The Lesser Half
Martha Parrott approached her difficult task as only a veteran would face itówith no preconceived notions of what she would do, or just what procedure she should follow. She asked only that she might find a suitable entree; something that would lead her into the homes and the hearts of these people, give her anj intelligent understanding of their everyday problems and brings her eventually to the particular type of program that should be j conducted. She studied our budding agricultural work and talked with the men. She visited schools and conversed with the teachers. She spent three days in a village as the guest of one of ourj agriculturists and his wife.
Martha found one woman teacher who with more spirit and ambition than most of her contemporaries was giving special attention to the out-of-school girl. With the backing of an unusually progressive Prefect (District Governor) arrangements had been made with the community for this teacher to have a small stipend added to her meager salary to reward her for such extra labor. But the community council had forgotten its promise, and the teacher dispaired of her pay. She was considering dropping the work. Martha quickly decided that here was her first opportunity for an entering wedge. She would use her influence to induce this village to keep its agreement, pay the young woman, and ensure the continuation of this activity. In fact, why could not other women teachers be found to attempt such work, either with the financial support of their respective communities, or, if necessary, with the help of our budget? She had as a precedent, our experience during the first year in utilizing part-time workers as a means of exploring the field and determining more accurately the agricultural problems of the area.
We conferred with our friend, Mr. Elias Laios, Director of Education for Macedonia. Could Despinis (Miss) Parrott use, on a part-time basis, such women teachers as might be found suitable from among the fifty-four villages in which we were now working? Director Laios readily agreed. He provided us with a written order which enabled Martha to discuss the question with district inspectors and village teachers and which permitted her to proceed along the line she had suggested. It was not long before she discovered seven possibilities in five different schools; teachers who had some training or at least home experience in cooking, sewing or handiwork. Even a knowledge of native folk dances was considered in the selection. All of these people were glad to supplement their small earnings as such opportunities seldom come to the isolated rural worker. In one or two places it was possible to induce the village to pay a part, if not all, of the cost. With a representative of our own constantly following up the matter there was every expectation that such promises would be fulfilled.
Martha felt that, at last, she had discovered a fairly practical lead that would at least give her a slightly better understanding of the problems of village women and girls. The classes got under way in February and in March there were twenty-two sessions with an average attendance of eighteen out-of-school girls. Sometimes older pupils of the school were included. On Saturdays, Sundays, and late afternoons instruction was given to these young women of fourteen or fifteen in mending, washing, cooking, making simple articles of clothing, singing Greek songs, and sometimes engaging in the picturesque native dances.
One Saturday in April Martha arranged in Drama a conference for her newly acquired staff. At this meeting the instructors discussed their brief experience, what they had found, how the teaching could be improved, and what the home practices were of the average village girl. The little group of seven teachers as augmented, and given some official status, by the presence of the Directress of the Girls' Normal School of Serres, the Inspector of Education for the Drama area, the Directress of the Government Orphanage for Girls at Drama, and a Professor of Hygiene from the local Normal School. They were all glad to see something of this nature attempted, and they were keen to assist. The Directress of the Serres Normal School remained over Sunday to go out with Martha to observe some of her classes in action. It was the woman's first visit to small primitive villages where some of her graduates were teaching.
By the first of May these older girls began to be needed for field work, and so this brief teaching program was brought to an end. Sixty-five sessions had been held during these few months with an average attendance of seventeen. Three of the five villages held special exercises and staged small exhibits to show the results of their efforts. The instruction had been superficial and one could not say that these classes had contributed much to the problems of peasant womanhood. But Martha had learned a great deal. Best of all she had arrived at a plan for the next bit of research in the field of her study.
Beginning with this season of the year Martha had observed peasant women in large numbers starting early for the fields and returning home in the late afternoon. On their backs or in their arms they carried nursing babies. By their sides trudged the little tots, too small to leave at home, yet old enough to get into mischief and a constant care to the mother as she followed her husband across the fields throwing the seed of the grain over the freshly turned furrows. Martha saw at once that if she could somehow care for these small children of three, four, or five years, she would thus save the mother a vast amount of worry and labor, win a place in her heart, and do something worthwhile for the children. This approach fitted the needs of the moment, and so in her characteristic way of following inspiration with action Martha proceeded to organize three day nurseries in as many different villages.
Many organizations in various parts of the world operate creches or nurseries for the children of the city factory worker. ( "Why should not peasant women who slave in the fields have this same type of service?" Martha reasoned. In Platanakia she rented a typical one-story home with a wide, open porch and a big yard in front. Before the end of the month about thirty small children were being brought daily to the center. In Kyrghia she secured the use of the local school. Classes were not yet discontinued for the summer but the teachers crowded themselves in and thus released one small room for this purpose. With the desks removed from this class room, the school yard fenced, and a decent latrine constructed, the place was not bad. Kyrghia got under way by the first of June. The third nursery, in Makriyalos, was finally going in early July.
