Reflections on Intercultural Issues and Self-Esteem for Young Girls in a Shipibo Community

By Shilpa Darivemula, Volunteer at Alianza Arkana

The girls all sat in a circle and stared up expectantly at me. We were under a cool thatched roof in the school on a beautiful yet hot day in Puerto Firmeza. It was the first of four workshops that I, along with three amazing women, developed to help improve the self-confidence and self-esteem of the young Shipibo girls ages from 9 to 15 years old. Rebecca and Kaity, two young Shipibo women, and had been discussing the idea of starting a series of workshops for the Shipibo girls in this community for a while.

Rebecca had participated in a workshop aimed at empowering girls run by ‘Girls for the World’ a wonderful organization from the U.S.A., and noted how it positively impacted the young Shipibo girls of the San Francisco community in Pucallpa who participated. I met Rebecca and Kaity at Alianza Arkana and we, along with Rebeca and Teresa, two Alianza Arkana volunteers from Germany who worked at the school in different projects, decided to support the girls in Puerto Firmeza with a some dance, music, and art workshops.

I was a bit nervous. I had picked a series of what I had thought were a good set of icebreaker games, but then realized how complicated they are to explain in English, let alone in Spanish and then Shipibo. But the team we had was well equipped for the challenge. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, stating our names, how we feel with a movement, and our favorite color. When the girls stared at my Spanish explanation with a bit of confusion, Rebecca and Kaity and Rebecca’s sister Liz, stepped in and translated, which was a huge gift.

dance workshops2We then played a few icebreakers, angering a few of the boys who wanted to join but were told it was only for girls. The girls seemed to really enjoy the workshop and worked very seriously on the unique paper bracelets we made. We had each of the girls try to define self-esteem, a word that resulted in a lot of stares and confusion. So we talked about being confident instead with the idea of developing their understanding of self esteem through further workshops. Each girl made a paper bracelet and began by first writing down 8 sentences about themselves. Interestingly, the girls were unsure of what to write, so we had to give examples, like perhaps our favorite foods, our favorite color, etc. They ended up following those suggestions strictly, oftentimes asking us if what they wrote was alright.

It made me wonder about how in the United States and other western countries, we are always encouraged to “express ourselves”, to find our “identity”, to “describe ourselves”. (Remember that piece of paper you would get at the beginning of each class each year, including in college, asking you to describe yourself in some way? I’m honestly very sure that my professors never read a single one of those surveys, but it always felt good to be able to tell him or her that my favorite color was pink, that my favorite band was ‘One Republic’, and my favorite class was Science). We begin early and we begin strong, slowly shaping us into exactly what our society wants us to be: independent, self-assured, and “aware” of ourselves.

While looking at these girls, I realized that perhaps our confidence in being able to list off attributes gives us only the façade of self-esteem. In some ways, it makes us more fragile. We are less accepting of changes in ourselves (“When did I stop liking pink and start liking green? But there is only one line for favorite color? Oh my god…can I like TWO colors?”), we are more prone to defining ourselves in linearities rather than circles, single options rather than a plentitude of views, and in the end, all that talk about ourselves….really gets annoying and bit egotistic. I am not saying that we should not do so or that our self-esteem workshops were useless, but I’m saying that perhaps there is an excess of those first-day papers and a lack of open conversations about change, about ourselves, about our interconnectedness.

In these workshops, we tried to pull away from the paper defining and hard and fast rules. We had a few conversations about what we liked and how we felt. The girls enjoyed being able to choose colors, to design their bracelets, and to wear them as well. We left them saying that these bracelets were the first step into learning how to express themselves and learning more about themselves. The girls giggled and smiled, asking us when the next workshop would be. In short, the self-confidence was practiced not through creating definitions or giving examples of how to write about yourself, but in the games, the giggles, the movement, and the arts and crafts. It was in the details where we saw the beginnings of a very long process of finding oneself and we were extremely excited that we could create this moment in Puerto Firmeza with the girls.

We had three more workshops that focused on different arts and aspects. We had a theater class focusing on several theater exercises that the girls liked quite a lot, a dance exchange between classical Indian dance and traditional Shipibo dance and created a choreography together blending both arts, and finally ended with a mask making workshop in which each girl made two masks representing how they felt inside and outside. The girls were not as quick to “define” themselves and at every moment when I asked for undefined self expression, they usually began by staring at me expectantly to show them “how”.

Most of their movements and expressions centered around modelling and being happy, which makes me wonder if they pick up what they see as “right” mainly from television and the city. Only when I began jumping around like crazy, did they start to jump around as well and explore other forms of space and expression. I think one of the biggest challenges is trying to let them know that they know what they know and that they shouldn’t be afraid of being wrong.

In a world where school consists of rote memorization and being told instead of exploring on one’s own, the challenge is mainly learning to be confident to be wrong and to think for oneself. I think the four workshops were useful, but more workshops and more time with the girls, who got more comfortable towards the end, would be wonderful and a true positive impact on their lives.

Many thanks to Alianza Arkana for this amazing opportunity. Thank you to Rebecca, Kaity, Liz, Rebeca, and Teresa.

Shilpa Darivemula is a volunteer who worked with Alianza Arkana in Pucallpa for one month in October 2013, as part of a one-year international educational program to study the use of dance as a healing medium in work with young women.

This project was funded by the Watson Fellowship, which Shilpa received after finishing her Bachelors degree in Biology and Spanish and before starting to train as an MD.

She brought this interest and her own experience in Indian dance together with her enthusiasm and intelligence to all the work she did with us, as is evidenced in her blog entry.


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