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Women Can Learn Things Too

Amber B. Davis-Collins
Honduras

Cerro Grande was a two-hour walk up the mountain from my town of San Pedro de Tutule. The dirt road ended abruptly about a mile before arrival—a government project gone awry. Instead, patrons of this little community at the top of the mountain (population 110) had two choices—a steep, slick trail that took about 20 minutes from the dirt road, or a more gentle approach that took twice as long. I always chose the latter, which ended near Don José and Doña Maria’s house.

I originally met Don José at a baby weighing in Granadillo. This is a community event where mothers bring their children to be weighed so that adequate nutrition and healthy development can be tracked. I was about three-fourths of the way through my Peace Corps service at the time. He had heard that the gringa in Tutule had vegetable seeds and wanted some for his family. He was the only man in attendance at the baby weighing that day. In fact, Don José was the only man that I ever saw at a baby weighing during my two years in Honduras. He didn’t speak until every child had been weighed and most of the women had taken their children and returned home.

“They tell me that you have seeds,” he said, not looking at my face.

“Yes,” I answered. “But today I have only carrots.” I handed him a packet.

“Do you want me to come to your house and help when you plant?” I asked, hoping that I hadn’t offended him.

“Yes, please,” he whispered. “I live in Cerro Grande,” he said, pointing to the top of the mountain. And so our friendship began.

On my first visit two days later, none of his six children spoke to me. Five of them stood behind their mother, Doña Maria, while Don José made introductions. The other, still too young to walk, stayed in Doña Maria’s arms and wailed. Doña Maria appeared sullen and withdrawn. The two-room house was made of rocks, sticks, and mud. A ragged dog tended to its scraggly pup next to the earthen stove.

The kids giggled and ducked their faces when I directed my small talk toward them, but none mustered up the courage to reply. “They have never seen a white person before,” said Doña Maria flatly, as if this explained everything. And I guess it did. In an area of the world that still didn’t have electricity, much less radios or televisions, my blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin must have been quite a spectacle.

All the children except the youngest came out to watch Don José and me plant the garden that afternoon. A few of the neighbors came, too. We were obviously the biggest entertainment venue in town that day. As we worked, I asked about the school that I had passed on my way up the mountain. “The teacher almost never comes,” Don José explained. “It’s been too rainy and the walk is just too long.”

“That’s terrible!” I exclaimed.

Don José shrugged his shoulders. “The boys aren’t old enough for school yet.”

I looked over at the two oldest children, both girls, standing shyly at the edge of the garden. “What about the girls?” I asked.

Don José laughed. “They have work to do.”

As I pressed on, Don José revealed that his wife had never gone to school and that he himself had only gone for two years. That’s all that he was going to require of his sons, too, provided that the school ever got a regular teacher. “But there’s no one in Cerro Grande that can teach,” he added softly.

Over the next few months, I trekked up the mountain every week or so to check on the garden, as well as to visit Don José and his family. More often than not, Don José was away, and I would end up passing the time with Doña Maria and the children instead. I brought more seeds—onions, sweet peppers, and radishes. We talked a lot about gardening—the importance of thinning and weeding, how often to water, and how a diversified diet would make her family healthier (their nutritional regime at the time consisted of corn, beans, and an occasional bit of rice). She and the children worked in the garden with me when I visited, but most of the work was done when I wasn’t around. It wasn’t long before shoots started springing up.

As time went by, this woman that I had once dreaded visiting because she seemed so bitter, began to open up. We talked about her family and her life before she married José. Doña Maria’s past had not been rich with opportunity. Although she never said it, and probably didn’t even realize it, I could tell that a difficult life had left her emotionally numb. But things were changing—she began to smile and talk excitedly each time I arrived at the house. She greeted me with an ear of corn and laughed when I played with the kids. There was a definite transformation in the house of Don José and Doña Maria.

On one of my last trips up the mountain before I completed my service, Don José was home. I began my visit with the obligatory soccer match with the children. (The ball was an ancient wadded-up plastic bag tied into a ball shape with a piece of string.) Afterwards, the entire family moved out to the garden to admire the work that everyone had done over the last few months.

Standing in the garden, Don José pulled a mature carrot out of the ground. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m really glad that you have been helping Maria. Because of you, I have realized that women can learn things too.”

My first reaction as an educated woman was to laugh because I was sure that he was joking. But when I looked at his face, I saw that he was serious. And the stark realization for me was that this was a totally new insight for Don José. After I was able to close my gaping jaw, I met his smile with one of my own. In the background I could hear Doña Maria laughing.

Amber B. Davis-Collins (Honduras)

Amber B. Davis-Collins served as a crop extensionist Volunteer in Honduras from 2002-2004. She holds a masters degree in agricultural education from the University of Georgia. Amber was awarded a bronze medal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta for her work with Latino farm worker issues.

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