Monday, 11 February 2013

The Women of the Savannah

The day I arrived in San Mateo it rained --- the first time in a year. Within a week plants sprouted from the earth, shoots sprang from bare branches and flowers opened. Anyone who sowed watermelons would be rewarded. But in the town, everyone cursed the rain, as it meant mud, water coming in through leaky roofs, cars getting stuck. They saw no advantage to rain.

San Mateo used to have more rain. Outside the city people grew maize, watermelons and vegetables to support themselves. Then for the past twelve years the rains no longer came regularly. Call it climate change. The name doesn’t change the reality. For many people a way of life changed. I saw it the afternoon I followed Mary to visit the women of the savannah. Our close friends Ermica and her daughter, of Ecuador’s mountain people, also came along .

  A faint path took us through a landscape growing greener by the day, past steep gulleys, and down a winding path to a green valley below.

We passed several feral goats that had given birth only a few weeks earlier, and were taking advantage of the green shoots.

Rosita’s house rises on stilts, above a dusty patch where the goats roam. She doesn’t seem to mind the clutter inside the house. She saves her energy for the goats. Each goat is like a small bank account. Mary handed her a couple of bags of lentils. Rosita thanked her, shaking the bags. There was no need for a diabetes or blood pressure test, as Rosita was the image of health.


Rosita and Ermica

“But I’m not beautiful,” she said when I asked to take her picture. To me she was beautiful, full of strength and a zest for life. At 80, she lived alone in the bamboo house, raised her goats. She has a daughter in the barrio who she occasionally visits, but the savannah is where she belongs.

The couple that lived in the next house had only each other for company. They kept their house clean, beautifully decorated. They worked hard for their way of life and enjoyed it. Yet nothing was easy. The pig they kept supported them, as did the chickens but I had no idea where the rest of their income came from. I sensed that they took advantage of whatever opportunity came their way. They also looked in regularly on Rosita.


A beautiful house, but not necessarily durable.
Bamboo houses have a lifetime of less than ten years.

Next door, two women lived in a house that Mauro built for them.  Mary brought a book with nature pictures for Elena.

 With her calloused fingers, Elena turned the pages, delighting in every picture.  After her accident she could no longer walk or stand. Until now, her livelihood was mining gypsum. With her bare fingers. She would climb a steep shale slope to a gypsum vein, loosen it with a few strokes of the pick axe, and then sift the shale with her hands to find a few gypsum pieces. A sack of gypsum would fetch her $3. Now, only her friend could work the hill side.

Traditional cooking over fire: rice lentils and a stew. 

That day several family members were visiting. A large meal cooked over the fire stove. For Elena and her friend this was a big day, as the family didn’t come that often. Also she had received her picture book.

We continued down a path that eventually took us to the beach. On the way we passed several empty houses, each with a patch of fallow land. Before the seasonal rains stopped, maize, squashes and melons grew there. Women worked the fields and didn’t have survive only on gypsum.

The pocket knife points to the gypsum veins that fill fracture zones. A large amount of rock needs to be sifted to extract the gypsum.

Climate change? This year we’re feeling the effects in the UK, in the extreme weather patterns. Luckily our insurance and government funds pay for flood damage. In Ecuador, which straddles the equator, the effects of climate change have been felt for over a decade. Especially in fragile communities like San Mateo.  For people living so close to the land, the lack of rain forced many families to move to the town, but not necessarily to a better life.


A wayside chapel in the savannah valley. Also abandoned.

Next: San Mateo’s Children


  1. Just saw this 3rd installment. Great as were the other two and great photos. Still think there is a joutnalist lurking there inside.

  2. And we are complaining about our lifestyle..........your photos are amazing and that women are beautiful...