Bolivian Women Get Weaving
issue 160 - June 1986
Photo: May Ann Kainola
Our jobs seem increasingly to follow a nightmare logic.
Work itself can be boring and its end-products unnecessary.
Jobs disappear at the whim of the international money markets.
But there is an alternative: co-operatives. May Ann Kainola visits
a successful co-op with which the Canadian organisation
CUSO has been working - high in the Bolivian Andes.
THE workshop begins with 30 Quechua women lining the rough brick walls of a large room, perched on small benches or squatting on the floor, knitting mechanically and speaking in whispers. An air of expectancy is generated because this is the first time that some of the Quechua Indian women, who are on the co-operative's executive, have run a workshop.
Suddenly, a woman dressed as they are, in a pollera - a full gathered skirt and a white blouse - bursts into the room, carrying on her back a tiny baby, supported in a K'epi, a brightly woven cloth. She sits on the floor and places the baby by her side.
Another woman comes in, dumps two bundles on the floor, barks out an order and leaves. The seated woman opens the bundles to find, from the first, raw wool to spin. From the second, she grabs a handful of cornmeal. Soon she has entered into a rhythm of spinning and chewing, spinning and chewing. The women spectators recognise their own situation in these performances and respond with peals of laughter, shouts and loud commentaries.
This socio-drama, staged by the founders of La Imilla, the knitting co-operative, shows what the hard, grinding lives of the Quechua campesina women in this small rural community were like a few years before, when they had not found it easy to earn money. The families of the women own small farms - minifundias - or they are farm labourers who rent land or work for others. These women - in common with women in other farming communities throughout the Third World - play a vital role in running their households: they make clothing, sell produce in the market, and also work in the fields or in the hills, tending the animals. Because of the meagre earnings from their farming, the women also do other work. Until recently the only paid work they could get was spinning wool and chewing cornmeal to make chicha, a kind of corn liquor. Because neither one alone was sufficient to provide a decent wage, the women had to do both simultaneously.
The other actors enter and the play continues. A new company comes to town and offers the women a different kind of work - hand-knitting alpaca articles - sweaters, shawls, ruanas or open ponchos. It is greeted as a saviour. The women feel that at last they will receive a fairer return for their work.
They began working for this knitting company in the late 1960s and continued for more than a decade, receiving what turned out to be very unfair wages and working in awful conditions. They were required to work day and night at times to fill orders. They were given pills to help them stay awake, creating health problems for some of them later. Their supervisors expected to receive 'special' presents from the knitters or they would force them to tear out and needlessly re-knit their work. The knitters were also required to do domestic chores for the owners, such as taking their personal laundry to wash at the river.
When some of the women began to press for changes, the company reacted by threatening them. They denounced them as 'subversives' and 'communists'. This was dangerous, since Bolivia at that time was suffering under the military dictatorship of Garcia Meza. When that failed, they attempted bribery, and when that did not succeed, they fired them. The dissidents, after attempts to work for other companies, decided to form their own co-operative.
The aim was not only to earn more money for the members, but also to give them the chance to develop skills as craft-workers through training programs and work experience. The co-op members also hoped to gain more control over their working lives by sharing the running and administration of the organization.
Acquiring capital in order to begin production was extremely difficult. But, with the help of loans from another co-operative, they managed to start up and produce enough to sell, gradually building up markets for their goods locally and in the capital city of La Paz. Other organizations gave them help in matters relating to co-operatives, health, basic book-keeping and literacy. They also received additional loans for the purchase of more materials in order to produce more items to build up their stock.
When the sociodrama ends, one of the La Imilla executive - a 'founder' member and an 'actor' - leads the group in an analysis of what they had observed and makes notes on the wall. The women feel pleased that they have overcome all these obstacles and seen the co-operative grow from 25 to 44 members. They also appreciate the efforts made to educate them in the management of the co-operative and the attempts to encourage them to become actively involved in planning the group's future.
