Tears well up in Luisa Cahuana’s eyes (see below) as she struggles for words.
“God has told me I need to do this. I do it to help my sisters know the Word of God,” says Luisa, about why she has committed her life to working among Quechua villages in the mountains surrounding Cusco, Peru. “When I hear about their problems and struggles, I feel that I have to be with them.”
Luisa, literacy co-ordinator for the Scripture-use and literacy organization, ATEK, is sitting beside one of her Quechua sisters. She explains how painful it is for her to spend time away from Cusco, where she lives with her husband, Ever Sanca Sapana, and their two children, Miguel and Carol.
“They say, ‘Mom, don’t leave. We want you to stay with us.’ So, I have this struggle. When I come here I am with the women and I want to be with them, and then when I’m at home, I want to be with my kids.”
This time Luisa is a two-hour drive southeast of Cusco, in the village of Urinccoscco, where she is leading a workshop for female literacy teachers. She stands out in the crowd of women, wearing a black fleece coat and blue jeans. Her attire is a sharp contrast to most of the 25 women attending the workshop, who are wearing colourful blouses and beaded hats.
Across the road from the evangelical church where the workshop is being held, sits a Catholic church that has been vacant and crumbling for decades, and dilapidated pre-Inca ruins that overlook a valley. The incredible difference between each side of the road couldn’t be more pronounced. Outside the church are radiant women, excited about their ability to read the Word of God and their new opportunities to minister in the church. On the other side of the road, however, it is quiet—almost eerie. The ancient architecture, most of it rubble, is a reminder of a dark time for women in this community when the gospel had yet to take root.
When Luisa looks down at her shoes, memories of her childhood likely flood her mind. Visiting Quechua communities, like Urinccoscco, may also remind her of her childhood in the high-altitude town of Ayaviri, where her family struggled with poverty.
“It was extremely cold. I remember growing up with shoes with holes in them and toes sticking through the holes,” she says back in ATEK’s Cusco office. “Our dream as kids was always simple things like the day we would have a pair of socks or a new pair of shoes.”
Growing up as the second-born of pastors (Luisa’s father, Ricardo Cahuana Quispe, was a key contributor to the translation of the Cusco Quechua Bible), Luisa was taught that she could talk to God about her own and her family’s struggles, and that God could handle her questions.
“When will you give us a home where we can live comfortably like everyone else around us who seem to live so happily in their houses?” she would ask the Lord.
However, while Luisa was raised to freely ask God tough questions, this openness wasn’t the norm for most women when Luisa was growing up.
In fact, during Luisa’s childhood, women had few rights in society and weren’t allowed to vote. Sadly, the environment was similar in the church, where women didn’t hold leadership positions and few learned to read.
“It wasn’t even an option to ask questions,” says Luisa. “We were taught to not question why they did this, where they did this, where they came from, why a person did it that way, or why they had taught it this way. We always believed we should never, ever ask those sorts of questions.”
However, in the past 20 years, women’s rights have evolved into a global issue and rural Peru has experienced the shift as well. Since Luisa joined ATEK in 2007, the local church has seen the place of women in the church expand, alongside Quechua literacy. In the past five years, ATEK has trained 530 Quechua literacy teachers who have led literacy classes in 467 churches in the department of Cusco—most of those trained being women.
The reason the vast majority of those trained by ATEK are women is because so many Quechua girls are sexually assaulted as they walk to school on secluded mountain paths, causing most to drop out and never learn how to read Quechua as youngsters.
“It’s very dangerous for the young ladies to have to walk to these far off communities for school,” says Fredi Quintanilla, ATEK’s director, as he sits outside of the Urinccoscco women’s literacy workshop. “Many of the women have experienced this type of sexual abuse. There is so much hurt and wounds in their spirit.”
Despite the many hurdles women have had to face, Fredi believes the gospel has caused women to value themselves in their society. They want desperately to learn the Word of God and teach their children. He says the shift in Quechua homes is clear.
“It’s even common to see men take up some of the responsibility in the home, so a woman can learn to read and participate in other things.”
At an ATEK workshop for female literacy teachers, participants rehearse a skit for use in community literacy classes.
One of the women Luisa has trained is Olga Sacatoomani. The mother of five is the women’s ministry leader in the 12 evangelical churches in the district of Livitaca. She is a strong woman. Living in an adobe house (made of mud and straw), she overlooks a remote valley, with sun-lit mountains in the distance. This is where she tends her cows while traversing the steep inclines of the mountainside.
Olga knows hard work. Like they are for other Quechua women, long days on her feet are normal. When she visits the 12 churches in her area she is often gone two days on horseback—or she will walk, sometimes for up to six hours.
She is a trailblazer, just like Luisa and Joni Carbajal, who is ATEK’s children’s co-ordinator. However, blazing a new—once socially unacceptable path—can be lonely. Although Olga usually finds support for her ministry from her husband, he sometimes will be upset with her and will want her to stay home with the cows and the kids. And from her sisters in the church, Olga doesn’t receive support, but jealousy instead.
“Many of them want to be involved in this but either their spouses don’t let them or they don’t have the time for it, and they end up spreading rumours about me. They say that I dominate over my husband,” explains Olga, as she watches her pasture in the distance.
Fredi isn’t surprised by the criticism Olga faces.
“It is completely unknown in this culture to be leading like that,” he says. “People don’t know how to deal with it. It causes a certain level of jealousy and suspicion in people—including some of the men in the church. “
Despite the barriers that still exist, Luisa insists the culture has improved for leaders like Olga.
“Often the churches end up calling these ladies up to the front and saying, ‘Please share the Word of God with us and preach.’ ”
If there is one virtue that Luisa needs in her role, it’s patience. Thankfully, ATEK’s soft-spoken literacy co-ordinator has learned perseverance since her childhood, when she and her siblings dreamt of new shoes, full bellies and a home of their own. God heard her cry. In recent years her parents bought a home that is only a short walk from the ATEK office in Cusco, a popular city for tourists wanting to visit Machu Picchu.
“My parents are sharing with us. So I am very thankful for the blessing God has given us. I never, ever dreamed that I would have my own home here in Cusco. To live in Cusco has to be one of the most expensive places to live in the whole country of Peru.”
For Luisa, teaching Quechua leaders has required similar patience, because acquiring the ability to read and write is a long process.
“The biggest problem is with reading comprehension,” says Luisa, before explaining that Quechua women generally aren’t accustomed to reading. “This is a huge, lifelong process. We need consistent follow-up. Little-by-little we see change. In three years we can really see serious results of change.”
As each woman grows in her ability to read and write, they are able to understand Scripture better, and then are equipped to teach and lead the women in their church community.
“Our goal is that each church will use the Word of God and comprehend it,” says Luisa. “In that way their lives will be changed.”
With more than 500 literacy teachers trained, soon much of the work will be left in the hands of the leaders Luisa has trained. And as each Quechua teacher shares the gift of literacy with her sisters, the hope of the gospel will spread and the rubble of the past will soon become a distant memory.