Alianza Arkana has joined forces for the third year in a row with Girls for the World and Shipibo Joi to create a extraordinary week for 16 Shipibo girls from Bena Jema: a rundown, urban indigenous community on the mainland near Yarinacocha in the Peruvian Amazon. As one local resident said, “I´m so happy you are working with the Bena Jema girls on something like this. Bena Jema tends to be ignored, its the place where people tend to go to buy things cheaply at the market and sell on for higher prices in the more popular communities, its not really charming or pretty and lives there are really tough.”
We arrived on a collectivo bright and early to be greeted by a gaggle of smiles and hugs and an excited buzz. Tierra Vida would be our stomping ground for the next 6 days, a beautiful healing centre buried away on its own island in a luscious patch of forest. We were going to be well looked after, the chefs for the week had already cooked up a fine Chapo breakfast, the girls´ favourite (boiled banana soup), which we ate after exploring the paths lined with fresh cacao trees and many medicinal plants.
We all headed to the maloka where we would be hard at work and play for the coming days, and began with introductions, games, and Karen of Girls for the World deftly and gracefully establishing a safe circle that would enable so much to come up during the workshop week. The circle is a symbol for support, for seeing and being seen by everybody, for equality. Most of the girls knew one another at the start of the week, but many not well. Bena Jema has a population of roughly 2000 people, and there are a few different schools that the girls attend according to age, location and ability. So, there were a couple of tight friendships, some rival cliques, some that knew one another in passing, or as friends of siblings. The girls here ranged in age from 12 to 18, most being between 14 and 16. There were also three mothers in the workshops: a nurse, teacher, and female community leader.
It was hugely valuable to have women of all ages participating- the current generation of Shibibo young people is a leap away from their parents’ culture due to rapid globalization, access to internet and global media, degradation of the environment and the familiar discrimination against indigenous cultures in Peru. It seems like a communication and cultural gulf has formed between generations, genders, and individuals. Many issues that young women face, both universal and specific to Shipibo girls, are not discussed at all. Many impacts of modernization (internet/social media, media representation, diet, climate change) that are well-versed in the west feel like they have yet to be properly identified here, though all the forces that cause them are fully in action.
The activities that Karen has crafted in her years of running Girls For The World are a mixture of arts and crafts, physical games, writing and talking. Symbolism is a strong language that runs through all of these, the activities all gather meaning and messages generated by the girls, who quickly become the real leaders of the workshop. Karen manages to balance them in a way so that what might seem like a fun creative activity driven by instinct and intuition soon becomes valuable material for recognising how and who we are. Cultural and individual identity, self-worth and personal strengths were just some of the valuable lessons that every one of us participating in the workshops were able to realise. As they arose, themes were reflected on, with Shipibo facilitators and mentors Rebeca and Katy guiding the girls in their native language then translating so everybody could take part. These lessons were woven in with practical teaching and discussion about nutrition, physical and sexual health and emotional well being, and by the last day even the adults were baring all including the nitty gritty of our own colourful experiences. We also spent an afternoon using Forum Theatre as a tool to play out situations that had arisen for the girls in the past weeks at home. They took to this naturally and it enabled the girls to give one another advice through playing others´ roles, including some valuable character swapping between generations.
Naturally, many sensitive issues arose and there were some challenging moments for everybody. It was these times, and the ways in which the other members of the circle embraced and supported one another, that truly built the foundations of what will now continue to be a sustainable support network for these girls.
Since the week in Tierra Vida, Alianza Arkana and the NGO run by Rebeca and Katy called Nomabaon Nete (Young Women in the World in the Shipibo language) have met up with the girls once a week in the Bena Jema community centre. The girls brainstormed themes, skills and issues that they would like to continue to work on together through art, forum theatre, and the discussions that follow them. These include empowerment, family violence, suicide, drug abuse, gangs, personal health, infidelity, understanding of the media and social media, professional and university preparation, traditional music and embroidery, and customising their modern clothes with embroidery.
We are now in the process of strengthening Nomabaon Nete which will enable the sessions to continue, as well as make it possible to follow up on ambitions, skills and issues that arise. The intention is for more groups to form in other communities, to host an annual women’s event, and later this year for the girls to each take on two mentees who are younger than them. This will really start to put in place a network of support, a spirit of solidarity, and spaces for openness among Shipibo women, who all too often do not feel comfortable talking to friends and family about personal issues, especially those that are newly forming in this rapidly modernizing generation of young women.
To see more photos click here.
Sunday, 08 March 2015