Yesterday afternoon, I left my house to visit my recently installed improved stoves. I think I´ve mentioned before, but I repeat, house visits are one of my favorite parts of my job. They are effective; to tell a young mother that she needs to keep animals out of her kitchen is one thing in the sterile health post, it is completely different to show her the dirt her dog, cat and guinea pig bring into the kitchen. Also, nowhere do I feel better about my work than in a house that has made serious changes. Some families have gone from blackened, smoky kitchens and open-air bathrooms to whitewashed kitchens with improved stoves, sinks and beautiful latrines in the backyard. I love it, and tell the families. There I am sometimes a motivator—“Don Justo, when are you going to finish that stove?” sometimes a friend, “Zenaida, your sink looks great but it would be even nicer if you used the rest of your cement to build a little table next to it,” sometimes an educator, “This, Doña Rafaela, is how you should use and clean your chimney so that it doesn´t smoke,” and sometimes a bit of an authority, “Señor Juan, if you don´t finish your sink by next Tuesday, we are going to take your materials.” I am not always comfortable in my different roles, but have learned to transition nicely. What keeps the task interesting and fun is that, while these are my professional roles, sometimes people thrust others upon me: listener, gossiper, best friend.
Returning from the visits yesterday, a woman not in my stoves projects, but with whom I´ve worked with in sinks and latrines, called me to her doorstep. She asked about a meeting, which was clearly a weak excuse for a long a chat about her son (“too lazy!! He won´t do anything in school. He just wants to be a farmer like his parents!!”), which somehow transitioned into a discussion of the differences between American and Peruvian parenting and, then, surprisingly, birth control. I should say this is a loaded topic in the sierra. First, due to the closed nature of sierra culture, there is shame about mentioning sex or birth control. Family planning programs are a recent phenomenon, at least in Musho, maybe a generation old, and many women still do not trust the various methods available free through the health post. According to local myths and beliefs, the injection can cause cancer, women to gain 20 or 30 kilos, and the pill causes splitting headaches, and, in many cases, madness that overtakes women and causes them to want to kill their husbands. As I spoke with my acquaintance, a woman of 35 and health promoter, she cited examples of these symptoms among friends and acquaintances, and was clearly curious as to my response. Among men there are other beliefs: that women who want to take birth control want to sleep around is the most common. She told me of a woman with 11 children whose husband told her to look for another husband if she wanted to take birth control.
Two aspects of this discussion struck me as particularly unique: 1. That the woman I spoke with is a health promoter, elected as a leader in her community and trained by the health post in different topics. Despite this, she at best was doubtful about the health post´s assertions that birth control is harmless and, at worst, completely against the idea. 2. That she told me. Often women will mention to me doubts about birth control, but I never expected such a candid conversation, in the streets of all places. Her doubts and anecdotes worry me, but the fact that she told me I could only attribute to the magic of house visits. For months, I have visited people in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, asking about latrines, bathroom-going habits, hand washing, and life. Now, for better or worse, people feel comfortable airing their doubts about anything—from sinks to birth control. It´s an achievement of sorts, no matter how strange and sometimes uncomfortable.
And, to finish the story, how did we end our 45-minute discussion? She asked me if it were true that now they “castrate” men so they won´t have any more babies. At first I was baffled then completely amused when I realized she meant vasectomy but was confused by the terminology and procedure. I managed to explain to her the surgery without laughing but was undone when she got excited and claimed that she was telling her husband that very evening to go and get “castrated.” Citing the arriving rain, I left, only starting to laugh hysterically when I was out of site.
Also, after yesterday´s interest-piquing discussion, a 10 year boy said my title quote to his mother.