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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Working WITH the community.. the only way

Submitted by Rachelle Milam

In the early 1960’s, a young man named Bruce Olson decided that he wanted to work with the people of South America, and without the support of any agency, any money, or even any solid plans, he went. Through a series of events that spanned several years, he eventually ended up with the Motilone Indians in Columbia, a tribe that was, at the time, known only for their ability to kill anyone who came near their lands. Bruce, or “Bruchko” as the Indians named him, stayed with the Indians for many many years, and in his time he saw changes in the tribe that had never before been witnessed in a people so removed from “civilization”. They established agricultural centers, public health works, schools, newspapers, and many other amazing feats during the years that Olson worked with them. To many, this would seem just another story where a white man came in and saved the savages from themselves - however, this is not the case. The most impressive part of this story is the fact that the remarkable changes the tribe made were not through Olson’s coming in and taking charge of everything - it was through the Motilone Indians seeing a need for change and changing it themselves in their own way, with their own people.

My favorite part of his story is when he talks about how he first tried to introduce the idea of modern medicine to the Motilones during an outbreak of pinkeye. At the time, the tribe relied on a traditional healer to sing songs to the spirits and give out treatments of her own. After trying and failing to get the people to try the ointments that would heal the pinkeye, Olson got himself infected, then went to the healer and asked her to sing her spirit songs while rubbing the ointment in his eye. He was healed in just a few days. When the tribe saw that they did not have to change their whole way of doing things, but just implement new ideas and treatments, they were much more open to the idea of new medicines. That healer became a great help to Olson’s work, and he found that through education and allowing the people to learn from a healer they knew and trusted, community health was greatly improved.

Here at MoM, we could take the approach of riding (or flying) to acommunity and standing on a box in front of the whole village and telling them exactly what they’re doing wrong and why they must change. If we did things that way, I don’t imagine many people would want to listen to us. We have chosen, much like Bruce Olson did, to work in a different way. When the drops were first started, each community’s health representative or Queen Mother was asked to contact us. In the communities that had no health representative, the people were asked to get together and nominate someone that they trusted to be their health representative. Most of the contact we have with the communities is through these men and women, and it is they, not us, that communicate the information we give them for the betterment of their communities. This is so important because people are much more likely to believe someone they know and see regularly in their communities. If we were to go in and do it, people might nod their heads and pretend to listen, but likely we would not see any significant change. This way, the community can learn from people they respect, act together to change their environment, they can “own” their own health and the health of their families, and they have a much better chance of seeing the changes new health practices can bring.

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