The Impossible Made Possible
A LOGICAL OUTGROWTH of the basic program in agricultural reconstruction was the development in Home Welfare, designed to reach the women of the rural villages, and to work with and through them to achieve permanent values and improvements.
An American who had lived long years in Greece, and whose opinions I respected highly, when he learned of the program we were contemplating was extremely dubious of the outcome. He knew that we intended to call in an American woman as director of that section of the program, and he was firm in his opinion that we were making a serious mistake.
"In Greece," he told me warmly, "such work for peasant women is utterly impossible. More than that, any American woman attempting it is bound to fail in the end."
"Nonetheless," I insisted, "there is a crying need for that type of work. Surely, if the need exists there must be a way to meet it. It should be possible to find a devoted, energetic, understanding woman who will be capable of putting such a program into operation and of making a great success of it."
My friend was by no means convinced. He elaborated upon the unenviable position of the woman who would be chosen to lead such a project. He explained more carefully the subdued status of the Greek woman, especially of the peasant class. He emphasized how difficult it would be to induce Macedonian women to support such a program to a degree that would be at all satisfactory. He pointed out that the leader's helpers and assistants, if they could be mustered at all, would practically be taking their reputations in their hands, flying in the face of established conventions, and perhaps even doing more harm to a worthy cause than good.
Still, the obvious value of the program we were considering struck me with such clarity that I was determined to try. Consequently, we engaged Martha Parrott and set her to work.
We have seen the sensible manner in which Martha approached her difficult task. We reviewed the careful steps that she took, one after the other, in arriving finally at a method that worked. Her scheme of promoting a program through so-called "home demonstration centers" seems almost to have been providentially inspired. Her plan of having two girls function as a team obviated one of the principal hazards of such a venture—that workers of this kind, unaccustomed to the more or less primitive conditions of these rural sections, might become obsessed with haunting loneliness and fear.
Martha was fortunate from the first in having a source of practical nurses of the type that she needed—"Social Visiting Aides" as they were designated. It will be recalled that obtaining home economics instructors presented something of a problem in the beginning before the Normal School of Home Economics at Athens was ready to supply trained workers. However, Martha faced this difficulty with her usual directness. She selected girls who had completed their secondary education, girls who came from good homes and who had an evident flair for home tasks, and in an astonishingly short time she transformed them into adequate leaders and instructors. Here was a clear example of first creating the tools with which to do a given piece of work. In this as in so many other aspects of this pioneering job the impossible was quickly made possible under Martha's capable direction.
In measuring the permanent values which were an outgrowth of the Near East Foundation program in Macedonia, it is this Home Welfare program which gives one a real feeling of pride of accomplishment, possibly because so little hope was held out for it by those who seemed to know Greek peasants the best. For although it was an offshoot of the agricultural project, and began as a subordinated section of that project, yet one can safely state that the good will and sympathetic response which it evoked and the contribution which it made rivaled in a way that of the agricultural program upon which it depended.
Thus these Home Demonstration Centers, where the two girls lived and shared the village life to the fullest, were the medium through which a program of solid and valuable education was offered to the Macedonian woman.
By the winter of 1933—34, the activities of the Home Demonstration Centers were in full swing, the girls had adjusted themselves to their quite rigorous routines, the first important steps in gaining the confidence and cooperation of the refugee women had been taken, and it was possible to study the whole program more or less objectively. It was feasible now to estimate with some degree of accuracy the impact which had been made upon rural home life and the momentum which was developing in this phase of our program.
There was good reason for surveying the results of our handiwork at this particular time. In November of that year Martha left the pioneering job she had courageously undertaken in order to apply in her own life the same lessons she had so successfully taught her Macedonian girls. She left to establish a home of her own.
Martha's departure was a serious loss in more ways than one. She had been on the job just three years and in that brief time she had performed a magnificent service in the field of home welfare. But she had been unable as yet to develop in her Greek staff a trained understudy to take over her work. In every program undertaken, we envisioned a time when the Americans in charge would be gradually withdrawn to be replaced by competent local leaders. Frequently this replacement involved selecting an outstanding field worker and supplementing his or her education and experience with postgraduate training in America. Our Home Welfare program had not been in operation long enough to apply this policy. Nor was there any other properly qualified American woman readily available to carry on from this point.