A lot of hard work was required. Personnel had to be secured, equipment constructed, and food arranged for. All of these items were difficult to find in the villages. Here and there, with the aid of friends in Salonica, Martha found suitable young women to take charge of the centers. A young practical nurse who had had some training in England agreed to help out with the supervision, until a more permanent worker could be found. Six orphan girls whose education was being completed by Near East Foundation were brought up from Athens to work in the nurseries, gain a bit of good experience, and work off a part of their scholarship costs.
Sometimes two or three children between one and three years came from the same family. They were all given a mid-morning lunch, hot soup at noon, bread and cheese in the late afternoon. Gradually by painstaking effort they were taught to lie down and sleep during a part of the long afternoon. For these children this was as important as the food they were given. Regular hours of sleep was something they had never before known. The itinerant nurse examined them periodically. Those suffering from malaria were regularly given quinine. All unusual cases were referred to the local doctor. Children too far underweight were fed wholesome milk. But, as Martha wrote at the time, "all the food we provide may be considered as extra."
At first the women brought their children with considerable misgiving. It was only their dire need that forced them to avail themselves of this opportunity. But they came, and their skepticism eventually changed to that of curiosity; then some degree of confidence; and finally halting questions: For what reason did the nurse do that? Why do you not use this food when we always do? How did you cure that rash on the face of my baby? All of these queries were thoughtfully and carefully answered. Toward the middle of August the work in the fields greatly slackened and the need for such service became considerably less. Therefore at the end of the month the nurseries were closed. But by this time Martha had a well developed plan for her next approach. A scheme was unfolding, but yet more study was needed.
The next step in this process was obvious. Classes must be organized for those mothers who had brought their offspring to£ the nurseries; the same women, in fact, who had raised those plaintive naive, questions regarding the care of their children.
This was exactly what Martha decided to do. Thus it was that a plan quickly formed. Instruction would be given in each of the! three centers that were covered during the summer just ended. Classes could easily be conducted for two months in one place and then the staff moved on to the next. On this schedule the six winter months would be fully and effectively used.
Two young women would be neededóa nurse and someone to teach the home arts. Two girls living together would solve the problem of how to induce the average young woman to live in an isolated village and at the same time each would supplement the instruction of the other. A nurse was easy to find. In fact we already had one.
Toward the end of the summer the National School of Hygiene, operating in Athens with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, had assigned to us a public health nurse to replace our temporary helper. Dionysia Strati was a graduate of a recently organized course which just filled our needs. Facing the urgent demand for workers in health education the School of Hygiene had assigned to a well trained and experienced Greek nurse the task of organizing a short training course in public health education. This unusually capable woman had developed an eighteen months' course of study in which she not only gave her students thorough training in this special field, but instilled in them a high degree of professional pride. Graduates were given diplomas which registered them as "social visiting aides," but which did not permit of regular nursing except in a very limited way and then only under the direct supervision of a doctor. We had in such a graduate fairly good protection against entering a field which I wished to avoid.
The problem of finding someone suitable for giving instruction in the routine tasks of the home was somewhat more difficult to solve. There was, near Athens, a newly organized Normal School of Home Economics, but as yet there were no graduates and none would be available for another two years. But Martha knew how to develop a sufficiently satisfactory product out of raw, human material. She selected one of her most successful leaders from the day nursery program and trained her for teaching. Anna Lagoudaki had attended secondary school, enjoyed working with children, and knew how to cook and to sew. Her qualifications were quite sufficient for the needs of the moment.
Kvrghia was selected as the first of the three villages for this latest experiment. As indicated in the previous chapter this community consisted of five or six small settlements each separate from the other but all in close proximity to one another. In the central village of this group suitable living rooms were found on the second floor of an old Turkish house. There was a bed room, a large entrance hall, which might serve as a class room, and one small chamber which could be used as a combination living quarter, dining room, and kitchen. This old Turkish house had the unusual distinction of possessing a latrine.
There was just the slightest feeling of misgiving as the new project got under way soon after the first of October. However, the two young leaders found unexpected opportunities for service which would keep them fully occupied, even though the classes for mothers might prove to be disappointing. The nurse was immediately invited to give instruction in hygiene in four of the near by village schools. Ten lessons were scheduled each week for pupils of the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. She taught them first aid by treating their own bumps and bruises. When their heads were suspected of harboring unwelcome visitors she cut off their hair with the dexterity of an experienced barber. Finger nails were required to be cut and ears kept clean. They were taught how to brush their teeth with table salt and clean water, using a piece of cloth wrapped around the first finger as a substitute toothbrush. The cleanliness and general appearance of all of these pupils very quickly improved, at least on the days of inspection. Children needing special attention were sent to the local doctor who appreciated this deference to his skill. All of the teaching at school was supplemented by home visits and the nurse soon came to know well many families of this scattered community.
