Leila and members of ‘Rio de Cultura’. :: l.l.
After years spent travelling in South America Leila is now settled in the hills above Malaga
She might be carrying a clipboard with the day’s schedule on it. Or making sure that everyone has a glass of wine. Or cajoling her musician husband into providing the entertainment. And at Easter, she is dressed in a long skirt and shawl, to accompany the passage of Jesus Christ to his crucifixion.
When there is a community event in the Axarquía village of Riogordo, Leila Lawson is almost always there. Not just present as an interested local, but as someone who is usually at the heart of organising things. She is the queen of committees, the doyenne of the ‘día’ or special event - in Riogordo there are a number of these, including the recent ‘molienda’ (or traditional olive oil pressing), the ‘Día de los Caracoles’ (or snails, which Riogordo is famous for), foreign residents’ days, and the Easter passion play or ‘paso’.
This week marks the twelfth anniversary of Anglo-Iranian Leila and her Scottish husband Robert arriving in Riogordo. They met on a ranch in North America where Robert was playing country music, were married in London but decided to come to Spain to live. They marked out the hills above Malaga as being close to a city where they would find work. “We were parked in our little camper van in a side street in Casabermeja, in the pouring rain, running out of money and wondering what we were going to do.” Ever resourceful, Leila found a contact number among her things for a friend of a friend who lived in Riogordo. The couple drove over - “for a cup of tea” - and haven’t left since.
Leila has no plans to move on. “We live on the edge of town with views of the countryside on one side and the village on the other,” but she was not always so settled. After an idyllic childhood in Tehran, Leila graduated in the UK, did a TEFL course and spent years travelling and working in Latin America - as a tour leader and a guidebook saleswoman among other things - from the southern end of Argentina to Venezuela and all down the Andes. Leila had become fascinated by the origins of the “Latinness’’ and the colonial cities that she loved and was drawn to Spain and Andalucía.
Once in Riogordo, she worked for seven years as an English teacher in Vélez-Málaga, “but you see, I was working in the evenings so had the days free and I began to go to community meetings in the village”. Through sheer enthusiasm, willingness and nine months spent studying for a qualification in intercultural mediation, Leila was offered the job she really wanted, that of ‘mediadora intercultural’ for Malaga’s provincial government. For several years, she travelled between five villages in the Axarquía chosen for a pioneering project in encouraging social cohesion between different nationalities living in rural Malaga. She organised a range of social, cultural and informative events as part of the ‘Mesas Interculturales’ (intercultural forums) in Riogordo, Periana, Comares, Cómpeta and Algarrobo.
“I started the ‘mesa’ in Algarrobo and I’m proud of that. It went really well, we had good attendance from everyone. There was a very good Guardia Civil officer; with him we organised a meeting on personal safety for foreign residents.” This was one of a host of initiatives that Leila’s ‘mesas’ ran in the Axarquía. There were slideshows and Christmas breakfasts, informative talks on health and the law and of course, community celebrations with joint contributions from locals and foreigners. “There was no funding apart from my salary so it was all run on good will, with people bringing food and musicians playing for free”.
With the economic crisis, the ‘Diputacíon’ cancelled the intercultural forum scheme which had just begun to make headway into rural communities. Leila is no longer paid to be an intercultural mediator but she still is, in so many ways. She is on the committee for Riogordo’s passion play, helping to make it easy for foreign residents to join in, she played a huge part in running the recent olive oil event and she continues to manage weekly ‘intercambio’ or language exchange evenings in the village.
“It’s odd to discover what you want to do with your life at my age but I did. I really loved my job and think community organising is definitely my calling. In a time of hardship the only thing you have is union and communities working together”.
The Sur in English Connection
“SUR in English was instrumental in my early life here because we read the classified ad pages to look for teaching jobs,” says Leila. More importantly the paper has helped her and Riogordo promote its famous Easter passion play or ‘El Paso’’, which is known all over Andalucía and further afield for its vivid recreation, complete with costumes, children and donkeys, of the lastdays of Jesus Christ.When the young man playing Jesus was replaced a few years ago, Leila brought the new actor into the paper’s offices to be interviewed and acted as interpreter. And, she says, “I like SUR because it is a proper newspaper, not a sensationalist rag”.