Thus we turned to a competent Greek nurse who was familiar with Near East Foundation policy from having served with the organization in another area. Nurse Abadji picked up the threads of the Home Welfare activities from Martha Parrott and, although quite inexperienced in methods of rural education, carried on conscientiously and energetically until the normal procedure could be reestablished once more. This was accomplished when some time later Meverette Smith was transferred from Albania after several years of highly successful educational experience among Moslem girls of that primitive country. Meverette took over in Macedonia with all of the native ability and drive that had characterized the beginning of the work by Martha Parrott. By the time the Italians and Germans had bombed them all out, Meverette had brought the program to new standards of perfection. Moreover, she had by this time developed in her staff several competent understudies who might soon have taken over with credit to themselves and their country.
But we must return to the program itself.
The reader will recall, no doubt, that Martha Parrott's inspired approach had included summer day nurseries for the children of the refugee women who were so borne down by their work in the hot fields that they had neither the time nor the strength to care properly for their small children.
This feature of the program, providing as it did an opening wedge and a service of immediate and practical value, was made a standard feature of each of the Home Demonstration Centers. From the day nurseries, one might say, a whole new social concept was demonstrated and offered to the rural women of Macedonia, and their response to it was quick and whole-hearted.
And it opened the way to a vastly more complicated and more valuable succession of activities. One of the foremost of these was the mothers' classes conducted in each of the Home Demonstration Centers.
From the very beginning of the demonstration, every effort was made to teach the women to use the meager facilities at their command. We tried to avoid the pitfall of talking down to them, or foisting upon them theoretical information which was not directly to the point and immediately applicable to their needs. Unfortunately, far too many programs fail because of this very weakness. I had long before discovered the fallacy of trying to teach the involved operations of the gigantic combine which harvest our wheat fields to a people who cut their own grain crops with a sickle. Equally questionable would be an attempt to teach the use of the electric stove, or even a kerosene burner, to a people who must use charcoal or dried cow dung for fuel.
So the living room in each of the Home Demonstration Centers became a classroom. The building which housed it was a typical village home, but slightly modified, and thoroughly renovated so that it was neat and clean and wholly sanitary. There was a small vegetable garden and some flowers, a hive or two of bees, and a small flock of chickens. In each case, the home was intended as an inspiration to the villages about, a living example of what they could do with their own homes with a little work and the desire to improve themselves.
The curriculum was largely evolved from the eager questioning of the pupils themselves. They received much intelligent guidance, but there was no attempt to overburden them with elaborate instruction for which they had no practical need.
The normal working plan was for the village women to meet regularly at the Center. Of course they invariably brought along their retinues of small children. In order that the mothers might be relieved of the care of them, and thus devote themselves more unstintedly to the discussions and the lessons, the home economics girl took the children in charge, amused them with growing competence, and left their mothers free to give their undivided attention to the nurses' instruction.
It is gratifying to look back at the solid achievements of those visiting aides. The range of subject matter, the intelligent development of evinced interests, the devoted effort to help the refugee women to help themselves gives one a warm and glowing satisfaction.
Out of their own experience and observation those hard-working women were led to study the practical aspects of the prevention of disease. They studied child care, first aid, and home hygiene.
Of course, their lack of fundamental information in many instances was pitiable, but their eagerness to improve themselves, and to learn how to manage better and more easily was a revelation to everyone connected with the program.
At every step of the way when they had expressed an interest in a subject which fell within the scope of the program, a serious endeavor was made to give them the information they wanted, simply so they could understand it. More than that, the instructors went to infinite pains to make every lesson as practical and as graphic as humanly possible. There was an endless series of demonstrations, practice sessions, and the like.
Poor refugee women had a whole new world opened up for them, and yet the beauty of it was that it was really the everyday world in which they lived, viewed with new understanding and with practical methods for improving one by one the complicated processes of their day-to-day living.
On regularly appointed days, the home economics instructor conducted classes for the unmarried girls. Here, too, the need was great. The approach was in precisely the same common sense fashion, but we realized that if we could reach these girls before their marriage, and the increased demands of family life and added toil in the fields, there was a good chance that we could impart to them even a little more than to their mothers— that we could make still another contribution to improved living standards in rural Macedonia.