Soon after our workers had thoroughly established themselves in the village the mothers were invited to come to their rooms for a meeting. The first gathering of this kind was approached with some fear and misgiving. Martha journeyed eight hours from the headquarters office in Salonica to be present for the occasion. It was a cold, rainy day and considerable concern was expressed lest the inclement weather should combine with peasant aloofness to produce a complete failure. At the hour appointed one or two mothers strolled in, each with a baby in arms; then two or three more, and finally still others until the small hallway became thoroughly packed. It was expected that these visitors would be extremely shy. But not so. They seemed to consider the place as one of their own homes. A friendly atmosphere soon pervaded the house with much chatter, asking of questions, and looking about. The girls had their rooms neat and clean and this proved to be the cause of much comment. Martha and her helpers were delighted. It was a great triumph; in fact, the first milestone toward a workable program.
The other young woman, not to be outdone, began holding classes for girls of marriageable age. They came to the house in small groups for instruction in sewing, cooking and mending. It was surprising how little these peasant girls seemed to know. They had had much experience in threading the small tobacco leaves on the long strings of cord, but apparently no experience in threading a needle. They did not know how to hold a pair of scissors. They had never worn a thimble. They could not take the simplest of stitches. But they were eager to learn and whenever they could get away from the sorting of tobacco, which occupied most of their time in the early fall months, they came to the house for their meetings. Before the end of October three sessions had been held with an average attendance of sixteen.
Interest in the work quickly grew beyond all expectations. Regular attendance at the mother's classes jumped to well over sixty. While the mothers were attending the lesson with the nurse Anna took care of their babies. Attendance at the cooking and sewing classes grew to a point where the pupils had to be divided into four groups in order that our limited quarters might accommodate them. The nurse had virtually become a regular member of the local teaching staff and four hundred and thirty-two children were enrolled in the hygiene classes at the four near by schools. One of the most encouraging developments was the fact that girls and older women constantly dropped in at the home for a chat with our leaders.
A most discouraging feature was that the tobacco crop had not yet been sold. And this was the second year of such an unfortunate trend. Children and grown-ups were quite underfed. Some were actually starving. It was disheartening to attempt to teach the simplest of practices only to find that there was no money available with which to buy the few items involved. The Foundation was expected to engage in no relief activities, but Martha secured, from among some of her friends, donations for this special purpose. With these limited funds she purchased materials for the sewing classes, the finished products to be given out as garments to poor children. From these same funds she purchased milk and other food for the cooking classes and the dishes that were made were given out to the most needy families.
If results could be achieved under such unfortunate conditions what might they prove to be in more normal times? Martha bemoaned the fact that she was doing so little for the farm side of these women. They needed home gardens as one direct means of improving their diet. They should be raising bees; they should have a few good producing hens instead of the mongrels that made up their flocks.
The two little rooms in which the girls were living seemed to make a great impression on the many visitors who came daily to call. Martha wrote at the time: "I feel sure that these rooms are, in themselves, teaching an important lesson." She was anxious that this object lesson might be still more vivid and much more comprehensive.
Christmas and the end of December drew near. The time was approaching when we should move out of Kyrghia and transfer to the next village for the ensuing two months. But just before this date arrived Martha appeared at my office much excited. She said that her research was ended; that she had at last found her approach to the problem of home education for the women of rural Macedonia. She proceeded at once to outline her method.
She would rent, in a village, not one or two rooms, but a whole house, a typical Macedonian home. This home would be provided with a suitable kitchen garden, a few bees, and a small flock of good laying hens. It would have a sanitary latrine. Doors and windows would be screened, the place would be whitewashed, and it would be maintained as a model of neatness. All of the furnishings would be tastefully selected but at the same time all items would consist of the simple, inexpensive equipment of an average village home. Everything about the place would represent a standard quite within reach of the ordinary farmer. The home would stand out to the whole countryside as a living demonstration of the things she would teach. Her staff would still be two young women as used in the fall. Their first responsibility would be the maintenance of this home in an orderly fashion. But the living quarters would be converted into a class room and instruction would proceed during all of the winter months. In summer the house with its yard would be used for a nursery. Thus there would be a continuous program operating the year round. There could be endless refinements that might be developed as the program proceeded. But whatever happened the "Home Demonstration Center" would function as the nucleus of all teaching and home welfare activities.
Martha did not move out of Kyrghia, but transferred to new quarters that included all of the elements which she had so completely described. She went on to the second village and the third and still on until eventually she had five demonstration homes in as many different areas. Always there was the team of two leaders, and the program, with many refinements and additions, continued as originally conceived.
Just one year had gone by, but the time had been well spent. A thoroughly sound technique for the education of peasant women, in Macedonia at least, had been discovered. The effectiveness of this method came to be well demonstrated in the years that soon followed.
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