[dropcap1]I sit outside[/dropcap1] a tiny shack sipping Coca Cola from a glass bottle and munching on plantain chips. The sign says it’s a plantain chip factory, but I don’t see any plantain trees around. A white pick-up truck rolls up full of women. One steps out, firmly planting her skyscraper heel into the Honduran dirt road. The sun swollen like a grapefruit sets just above her, enveloping her face in light as it drips below the mountains. With legs like Twiggy, a chest to make Victoria Secret models jealous, and a face full of makeup, she glides through the cloud of dust the pick up has stirred, yet she doesn’t get dirty.
Her port red lipstick stands out against the grays of corrugated metal shacks and fading foil food wrappers that line the roads. Children play soccer barefoot and dogs, pigs and cows all look as emaciated as their owners. Who can afford a prostitute here?
[blockquote3]..the hand wound received it in some kind of gang violence because we are in the country with the world’s highest homicide rate.[/blockquote3]
That’s the wrong question. It’s who needs a prostitute here? In the Honduran countryside it is accepted that men have the right to be with at least two women. Both sleep with him and have kids with him and cook for him. If he decides to stick around, that is. For most, marriage is viewed as too big a commitment. Hondurans respect the church too much to get divorced, so they simply don’t get married.
I am not here as a missionary to encourage marriage, though there are plenty in the country doing just that. I am here with a group of students and doctors to provide medical care in a rural village, where the closest doctor is usually a two-hour walk away.
The following morning we set up the clinic in an elementary school in Santa Cruz, El Paraíso, Honduras. The children miss school, so the rest of the villagers can have access to healthcare. We arrive at nine in the morning, and a line of 300 people has already formed outside the school gates. Once the gates open and people flood in, more lines form. One develops outside of the first grade classroom, triage for today. Another grows outside the fourth grade classroom, the doctor’s office. Whoever designed the school with huge windows opening to a central courtyard probably meant to make the crammed cinderblock classrooms appear more spacious. But today the gaping windows simply ensure privacy will be hard to come by. As the patients come in to consult with a doctor, their neighbors cling to the wrought iron gates covering the window, watching the doctor-patient interactions like a foreign spectacle.
I shadow Dr. Anna, a young doctor from Tegucigalpa, while she listens to the symptoms of diarrhea, scabies, and pneumonia that plague the villagers. The generator for the transportable dentist office hums loudly, and the children in the next room begin to sing their hundredth round of “Cepilla los dientes,” a cute song, the first time you hear it. With her warm gaze and steady voice, Dr. Anna creates a cocoon of privacy amid the ruckus. She moves deliberately through each consultation making sure to leave none of the patients’ questions unanswered.
A man comes in bleeding profusely from his hand. He is the pastor of the local church and was building a house when the corrugated metal from the roof fell, gouging his hand. Dr. Anna seats him and makes sure he is applying pressure to the wound. Then returns to her office, ready to focus on her current patient. A woman sits in front of us, a boy about age three leans into her and a two-year-old girl stands behind her trying to disappear from the doctor’s view. An infant lies in her lap, her skin soft and pink. The mother tells Dr. Anna she is pregnant, and wonders if she can continue nursing. But it is not really a question; she can’t afford formula and abortion in Honduras is illegal. So we load her up on multivitamins trying to give her body enough sustenance to feed three humans at the same time; five, really, as she is the sole breadwinner for her children.
Honduran women are the bedrocks of these rural communities. Mujeres have stable homes, raise the children and organize health clinics. Mujeres led the protests against the U.S Marine invasion in 1924. And it was mujeres who began organizing the campesinos into farming cooperatives in the seventies. Yet, Honduran women only won suffrage in 1954, making Honduras the last country in Latin America to give women the right to vote.
After a few more patients get their turns, Dr. Anna is ready for the pastor. She hands me, her stand-in nurse for the morning, a bag of purified water, and a dusty green bottle of soap. We walk outside to wash his wound, the throngs of people part allowing us into the blinding white light. Soap and water mix with the pastor’s still pulsing blood creating a red foam waterfall. Through the gore I can see his tendons, tense from the stress. He bites his shirt to dull the pain, and I begin to feel woozy. I step away to get some air, but I can’t find any. It’s too crowded, too dry and too hot.
