Women´s Health in Native Communities: Proyecto Ainbo

South America
January 4th 2011
Published: January 20th 2011
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Living with a Shipibo family of artesans, practicing Shipibo language, learning to embroider, and generally participating in daily life around the house is has become my daily life, thank the sweet universe. In the spirit of connecting with the greater Shipibo community and and pursuing some other areas of interest I have been volunteering with Proyecto Ainbo in and around Pucallpa.

¨Ainbo¨ means ¨woman¨in Shipibo. Its goals are centered around providing information, testing, and support around various women´s and reproductive health issues in local indigenous communities. Well, this is the gist of things because I´ve never received an official rundown of things. Ainbo is a joint project between the Federation of Native Communities of Peru, the Peruvian Ministry of Health, and Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (a university in Lima).

I would like to give a very appreciative shout-out to my friend Jeiser, who synchronistically facilitated my participation with Ainbo. One ridiculously hot night, newly returned from the logging camp, I sat near the Plaza de Armas of Yarinacocha, munching on a cremeolada de aguaje (icy-chips of aguaje juice- yum!). He was walking around with a mutual friend of ours, and the two of them sat down to join me. Now, this was during a time of very mild turmoil in my life, wherein I had no host family and was slightly bummed out by this fact.

Jeiser was immediately warm and sincerely curious about my intentions for travelling to Peru. I told him the expanded version: ´I like textiles, I want to learn how art connects to livelihoods for women here, I´m learning Spanish and want to learn Shipibo, etc.´ He was supportive, telling me that he is Shipibo and, as well as working as a nurse, also has an NGO dedicated to researching and preserving Shipibo language. He asked me if I am getting a degree in textiles from my university, and I told him that my focus is on Holistic Women´s Health. I got to explain my viewpoint on holistic health and how livelihood and economic health play into wellness.

Jeiser more than any other person in Peru saw and understood where I was coming from and made the connection to Ainbo. ¨If you´re interested in Shipibo culture and study women´s health, you have to talk to director of Ainbo.¨ He explained that the doctor who headed the project was young, nice, and would probably love to have an interested volunteer. I put aside my worries over my lack of medical certifications, fluency in Spanish, and let alone the few words of Shipibo I had learned from a couple of friends, and decided to give it a go.

Jeiser introduced me to Isaac, the director, who hails from the univeristy in Lima. We immediately hit it off due to an unexpected Seattle connection: I was born and raised (I first wrote ¨rained¨!) there, and Isaac once lived there while is wife was studying at the UW, and will return to the luscious Pacific Northwest in the spring for a quarter of Medical Anthropology courses. He explained that Ainbo not only works with Shipibo women to test for STIs and provide information and treatment, as I had previously thought. For example, Ainbo has recently been testing women for HTLV, a retrovirus that often leads to various cancers and that has a high instance in Shipibo communities, much higher than neighboring tribes, for example. They also do advocacy work for folks in difficult situations, for example pregnant women with advanced health issues who may not have access to qualified medical care-providers, or any care-providers who speak their language. Ainbo visits both communidades nativas and also neighborhoods within the city with majorities of Shipibo inhabitants. For example, the team visited my future-host family (in a poorer part of the city of Yarina) and tested the daughters for HIV. Hence they were excited when I told them I help out with Ainbo.

At the invitation of Isaac, I ¨came to work¨, the little flat in Pucallpa which houses Ainbo´s headquarters and the good doctor when he´s in town. There I met the crew, which apart from Isaac consists of about 10 female professionals, from nurses to gynecologists to midwifes. A few are Shipibas and help out a lot with translating. The ladies, apart from being cool and admirable to the brink of intimidation, were welcoming and kind with me as I was invited to accompany them to work. That day we visited Puerto Firmeza, a community outside of the Shipibo city of San Francisco.

We gulped down quinoa and brought some sandwiches along, jamming eight of us into a collective car taxi out to the communidades nativas. From there, it was delivering and interpreting test-results for HTLV to women in different families. At this point in time, I was newly staying in the house of my host-family, and was blown away by the simple differences in infrastructure between urban and rural Shipibos (although it gets much more rural than Puerto Firmeza). My job was easy: as well as helping with whatever was at hand, I was the photographer. While some of the ladies were delivering more results, we constructed a tarped-off area in the community building; and improvised an examination tabel with desks, chairs and sheets. From there, I practiced my new and very basic Shipibo conversation skills with a horde of schoolkids who had gathered outside the community center to receive lunch.

That day, several women had pap-smears, both ¨controls¨and some with HTLV. We tore down the clinic, and then attempted to return to Yarina-Pucallpa. It is not as easy as you may imagine. If one has the good fortune of encountering a car headed that way, it would not have space for all of us. The beat-up sedan collectivos are weighed down with families and dogs in the trunk and even the roof. We ended up walking back with our mini-coolers of samples to San Francisco, not a mere jaunt. Of course, when we travel after the rains and there is no more dirt road to Pucallpa, it is a matter of seeking a boat-driver to take us back to the city via the lake.

Other days with Ainbo have included accompaning the ladies to other communities nearby Pucallpa, and mostly explaining about HTLV and taking blood samples. Also, there is usually a pair of ladies doing such things from the medical post (if there is one). I appreciate how there´s always someone from the project who can speak Shipibo to explain things. I also like how Ainbo works within the structure of the community. Never underestimate the power of one local woman accounting to her family members and neighbors about what it actually is like to have blood drawn or the risks that accomany unmanaged HTLV, for example. The project is more popular when we arrive where at least one woman has been tested than in the places where folks can´t imagine giving their blood to a stranger.

It may sound simple, but now imagine us walking bone-dry little roads through flat, spread-out communities under a scorching sun, trying to find this or that person or deliver the perilous little samples to a refrigerator in time. Also imagine the mood amongst 6-10 women in their thirties, stopping to joke in the shade and make green mango salads for one another. And now, for a complete picture, imagine every child within proximity younger than 15 following behind us and giggling compulsively whenever we turn to look at them. (Indeed, sometimes my role has simply been ¨crowd control¨, to keep the kids interested in something else when we are taking a blood sample or helping a woman to fill out paperwork with sensitive questions.) Sometimes we get caught in serious torrential monsoons, when the ladies cuddle together for warmth and munch on juanes, a keystone street food of the selva. Ainbo also travels to far-flung communities, where the issue of transporting and maintaining the integrity of samples is more difficult, and I can imagine the teamwork that the folks have helps a lot.

Ainbo is commendable for facilitating public health projects for Shipibo women in a very community-oriented way. Whether I am accompaning the dynamic group to villages or simply helping Isaac with technology issues, I feel happy that I can participate in such an interesting fusion of my varied interests and also be learning about my field of study. Thanks Ainbo!


20th January 2011

Sus, this sounds absolutely fantastic! I am so glad you are a part of such a wonderful project. Those unexpected opportunties that come about, especially when things seems a bit bleak, are at time the best choice you didn´t know you had! I hope everything continues to be so fulfilling. My thoughts are with you always. Much love, Kelset
8th February 2011

Sus, this article about Ainbo is very interesting, and tells about a small group who are making a difference. I would love to read more about the organization's work and the need for it, especially since HTLV is not in my knowledge base! Somehow I missed this article when it was first published. I'll check out the list of articles to see if I've missed others...

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