Oaxaca life, Photography, volunteering

Three good reasons to volunteer for En Vía and one good reason not to

By Sylvia Hines

She is from London and has worked for NGOs and in documentary media in many different countries.  For the last two months she’s been one of the En Vía photographers.


I’ve volunteered for En Vía twice now, both times just one day per week whilst also doing other things in Oaxaca.  Sadly there’s just one week of this stay left now – but for sure I’ll be back again!  Why?  Simple really.

  1. To meet people
    For me, meeting new people is what traveling’s all about and getting to meet some of the En Via borrowers has been a huge privilege. They’ve invited us into their homes, talked to us about their lives, their businesses and their challenges.  We’ve met weavers, hairdressers, tortilla makers, shopkeepers, chicken rearers and many more besides: in fact very often the women are doing many of these things at the same time.

I’m just really sorry not to have had more time to spend with them.

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Florencia’s home in Teotitlán
  1. To learn stuff

On my first volunteering stint in 2015 I taught classes on money management to a group of women in San Miguel del Valle: a course they had to complete before receiving their first loan.  Although I’d worked before with business development projects, I’d never really thought about how fundamental money management skills are. Imagine you’re working from home – how easy to mix up your business money with your personal money.  Luckily En Vía had resources for the volunteers to use and lots of techniques as to how to stop this.

Now I’m working as a photographer, with a whole new set of challenges. For example, one En Vía member might run a store and have used the loan to buy wholesale supplies of margarine and tupperware.  How do you make that look great in a photo?  

Or how do you deal with the harsh contrasts of light and shade at the middle of the day in an animal pen and manage to get the borrower to look good?  

How do you think about F stops and ISO and the direction of the light whilst talking and making someone feel at ease in Spanish which is a second language for both of you?  

How do you find their houses when 25 Hidalgo is more likely to be next to number 43 than number 26?  (Luckily my co-photography volunteer Elin is much more technically savvy than me and has started to use Google Maps to find all the houses. So there’s another thing I’ve learned.)

How do you say Tlacochahuaya?

It’s only now, as I’m about to leave, that I’m beginning to get to grips with all this.  Another reason to come back!

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Light and shade very much progress- thankfully Enedina was very patient!
  1. To make a difference

En Vía is about supporting the women in their endeavours.  For me it’s appealing that it’s business rather than a charity, with an elegantly simple model: tours to visit the womens’ businesses fund the loans to help their businesses grow.

There’s also a wide range of other activities to support the women – business classes, English classes and many special projects on things such as how to make worm compost.

As for the impact?  Well this is notoriously difficult to measure for any NGO.  En Vía is starting to use an internationally standardised tool to see how far their work helps lift women out of poverty, which will give some reliable data.  But one of the great pleasures of the photography role is seeing how much the women value being part of En Vía.  They can buy wholesale now, at better prices, and have to spend less time travelling just to get their basic supplies.  Two women we met had been able to invest in building materials to expand small cafes they had been running.  Lucrecia in Teotitlán told me that it was thanks to En Vía that two of her children are now at university. María put it simply: ‘I didn’t know anything about how to run a business before En Vía’.

And they too love meeting new people.  ’You’ve come from so far to San Miguel?’ (Or any other village.)  The fact that people come on the tours, and that we as volunteers from all over the world have chosen to visit San Miguel, Guelacé, or wherever, and are interested in their lives, seems to be a constant surprise for them.  In the current political climate of distrust and antagonism, making these links seems more important than ever.

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Elin showing Francisca photos of Iceland
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Borrowers coming to make one of their weekly repayments in San Miguel del Valle

One good reason not to volunteer with En Vía.

You’re on holiday and you’d rather hang out at the beach and drink mezcal.

That’s ok!  Maybe another time!

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