Coming of age in Conchali
‘When I was a girl I never went out or did anything. But now, at 63, I’ve changed completely. If anyone says let’s go somewhere, I go. I’m really enjoying myself.’
Pilar is part of a network of older women in the marginal borough of Conchali to the north of Santiago in Chile. This network grew from a nucleus of 10 older women who decided they wanted to do something for themselves and their community. They were trained as promotoras, or community workers, by the Instituto de la Mujer, a women’s group in the capital, and have been busy organizing the community via older women’s groups ever since.
Lidia is in her sixties and is one of the original 10. She began as a promotora by carrying out a survey to find other women of her age. Lidia says: ‘We started just by talking through our problems and I began to run some relaxation sessions from what I’d been taught. For a while that was all we did. Then they said they wanted to do some more, so we got started.’
Lidia has been helping older women to come to terms with their approaching old age, by holding discussions on a whole range of subjects, including the role of older people, health care, basic rights and sexuality. The women are then equipped to work in the community with others – both young and old.
Laura was one of the first promotoras to be trained. She found that her skills as a gardener and farmer were much in demand. So she started small-scale farming sessions, creating rooftop gardens in the densely-populated borough.
Once a week over 20 older women meet and learn about seeds, watering, transplanting and making bedding materials. Some are now growing their own vegetables. One of the group, Eliana, has even bigger ideas. She is planning a small business based on market gardening and is training other women in her new-found skills. ‘Our wish is to have an organic kitchen garden. We’ll grow lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and squash and we’ll contribute to the community with our healthy produce.’
The women are combining their new skills with their knowledge of traditional medicines, making herbal cures and giving talks to health workers, community groups and younger people.
Geraldina has set up a theatre group which regularly performs at schools and hospitals, teaching children that older people aren’t dull or worthless. The group has also worked with younger women such as Patricia, who says: ‘My experience of working with older women has been great because I’ve met people full of motivation to do things, and they do them with a love of life and a very positive attitude.’
Personal development, alongside community organization and involvement, has been the key to the mushrooming of the older women’s network. Germania speaks for many when she describes her thoughts on her involvement. ‘I came with the idea of learning and that’s what I’ve done. And one of the things that has helped me most is having more self-confidence.’ Germania is now a representative on an older people’s parliament which has been formed in the area. With one in 10 of the population over 60, who knows who might start calling the shots in Conchali?
Katrina Payne is a freelance writer.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995