Here too we made a concerted effort to avoid the absurd mistake of trying to teach young girls to do things in a way radically different from what they had seen their mothers do. Here, too, we constantly kept in mind our major precept, that the improvement of the rural women, young and old, must come from the woman herself.
It serves no practical purpose to show a woman a better way to bake and sew unless she understands the improved method, is convinced wholly of its practicability and desirability, and is willing, if not eager, to learn it.
Therefore, these unmarried girls were encouraged with the utmost sympathy in their courses in sewing, cooking, and gardening. The home economics leader strove to meet each girl's problems squarely, sanely, and warm-heartedly. She helped the girls prepare their hope chests ; taught them how best to manage small brothers and sisters in preparation for the days when they would have their own growing families. She kept their interest vibrant with practical demonstrations. In the course of their studies these girls covered an astonishing wealth of subjects, from foods and clothing to complicated ethical problems which were somehow relative to the home welfare program.
It was a constant satisfaction to those in charge of the program that the women invariably showed such a lively interest. As a matter of fact, the women in the villages usually attended their classes in greater numbers, more regularly, and more alertly than the men attended their classes. And perhaps the greatest compliment which could be paid the program was that the menfolk universally approved wholeheartedly of the work their women were doing. The Home Welfare director was approached throughout this period innumerable times by delegations of men from far outlying regions where there were no centers, pleading almost pathetically that the work be carried to their villages too so that their wives and mothers and sisters might partake of it.
Demanding as the mothers' classes and the classes for the unmarried girls were on the two young ladies who conducted each of the home demonstration centers, nevertheless that was not the end of their work. In the initial survey of village conditions in Macedonia, it had been apparent that, along with the mayor and the priest, the local schoolmaster was a person of community importance. He was a key man, a mighty factor in the life of the village. And we recognized that our work could be furthered immensely by so arranging that he, in each case, would be willing to cooperate and assist in the development of the Home Welfare program.
Luckily for us, two factors were of tremendous help in securing the good will and active assistance of the local schoolmasters.
One of these was a letter from the Minister of Education in Athens, suggesting in a friendly fashion, but with firm intent, that the schoolmasters lend themselves to our program.
But in itself, this would probably have been of little actual value, were it not for the second factor. In the curriculum of the Greek primary schools of that time was included certain instruction in hygiene. Doubtless, among many other subjects not all of them basic, this was a thorn in the side of the harassed schoolmaster who daily faced the huge problem of teaching the rudiments of learning to a "schoolful" of not too eager scholars.
It was a most fortunate discovery, then, when someone learned that the nurses were competent to provide instruction in hygiene which would meet the requirements of the curriculum. That relieved the schoolmaster of the responsibility, and yet he could entirely fulfill the demands of the state educational department.
So it was that on appointed days the nurse went to the schools of her village, and sometimes near by villages, instructed classes in the elements of hygiene, inspected teeth, eyes, colds, sores; did a little necessary first aid and generally made herself useful within the limits of her authority. It should be pointed out here that whenever there was an ailment of any kind, either at the school or at the Home Demonstration Center which could be considered at all the province of the local physician, the patient was instructed to apply to him for medical treatment.
In this way the feud with the local men of medicine, which we had early feared was completely obviated, and, as a matter of fact, the cooperation and assistance which we received from the local doctors was a source of much solid satisfaction.
On certain days when the nurse was not at the school, girls from the upper grades were sent to the Center for such home economics instruction as a liberal interpretation of the standard curriculum would allow them to receive. In many of the centers it was found that the schoolmaster had a human enough facility for allowing our workers to take over a good proportion of some of this specialized teaching.
An eventual development of the mothers' classes was the well-clinics for babies. Established along the lines of well-clinics all over the world, those which we started in Macedonia were as time passed without doubt one of the most important contributions which we had to offer for better living in that part of the world.
These well-clinics enabled prospective mothers to receive able prenatal care from the local physicians, supplemented largely by the near-at-hand experience, advice, and supervision of the nurses' aides.
In this endeavor we also made careful attempts to break down the age-old bonds of superstition which so largely enslaved the Macedonia peasant, although everything offered in this regard was done so circumspectly that we avoided running the risk of seeming iconoclastic and of creating a fractious attitude on the part of these people with whom we worked.
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