"In Bolivia one is chosen by divine selection" says Georgia Calle de Soto. As a young child she was struck by lightning while crossing a river with her Mother. "I knew then I was a "Qolliri" and had the gift to heal."
In Curahuara de Carangas, a rural town 3 hours south of La Paz, Bolivia, the 35 year old Midwife gently prepares and tightly wraps a tiny newborn in Aguayo, a stunningly beautiful hand-woven Bolivian cloth. A sense of peace and tenderness fills the room as mother and baby are united. The Aguayo is a very important piece to the Andean people and such a fitting name for the project, it has many uses: it carry things, it enables people to transmit their knowledge through the generation of it's fibres, it's a cultural symbol and it's a mantle for safe delivery.
Georgia is one of the many local Midwives who work with the team from Canada and the CECI project Uniterra. The project started in 2006 after Canadian volunteer Miriam Rouleau Perez was working in Bolivia and realized that the majority of pregnant women were afraid to give birth in hospitals. She then proposed to CECI to build a place where women could have a safe, clean and natural birth with the person they choose.
So the project "A Birth Without Risks" was born. The focus: to create special birthing rooms in the rural areas of Bolivia to cater to not just the physical, but the physiological and cultural needs of expecting parents. The birthing rooms at Curahuara de Carangas are the first of it's kind for Bolivia, and the project is currently expanding into at least 6 other municipalities.
"74% of expecting parents gave birth in their homes, with only their ill-equipped husbands attending to any complications" states Project Manager Ruth Bolaños, head of the project. This resulted in severely high rates of infant mortality and infections. Ruth has her horror stories from the field: an umbilical cord being cut with a piece of broken ceramic, or the woman who gave birth surrounded by her llamas. "The placenta wouldn't come out after the birth so she wrapped the umbilical cord around her big toe and pulled. These are the challenges we face in a place where clean water is often a luxury and hygiene is very poor."
Since the project began there has been a 500% increase in the number of women coming to the birthing centre and 95% of women now go for prenatal care. They are learning that they do have rights and this type of empowerment is translated across the younger generations of women in the communities.
The new Birthing Rooms have made the difference for indigenous families. They sharply contrast that of the typical sterile hospital atmosphere: they are separate from the hospital, the walls are made of adobe, they are inviting and warm, and offer all the comforts of home with kitchens and extra space for the family. The women can give birth in the position most comfortable for them with a traditional midwife. If problems arise during a birth they are within reach of medical help if the woman chooses.
The project has had it's challenges as Intercultural medicine in Bolivia can be very complex: consultation must be done with the local population, indigenous authorities, municipal government and the hospital staff on any issues. The traditional healing here doesn't usually agree with modern medicine practices and there is always a conflict with these two very distinct ideologies. Some doctors are supportive but others feel threatened that the Uniterra project hinders "progress" and is backward thinking, when in reality it's quite the opposite.
Though Midwives in Bolivia have gained more respect, it's always a power struggle between the Doctors and Midwives and in the end women don't have the ultimate say.
Sandra Demontigny is out to change that. The 30 year-old Midwife from Quebec is a Counsellor in Community Health with CECI, and is working to give women the power to choose. "it's rewarding for me to see little changes, the small actions that really help." Sandra and the team travel great distances through very rugged terrain to visit communities and check the progress of their hard work. "These remote communities have no communication, no phones, no internet, and things can get complex when emergencies arise. Planning precisely is part of the job in Bolivia where supplies and resources can be absent. "It's always an adventure; you may know when you are arriving, but you don't know when you are leaving."
Sandra and the team are excited about a new birthing room under construction in Belen which will service a large area of indigenous groups. Belen is a community literally cut off from civilization sitting at over 4000 meters above sea level. Critical for the many nearby villages, people walk to the health centre here for care sometimes up to 6 hours in extreme conditions. One ambulance services the entire area. Belen is a dramatic tree-less landscape, scattered with herds of llamas and Alpacas, a 6 hour drive from La Paz, with the snow capped Andes lingering on the horizon. People speak mainly Quechua and Aymara, with some Spanish.
For Sandra and husband Pierre-Luc and their three young children, working and living in Bolivia has been a family affair. "Our family is more united" says Pierre-Luc "We are happy here and free from the stresses and expectations of North America. It's a relaxed lifestyle, and we can spend more time with our kids. In Canada it's much different."
Sandra and Pierre-Luc give advice to volunteers who want to travel abroad: "Be open minded, patient, flexible and adaptable. Be sensitive to your host country's cultural beliefs" Pierre-Luc adds, "We are here working together and helping, but in the end I feel we are the ones who are benefiting with a rich learning experience that will last a lifetime."
The Mayor of Curahuara de Carangas, Romulo Lucio Along Huarachi has nothing but praise for the project and the positive results of the Canadian effort. "80% of our volunteer placements are successful. When families volunteer and stay in the community they make connections easier and there are more opportunities for our community members, giving everyone a fully interactive experience. In a place where the only industry and income generated is through raising Alpacas and llamas for wool, everyone benefits."
"The bottom line is that we are saving lives and women in Bolivia now have a choice. That is powerful."