Moms sew seeds of hope in Bolivia

Dec 12, 2017

The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market is one of my favourite places to go when visiting my family on the East Coast. It’s even more magical at this time of year, with handmade wreaths, buskers playing Christmas tunes, and everyone stocking up for holiday get-togethers.

My father, who grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario, and who still grows all kinds of veggies in a garden next to his kitchen, delights in talking shop with the vendors at the market. The vegetable growers, the cheese-makers, and the people at his favourite apple cider stand are only too happy to oblige him. There is a very real sense of community as we pay for our local produce. After only a few visits, I now know exactly where to go to get my favourite lavender tea, and the market’s famous pear cider. 

Recently, on a trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, I experienced a very similar sense of community- but one where the stakes are much higher. 

In this corner of the city where urban meets rural, a large portion of the population has immigrated from more remote areas of Bolivia, in search of better opportunity. It is here, in Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) that a group of women is changing lives, one tiny seed at a time. 

Feeding the community

Betty is a mother of three, two older boys, and one younger girl, Vanessa (pictured with her mom above). Betty was always keen to grow things like parsley and limes, and was even starting to sell them to markets. But things really picked up when the mother’s club she was a part of received training and supplies from her local World Vision office.  

“They taught us how to plant and take care of our crops,” she says. 

The all-women growers association that Betty helped form is supported by the local women’s coalition. With the help of the coalition, Betty’s group now has organic certification. 

While the certification opens access to some specialty produce fairs, where Betty and her friends can sell to a more wealthy clientele, most of their income comes from their own neighbours. Through word of mouth, the diverse and highly nutritious produce is making the rounds of this community. 

Delia (above), the woman who heads the women's coalition, is one of the biggest champions of this method of marketing. She says that at one point, she had several huge bags of spinach from her crop. People in her community were wary about buying the plant- they weren’t sure how to cook it! Delia began advocating for the nutritional value of the green, and teaching people her special “green rice” recipe. Before long, every leaf was sold.

“People are learning about it little by little and asking for it,” Delia says of her all-natural produce.

Changing a culture 

And nutrition is not the only thing these small farms are turning around.

Bolivia, as a country, has a reputation for being a difficult place for its women. It has the highest rate of physical and sexual violence in Latin America. According to the Bolivian government, 9 out of 10 women will be subject to some kind of violence. Men are given precedence in society, leaving women feeling trapped. 

But for these gardeners, banding together and creating economic opportunity for themselves has changed everything. 

“Before, I felt like a prisoner in my house,” says Betty. “Now, I have friends and do activities with them. I’m free.”

And Delia says that it is the gardener’s association that has made the difference. 

“The gardening has helped women not be so shy,” she says. They are self-confident now, and participate and bring their opinions to the meetings.”

A family that grows together, stays together

Relationships are being transformed by the women’s newfound sense of purpose. After seeing the difference the gardens have made in their families, the women’s husbands are catching the vision.

“My husband now loves to harvest the crops. It makes me happy to see everyone in my family helping,” Betty says. 

Delia’s sons help in her garden as well. Eleven-year-old Eliasar couldn’t wait to show me how his responsibilities has helped the green shoots flourish. In an area where gangs rule the youth community, Delia has managed to keep both her sons out of trouble through church and helping in her garden. 

And the gardens’ value doesn’t stop there. Delia will be selling onions to buy Christmas treats for her sons this season. And because of the money she earns from her vegetables, Betty is able to purchase school supplies for little Vanessa to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. 

Gardeners helping gardeners

While gardens are a part of regular programming in many World Vision Bolivia projects, it was Canadians’ generosity that gave Delia and Betty’s community a head-start. 

Through World Vision Canada’s Gift Catalogue, Canadians paid for a technical gardening specialist to teach women the ropes, provided seeds (which go for a premium in Bolivia), and the tools they needed to thrive. The gardens are a source of hope for the community, thanks to your partnership. 

This Christmas, my father has asked for a Gift Catalogue item to help families grow their own produce, just like Betty, and just like he does with his own little garden. I’ve seen firsthand the value of a gift like this. Now every time I visit the market with Dad, I’ll think of Betty and Delia, and the power in a tiny seed.