Without Work or Housing, These Single Mothers Built Their Own Eco-village

One writer spends five days in Colombia exploring a place where solar cookers, composting toilets, and outdoor parks for kids are just the beginning.

Nashira, an eco-village in Palmira, Colombia, houses and employs 88 single mothers. (Photo: Nicole Baffa)

Dec 8, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Baffa is a contributing writer for TakePart.com.

Last month, I lugged my things across a Colombian airport terminal, climbed into a black pickup truck, and headed down a dusty, crop-lined road to spend five days with the women of an eco-village called Nashira.

When I entered the community, I was escorted along walkways lined with freshly manicured bushes and past porches full of kids and grandmothers. Further inside the village, there were solar cookers, a large composting toilet, and a children's park. Small crops grew in between homes, including chia seeds, green onions, and peppers, and a large pond of tilapia sat just at the outskirts.

Nashira, a unique eco-village in the city of Palmira, was created in 2003 by the Association of Women Heads of Household, an organization formed in 1995 to create employment solutions for single mothers. The association began by providing women with jobs as papermakers, but it soon realized a common, bigger dilemma existed among its female members: The women couldn't afford the cost of housing.

According to Forbes, women in Colombia “represent a disproportionate percentage of the country's poor, a phenomenon commonly labeled as the ‘Feminization of Poverty,’ ” and nearly 35 percent of children as old as 14 live in single-parent families. While at the time Nashira was created the government offered housing for low-income mothers, it required a 10 percent deposit on the value of the home and didn't offer any additional assistance with child care or employment.

(Photo: Nicole Baffa) The women work in groups of eight on a number of small businesses, including growing the local fruit, noni. Buildings throughout the village also feature their artwork.

So Angela Dolmetsh, the association's director, set out to find a plot of land on which to build homes for the single mothers the association employed. The central idea was to create a place where women could live and work, enabling them to raise their families while supporting themselves financially. With a personal donation from Dolmetsh, it settled on an area in Palmira, 20 minutes outside the city of Cali, and subsequently received government grants and began building homes for $9,000 per unit. The first four homes were built in 2008, and the women who moved in were enrolled in classes on recycling, composting, papermaking, and sustainable farming.

Today, the village is made up of 88 single mothers living in a community of more than 400 people. Every woman and every family member in Nashira donates a certain number of hours to the building process, supervised by a main contractor. My host mother, Maria Yibi Polania, built the staircase in her home 10 years ago.

Most of the houses on the grounds are simple: There's a small living room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and one bedroom to the side, and some houses have an additional upstairs bedroom. As my host family brought me to the second-floor bedroom, they proudly showed off the ceramic mosaic tiles designed and constructed along the staircase. Upstairs, I could hear the sounds of village activity outside the window: squawking chickens, the clinking of the recycling station, and the chatter of women working in the village's kitchen and restaurant.

(Photo: Nicole Baffa) Greenery lines the village's walkways. Every resident donates a number of hours to building homes in the village.

The village thrives on small businesses run by the women, including papermaking, ceramics, tilapia harvesting, recycling, a community thrift shop, and growing chia seeds and the local fruit, noni. All of the women are involved with a particular collective, usually in groups of eight; some sell to outside vendors, while others provide solely for the community.

Nashira's community model has gained a growing level of international interest and investment over the years; grants have come from foreign governments and private companies, including from the British Embassy for the ceramics operations and the U.N. Habitat for the children’s park.

During my weeklong stay, I met three visitors interested in partnering with Nashira’s small businesses. One was surveying the land's organic produce for a local supermarket; another was a Danish businessman interested in exporting chia from the community; a third was a Colombian Australian who came to discuss using the community's homemade paper as part of a marketing strategy for a jewelry line.

(Photo: Nicole Baffa) Papermaking is one of the women's specialities. One visitor expressed interest in exporting wrapping paper from the village for a jewelry business.

New businesses have evolved since the inception of Nashira: Olga Lucia Caycedo, the owner of a local restaurant, El Kioskon de Rozo, was one of the first women to teach Nashira residents how to cook in a restaurant setting.

On my last day in the village, Else Martinez, the internal coordinator for the village, took me to visit the home of Hilda Delgado, one of the first members of Nashira. I walked through her home's doorway, which she constructed with her family at the age of 63.

Delgado is part of the tilapia-harvesting project for the community. Before she came to Nashira, she and her daughter worked as house helpers, finding any work they could in the homes of others. She told me that her entire family of six, including her children and grandchildren, had lived in a single room before coming to Nashira. The most difficult aspect of their former home? “Doing all the laundry,” she replied with an exhausted chuckle. Nashira provided what Hilda deemed “a new life” for her family.

This month, 39 more homes are slated for completion and the community is looking forward to welcoming more single mothers.

Martinez, who lives and works here with her young son, explained that these collectives are not just about business but rather about creating a family of women who look out for each other. Every woman has been taught a valuable lesson here.

“I learned that I was important,” she said. “I had something to offer as a woman.”