and not to be abused.
A painful part of Guatemala’s social problems is that it traffics not only drugs, but also babies. Ayida and Delia told us horror stories of Mayan women in the hospital being told that their baby had died but not being given death certificates, of nurses stealing babies for money, and of women who are offered money to steal babies within their own communities. Sometimes it is for the harvesting of organs that babies are stolen. Therefore, some women fear gringo foreigners, and it is certainly a component of their fear of hospitals.
I had asked the midwives in the larger setting what they did when a woman came to them who did not want to keep her pregnancy. They were very clear that they are for vida and that they counsel women to keep the baby, though there are some midwives who know which plants to use for termination. I was very curious to know whether they would accept such a woman into their consortium of midwives, but I was advised not to push the issue in terms of the cultural sensitivity.
Today the women of CODECOT met us in another municipality (Palestina Los Altos) about 1-1/2 hours away to meet with the women (and one man) who have been trained by them to be midwives. All told there were about 50 midwives there today. They greeted us with speeches (including one from their very supportive mayor), and blessings, dances, music, and a very funny (but apparently accurate) dramatization of what happens when a pregnant Mayan woman comes to the hospital with her midwife and how she’s treated versus how the sexy Ladino woman in her tight jeans is treated. The women were laughing (actually, they were roaring!) at the skit, but we also knew that this was painful reality for them.
One young woman sang a song whose words were something like:
Though we are discriminated against
Women, you have rights to your traditional dress
You have rights to literacy, etc.
We don’t know enough,
but we thank CODECOT for the training we are receiving.
After about 2 hours of presentations from them (a process elongated by the need to translate from Spanish to English, and in one case from Mam — one of the many Mayan languages– to Spanish and then to English), they wanted to hear from us. I got up spontaneously, dragging my old friend Faith Joy with me to sing for them Debbie Friedman’s song Brachot ha-Ba-ot whose words invoke the Shechinah, the Divine feminine. That song provided a powerful spiritual connection with these women. At the conclusion of our meeting, we all just started dancing together, grabbing hands and sharing hugs. Even without language in common, we shared a deep spiritual bond.
We returned to Quetzaltenango for lunch where I had the opportunity to ask our translator V. more about what brought her to Guatemala from Canada. In the evening Megan, AJWS staff in Guatemala, who has lived here since 1952 (her parents came originally to farm) told us her story over dinner, as we had all been curious.
On our morning bus ride we had been asked to read an amazing article (because why waste any time to catch up on sleep or for extraneous conversation when we could still be learning?) “Where Does Moral Courage Come From?” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/where-does-moral-courage-come-from/?_r=1
as prep for our afternoon reflection session. After a thirteen-hour day (AJWS pushes us long and hard), I will have to share more about that deep learning another time.
Tomorrow we leave at 7 AM to make our way to San Lucas for a meeting with Comite Campesino del Antiplano (CCDA), the Highlands Committee of Small Farmers.
From there we will go to Lake Atilan (apparently by boat!) for Shabbat. I cannot wait to be able to sleep in on Saturday morning — our service won’t start until 10:30 AM (a time set by rabbis who generally never get to sleep in on Shabbat morning!)
I may not get a post in before Shabbat.