Jungle Mamas: Weaving Two Worlds Together For Maternal Health

May 22, 2014 | By Leah Wolfe

Robin Fink has worked with indigenous people and women’s reproductive health rights since 2006. She is the in-country based program director for the Jungle Mamas Program (a program of The Pachamama Alliance) She has used her background in anthropology to help create a culturally appropriate maternal health program with the Achuar living in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest.

The mission of the Jungle Mamas Program is to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality by empowering women and communities to ensure safe births, health, and well-being of the Achuar nation.

Receiving Guidance from Nature

Many indigenous groups in the Amazon use dream work and spiritual work with plants to receive guidance. It was this guidance that led Narcisa Mashienta, a woman from the Shuar nation to search for a way to improve maternal health in surrounding communities. One day in her garden, Narcisa had a vision, light from the sky reached her and spoke, “You have to do something to help the women and children.” A few days later, a plane arrived and Narcisa was greeted by another woman, Margaret Love, who also had a vision.

Pregnant Women Were Asking Questions

Margaret Love, a former midwife, was visiting the Pachamama community and indigenous partners in Ecuador. Pregnant women kept asking her to listen to a heartbeat, or to feel the position of their babies. The Achuar people told Margaret “We are tired of our people dying and want to learn your traditions”. Through dream work, these lights came together and connected Narcisa and Margaret. Together, they decided to provide education and teaching to revitalize the traditions of Achuar women while using the tools of western traditions.

Thus the seed was planted for the Jungle Mamas Program to come into fruition as a way to weave together the best practices of the indigenous and modern worlds, and empower women through maternal health.

The Achuar Tradition of Giving Birth

The indigenous experience of giving birth stands in stark contrast to giving birth in the “Western World”. An Achuar woman does not give birth in a hospital room surrounded by doctors, nurses and loved ones. When a woman’s water breaks, she walks into her garden by herself. To the Achuar, giving birth is such a sacred event that no one else is allowed to watch or intervene. It’s for the mother, the baby, and the spirits of the garden, and not for the eyes of anyone else. A wooden post is put up, and the mother holds onto it while squatting to deliver the baby.

Improving Health While Maintaining the Traditions of the Achuar

The Jungle Mamas understands the value of embedded cultural traditions. They provide three midwife visits before a woman gives birth and one postpartum visit. The women are given a “Safe Birth Kit”, which includes soap, sterile strings for cord care, cotton blankets, gloves, and a flashlight. The indigenous women continue their sacred tradition of giving birth alone in their gardens, yet have a few more tools to prevent birth complications.

The Jungle Mamas Program has grown to offer more services like workshops for women and their families covering topics like postpartum hemorrhage, water-borne diseases, family planning, and infant health. They have provided dry composting toilets for communities, which improves access to clean water.

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