Back inside, Dr. Anna sews him up with four neat stitches, trashes the bloodstained table-covering, changes gloves, and proceeds to the next patient. Miraculously, she has remained clean throughout the entire surgery. As she reaches to sip her Coca-Cola and smiles confidently, I realize why her face looks so familiar. She and the prostitute from the plantain chip factory are one and the same.
I assumed Dr. Anna was a prostitute because she was wearing tight clothes in an impoverished neighborhood. I assumed the man with the hand wound received it in some kind of gang violence because we are in the country with the world’s highest homicide rate. Clearly, I need to stop making assumptions and learn the real stories of the people of Honduras.
Dr. Anna is from Tegucigalpa, the capital. There, cosmopolitan women are pushing for change. Dr. Anna tells me that in Honduran cities women now have the same opportunities as men, maybe more. Because, she says laughing, we’re a little pushier. Growing up in the city, women have access to education and many take advantage of it. There are six workers at the medical clinic this week: three doctors, two dentists and a pharmacist; of them five are women.
It was those five women who were getting out of the pick up truck back on that dusty road. All dressed to the nines, not because they were looking for action, but because they were professionals.
On the third day of the clinic I join one of these cosmopolitan women working in a room tucked in the corner of the school. Normally, a band room, today it’s the gynecologist’s office. A group of fifteen women have gathered outside, all at various stages in their lives, teenage mothers, which are the norm here, middle-aged abuelas taking care of their grandchildren and one elderly woman who will try to sneak in though she has no need for a PAP smear. They sit at the wooden desks, giddy, laughing, and gossiping like schoolgirls at lunch.
A tap comes from the yellow metal door, and one woman steps up and moves the rock out of the way, one patient exits, and the doctor’s head peers out, “Próximo.”
Drums are stacked precariously against the far wall. Desks have been crammed to the side to make room for the examination table. It is dim in the room, as someone has covered the windows with floral sheets. We politely look away as each woman undresses, trying to salvage any privacy possible.
We sit down in plastic garden chairs after one slight woman’s exam. She speaks of her desire to get pregnant. At age 25 and with only one child, she is a rarity in this village. Her request to get pregnant is the only of that nature we’ll hear during our visit. Most of the women here age 15-25 are pregnant or nursing at all times, sometimes both. She talks quietly and fast, seemingly embarrassed by her struggle, but not enough to turn down help. I catch the words “machista,” “otra,” and “mujer.”
Her partner is sleeping with another woman. She knows that is how she got an STD, but there is nothing she can do. He refuses to wear a condom. She relies on him financially to care for their son. She wants to get pregnant to draw him back to her, telenovela style. But as long as she has the STD, the doctor tells her she will not be able to get pregnant.
When I get on the bus at the end of the day I flip open my notebook to the notes I took before my trip, “Honduran men believed machismo could be grown by impregnating women; birth control rare; men frequently left women after impregnating them; rarely did they legally marry.” The use of past tense in my scribbles feels awkward now. Reading about Honduras in the New York Public Library before I left, under the expansive, hand-painted ceiling, the sweet smell of old books overwhelming, I had assumed this misogynistic behavior had changed. The book I was reading was published in 1994.
How much longer will these men be able to control their women? It is clear that in the cities, where access to education is far easier, the power has already shifted. Will it only take another generation for the campesinos to catch up?
One afternoon at the clinic, I begin to play tic-tac-toe with a group of eight-year-old girls and boys. Tic-tac-toe turns to hangman and then one girl asks me to make her a test. She shows me how to do it, math questions here, science next, and then some social studies questions. Relieved that I read up on Honduran history before I left, I rip sheets out of my notebook with individual “tests” for each girl. More girls swarm around me, eager to display their knowledge to the foreigner. The boys scatter, finding a ball nearby that intrigues them more. The girls’ eagerness to display their skills is impressive and their hunger to learn genuine, yet I can’t help but wonder how their future will look.
Photos by Damian Weikum