By Mehmet Yildiz, President of the Rotary Club of Bursa-Uludag, Turkey
Aksu is a village 20 miles outside of Bursa, Turkey established in the 1300s. The village is small with a population of 216 men and 193 women. Most villagers earn their livelihood from fruit and vegetable farming. Over the years, many people moved out to the city to find better jobs, but kept close ties with the village. After living in the city for a few years, one of those women returned and established a ‘Women’s Solidarity Association’ with the sole purpose of supporting girls’ education by selling the fresh vegetables and fruits they grow. There were a number of women trying to address the needs of their community by coming together and their goals were similar to our club’s own ideals. This inspired our Rotary Club of Bursa-Uludag to establish a Rotary Community Corps (RCC) and formalize a partnership to help empower the women in the village.
During our first visit, we explained what Rotary is and what we try to achieve in the world. Rotary and our mission was foreign to this village and we believe this was the most delicate obstacle we had overcome to establish an RCC. This was followed by explaining the Rotary Community Corps program and how RCCs operate. Being able to give examples from our other RCC, which we had established in 2002, helped us create the new relationship. One day, we took our spouses and kids to have breakfast with the villagers so they could get to know the people behind the Rotary Club of Bursa-Uludag. This meeting helped pave the path to establish the Rotary Community Corps of Aksu with ten women from the village in 2011.
The club president at the time and the club’s RCC committee visited the village to see if they could help boost their income, as well as diversify their activities. They were already selling homemade tomato pastes in limited quantities, but we found that they could easily produce tomato paste and fruit paste, instead of just selling tomatoes and fruits in the summer, if they had a paste machine. So, we provided them with a machine and the necessary training through a member of our club. This not only helped them grow their business, but helped establish trust and confidence among the women towards us and the idea of forming a Rotary Community Corps with our club. They are now renting out the machine to nearby villages.
The Aksu Village women also had a dream of having a small building where they could serve breakfast on the weekends and sell their products at the same time. With the support of friends who believe in Rotary, we were able to develop this space. They are now using it to sell their products such as fruit pastes, jams, pastas, pickles, fruits, vegetables, eggs and tomato pastes along with over 30,000 homemade breads annually. The space has also become a place for their social events such as engagements, birthday ceremonies, parties, village wide dinners on religious days and all kinds of educational trainings.
In the beginning it seemed like acquiring a paste-making machine and building a breakfast house were the two major achievements for the RCC, but time proved that wrong. The RCC worked with those two achievements and bought other necessary equipment like a dish washing machine, an oven, and more to grow and expand their ventures.
For women living in rural male dominant areas of Turkey, being able to build a thriving business is an outstanding and rare accomplishment. With time, the village women who participated in RCC have gained support and respect from men who opposed the project at the beginning.
The women also contacted the mayor of Bursa to renovate the historic Turkish bathhouse into a village museum and the abandoned village hall into a paste producing facility which the mayor approved. Now, the village has a museum and a town hall as a result of the women’s confidence and dedication.
Our club continues to stay in contact with the members of the Aksu RCC. We are always on the search for new projects and activities to implement together. The women are always attending festivals organized by our club to sell their products. They have also been invited to district workshops many times to share their experiences with the other RCCs and Rotary clubs sponsoring RCCs in our district.