CRS brings hope to Ecuador's Andes Indigenous people show gains in health

March 31, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

SAQUISILI, Ecuador -- The indigenous people cling to the high Andes Mountains, coming down as deliberately as the glaciers from the nearby 19,348-foot Cotopaxi volcano.

As they have for generations, the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas herd sheep on wind-swept hills. They grow crops on terraced slopes of fertile lava turned to soil. At times they descend the 2,000 feet to go to market in this town in the Central Highlands.

The hardy mountaineers endure harsh sunlight near the equator and cold, stormy nights. Yet their meager sanitation, minimal health practices, and often-unbalanced diet of barley, rice and beans make many vulnerable to disease.

Their plight has brought them in touch with a network of individuals, teams and clinics of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a Baltimore-based world relief agency, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Latacunga.

Some of the indigenous people have shown general health improvement since being introduced to disease prevention by CRS in the last several years, diocesan officials said.

CRS has trained women as health promoters, who visit their mountain aeries to talk about nutrition, sanitation, prenatal care and first aid. They work in teams composed of a nurse, nutritionist and social worker who do blood tests, weigh children and examine pregnant women.

The emphasis is on prevention more than cure. But when the indigenous people face serious illnesses they can descend to one of 14 regional clinics, such as the one operated by Dr. Mary Magdalene Montalvo in this market town near Latacunga.

"Life is hard for these people," Montalvo said between dispensing medicine and advice.

One by one the patients entered with worried faces under their traditional brimmed hats. Over two days, 70 women, children and men without health insurance were comforted and given free care.

Anita Cordova, CRS coordinator of health and village banking in Latacunga, and Sister Josune Elustondo walked among the patients and held their hands.

Livelihood or treatment

If the patients had to pay for their treatment, a CRS official said, they would have to sell a cow or a sheep, something they could not afford.

Often wary of government medical officials, they have found the diocesan-run medical clinic a friendly place specifically designed for them. It's a haven for the poor in the forbidding Andes, which has relatively few in a 4,500-mile mountain chain, three times as long as the Himalayas.

Many heard about the clinic from one of the 80 health promoters in 40 area communities. CRS recruited them by tapping its network of village banks for poor people, which lend money primarily to women to start small businesses.

Besides work in health and development, CRS has promoted sustainable agriculture in Ecuador with programs in water and ,, land management, soil conservation, reforestation, community credit and diversified crop and farm animal production.

Although local conditions vary, the agency's work here is typical of its quiet efforts, away from headlined disasters, in most of the 80 countries it serves in Latin America, Africa and Eurasia. As usual, it does not proselytize.

Tomasa Llumitasig, 85, had burned a hand cooking on a wood fire. She waited two weeks before seeking help and now held her fingers in a disinfectant solution. Her daughter-in-law, Wilma Yaneth Guanoquiza, sat close.

A frightened young woman, too worried to talk, lay on a cot and would shortly be diagnosed with amoebic colitis. Maria Toaquiza, a 22-year-old mother, was nursing her baby, Edwin Wilfred, as a daughter, Wilma Janet, 4, was being treated for facial scabies.

They said hardly a word and stared from their bench. A few smiles began to emerge. When they talked they spoke Quechua. Most don't speak Spanish.

The doctor said health practitioners learned that the indigenous people express different notions of the body. For example, if someone says, "My heart hurts," it means, "My stomach hurts." If "Everything hurts," it could mean, "I don't know where."

Many come down from the mountains to Saquisili on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the market days. Some come from surrounding towns on those days. So that's when the clinic is open. And that's when Montalvo, who has a practice in nearby Latacunga, volunteers two days each week.

Medicine is given free; it's always expensive and limited. The doctor indicated a shelf of erythromycin, an antibiotic. "We need more medicines; we need more doctors in so many places," he said.

Montalvo tended to her patients under a picture of Mary and the Christ Child with the inscription, "Love is the light of the soul," but she pointed to two color photographs on another wall.

One was of two beaming indigenous children; it was meant to show the youngsters that children can be happy. The other photograph, of very old people, was meant to tell the story that they can live to an old age.

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