Las comadronas de Concepcion Chiquirichapa

October 7, 2008

That is, for those of you who don´t know Spanish, the midwives of Concepcion Chiquirichapa, a small municipality of Xela, the city where I am now living for a while. I visited their fantastic organisation this Saturday and was inspired to write a post there and then. Of course, it actually took me until now to create it. The reason I fell in love with them is that they are an indigenous group organised at the grassroots level, without the help of the government or other agencies, both national and international, who don´t have the lives of these women and their communities at heart. In fact, the government and the ruling classes have a history of trying to eliminate these people, and officially committed genocide for about 20 years. In reality, the lives of Guatemala´s indigenous population have been considered worthless since the colonization of Guatemala by the Spanish in the 1500s.

In this post, I will try to replicate some of the information I was taught at this conference and organise my thoughts as well, if possible. As I didn´t take notes, I hope this is going to work. The comadrones collectively run a house which provides birthing support to all women in their four surrounding towns. There are 40 women in the organisation and they all take one 24 hour shift each week. They own a house in Concepcion of which they are very proud, not surprising since they have little financial help and they laid the foundations themselves. In fact, all the town got together to build this house! If that´s not grassroots, I don´t know what is! Their house comprises of several birthing rooms, a kitchen, a pharmacy and an education area. One of its most beautiful aspects is the herb garden. These women have no formal training and have learnt from their own and each others experiences. One of the comadrones educating us attended her first birth at 19. The other is on her second generation of midwiving a family. As I understand it, they offer the Maya women the opportunity to give birth in a homelike setting, with the aid of traditional medicinal herbs. In this house they have the privacy and respect they certainly wouldn´t at the hospital, where they are often made to wait in corridors (NHS anyone?), spoken to in Spanish, which many do not understand, and treated by a male doctor, which goes against their traditions. Moreover, to give birth in a hospital costs 3000 quetzales, more than they would earn in a year. The comadrones´ house cost about 300Q and provides a kitchen, a birthing and a private room for the family to wait in. For those interested, I will add the name of this organization when Fedelma gives it to me.

Here is a beautiful picture of my friend Melanie translating. Happily, I understood a lot of what they presenters said, but for the talk to be translated into English helped a hell of a lot as well.

One of the main treatments they offer the women is medicinal herbs, in drinks, salads, and baths in order to cure their ills. The ability of these plants ranges from vitamin replacement to diarrhea and pain cure. In fact, one of the plants the women swear by is the humble dandelion. If you want more iron, make a dandelion leaf salad now (be sure to wash the leaves first)! Unfortunately I can´t remember the Spanish name of the super duper cure-all plant. Although our guide used to be a guerrilla in the Guatemalan civil was and lived off it in the mountains! He´s a pretty hardcore man. More about him in another post . . . In fact, Chiquirichapa is located in the Western highlands, right next to one of the pivotal mountains in the war, where much of the fighting took place. This ´combat´took the form of the army napalming the forests where the guerrillas lived, as well as the local Maya population, in order to attempt to surpress their demand for human rights. Phew. More about that in another post too.

Among these traditional methods used is the quiche (a word I don´t know how to spell, pronouced ki-shay in Maya). Basically, this is a Mayan sauna! This photo doesn´t exactly do justice to the scale of the sauna, as it comes up to my chest and to enter it I would need to get onto my knees. One of the most amazing facts about this sauna, is that if the baby is breached and the mother is not yet in labour, the comadrones can take the women into this steam room and massage the baby into the right position! It seems that the comadrones are nearly wholly self-sufficient, apart from emergency situations. As I was saying, the group receives no help from any other bodies. One of the scams the current government pulls is to advertise its involvement in an organisation and then donate very little, such as a chair or a book. Other organisations also promise to help and then fall through, or attempt to impose their own ideas onto this group. As a collective run from personal and cultural experiences, such help really makes matters worse. As the rich visitors, our donations are one source of the collective´s income.

 The medicine cupboard (accompaniment to a more Western pharmacy)

One of the most forceful aspects of this group is that it is, of course, comprised of, founded and run by a collective of indigenous Maya women, a group doubly oppressed. These women have found a means to express and support their culture, in a society where such expression is extremely rare. As most of the companeros do not speak Spanish, read, or write, I find their power and success even more fantastic, in the good sense. One question which we, the tourists, asked is if there are any male midwives. The facilitators replied that there are a few in the country, yet their job is very difficult. As their culture does not allow them to see a woman naked or to touch her, male midwives can only catch the baby as it comes out. One for gender equality in all circumstances, this situation made me appreciate the necessity of having female midwives against my own general politics. The gender of the midwives is a requirement in such a culture for the health and safety of the women. Such an acknowledgement is difficult for me to make, and an example of the specificity of cultural knowledge. It´s not necessarily a realisation I would have come to myself. One of the best aspects of the school where I study is that they give their students the opportunity to have such experiences, and are very involved in outreach.

I´ll leave you with a final picture of our two presenters. They are wearing traditional Mayan dress, with cardigans over the top, and are two very compassionate and wonderful women.

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