The AFYA Holistic Health Center in João Pessoa, Brazil, is renowned far and wide for its alternative healing therapies. Less well known — but integral to its mission — is a cooperative at its heart.
Maryknoll Sister Euphrasia (Efu) Nyaki, 62, started AFYA in 2000 with the late Maryknoll Sister Connie Pospisil and a small team of women in a peripheral neighborhood. “I started the center for women to be able to have good health, dignity and a means of providing for themselves,” says Sister Nyaki, who is originally from Tanzania.
AFYA, which means “health” in Swahili, was born to address poverty, violence, trauma and a lack of access to healthcare in northeastern Brazil. It evolved to welcome men, starting with the women’s male family members.
The center has grown to include 21 core community members, who started off as program participants. They often come from backgrounds marked by adverse childhood experiences such as domestic violence. Over time, the women (and one man) have developed a healing community in which members sustain one another.
Many Maryknoll sisters, Society members, and lay missioners have worked with AFYA. At present, Maryknoll Sisters Isabel Araujo, Gladys Gonzalez, Faithmary Munyeki and Azucena San Pedro, along with Maryknoll lay missioners Kathy Bond and Flávio José Rocha, serve with Sister Nyaki.
During its first years, the center relied on grants for its funding. With the world financial crisis in 2008, AFYA lost significant support. “We realized we could not be dependent on funds from the outside,” Sister Nyaki says. The core team created a cooperative within AFYA. Its members collect the center’s monthly earnings and, after paying expenses, divide the earnings equally among the staff. “In earning their own money, the women found dignity in being able to provide for themselves and their families,” explains Sister Nyaki, who says the cooperative transformed the women.
“Before we created the cooperative, the women saw themselves as individuals,” she says. “Now they see each other as community.”
Maryknoll Father Dennis Moorman, 59, who offers courses and individual trauma therapy at AFYA, says, “I am impressed by the team’s commitment to help one another.” AFYA is “a healing space that is created of welcome, care, compassion, and love,” he says, and that atmosphere permeates the organization’s work.
Father Moorman adds, “The women’s cooperative builds solidarity among them as they support one another in so many ways.”
Monetary gains in the cooperative are modest. The amount each member brings home varies, usually ranging between R$1,000 and R$2,000 reais (approximately $200 to $400 U.S. dollars) a month.
However, community support is also manifested through relationships, special assistance and genuine care for one another. For example, one of the women needed a washing machine. The cooperative gave her a loan to purchase one.
Of course, some months the cooperative’s earnings are low. Furthermore, in Brazil most workplaces close for seasonal celebrations like carnival. Living month-to-month is a great challenge for many of the women.
This economic instability was exacerbated when the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially forced AFYA to close its doors for four months. Maryknoll missioners who volunteer at the center started offering webinars and Zoom meetings, and participants gave contributions for the online programs. AFYA was able to pay its bills and what was left was shared by the cooperative members.
“After a few months we decided that we are a health organization, so we should find a way to open up,” Sister Nyaki says. The first people to return for therapeutic sessions, she says, included “doctors and nurses who had been deeply affected by working in the hospitals.”
Maryknoll Lay Missioner Kathy Bond, 56, who has served in Brazil for almost 30 years, teaches courses and workshops at AFYA along with her husband, Flávio Rocha, also a Maryknoll lay missioner. “One of my main objectives is to provide a skill that can help health professionals and therapists supplement their income,” Bond says. Her training courses enable cooperative members and other participants to develop skills as holistic health therapists.
Bond tells the story a woman who was separated from her mother at an early age and did not start speaking until she was 6 or 7 years old. As an adult, the woman took a course at AFYA and found herself transformed. After several training programs, she joined the team. “She is an excellent cook and therapist,” Bond says, “but still struggles with pronunciation — especially when she is nervous.
“I invited her to become my assistant when I give a course,” Bond continues. “This role has helped her not only hone her skills but also increase her confidence in speaking.”
Sister Nyaki says AFYA’s next goals are to expand so as to have more room for providing additional services. She notes proudly that a new coordinator, a young Brazilian woman named Bruna Ferreira, is now handling day-to-day leadership at the center.
For 23 years, the team at AFYA has shared joys and challenges. The cooperative — with its many Maryknoll associates — continues to drive the heart of this vibrant community.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Maryknoll magazine.