However, it becomes clear that some serious difficulties remain. The largest problem is that a number of the newer members do not fully participate in the co-operative. This has led to an unequal sharing of the tasks and responsibilities. In the workshop these women say why they felt excluded. They feel left out partly through the co-operative's rapid growth - which has meant working so hard that they have had less time to get to know their co-workers - and partly a result of their newness which caused them to be shy, lacking in confidence and experience.
The co-operative is also threatened by the economic, political and social crisis which Bolivia is suffering - causing the women to work against the background of the highest rate of inflation in the world, constant strikes, road blocks, the growth of illegal business (such as the production of cocaine), and political instability. The cost of alpaca wool, for example, has doubled in one year, forcing the Imillas to raise the price of their products, thereby making their sweaters less competitive than their Peruvian counterparts.
After their post-workshop evaluation, the co-op members are elated. 'Everyone participated and we all now have the same basic knowledge and understanding to go on together. We will make La Imilla a truly democratic organization. Everyone was contributing their ideas, offering to take on more responsibility - it's so moving!' said one campesina woman.
This encounter took place over a year ago, when I and another CUSO co-operant visited Arani, the small town where the co-operative is located. Now the results of this educational sociodrama have born fruit. More of the new members have become involved in the active management and assumption of responsibilities in La Imilla. The contacts with external buyers have also led to an increase in the demand for their product - in November 1985 the Imillas received an order for 300 sweaters from a Mennonite crafts trading operation in North America - their largest single order to date.
Yet there are still problems to be resolved. The women have to decide whether to become full-time knitters. They have to work out how to share the increased profit fairly. They might decide to buy land or diversify into other areas, such as the raising of hogs for local consumption. But they have also decided collectively to attack problems that are not immediately connected with their knitting. They have plans to set up a health plan to cover members' medical costs. But they have also decided to learn preventative health care to combat the chronic sicknesses which affect them and their families.
New orders have given the co-operative the confidence to deal with their short-term and long-term problems. The big order has given La Imilla optimism with which to face the future.
The co-operative's name - La Imilla - (pronounced E-me-ya) means in Quechua language young woman'. It was a name that had been used by European colonialists to insult native women. The women chose this name because they wished to demonstrate their pride in their roots, culture and language. Their success allows the Imillas to feel a degree of pride that, a few years ago, would have seemed impossible.
May Ann Kainola now works with immigrant women in Toronto.
Worth reading on... LIFE-STYLES
Starhawk Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics Beacon Press, Boston, US, 1982. A gem. Written by an American Indian witch, this book looks at the ways in which Westerners are cut off from their inner strength by the idea that power is something external. Starhawk then goes on to suggest ways of reclaiming our personal power, producing one of the most perceptive accounts of how groups grow (and what aids or hinders communication between the people in them), direct political action and love that I have ever read.
For those who baulk at Starhawk's spirituality, there's Sheila Ernst and Lucy Goodison's In Our Own Hands: a Book of Self-Help Therapy (The Women's Press, UK 1981). This book gives plenty of practical guidance on setting up groups and getting people relating to each other in new ways: through games, improvisation and therapeutic techniques Friends who have used this book in youth work women's groups and at non-violent direct action training sessions warmly recommend it.
I'm suspicious of books like Voluntary Simplicity by D. Elgin (William Morrow, US, 1981), Life Style: A Parable of Sharing by A. H. Dammers (Turnatone Press, UK 1982) and Abandon Affluence! by F. E. Trainer (Zed Books, Australia and UK, 1985) because I think they underestimate the importance of collective action. However, the authors' argument - that if we in the West are to create a fairer world we must be prepared to cut our standards of living - deserves serious thought.
Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (The Women's Press, UK, 1984), is a collection of essays that creates a lucid and sane mixture of politics, anecdote, shrewd observation, and utter integrity in life-style under one cover. I've always felt refreshed and inspired by reading this book: it is the ultimate pick-me-up for those who are in the early stages of activist burn-out or feeling a few twinges of cynicism.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (Heinemann, 1985) is a classic novel about the cost of 'development' to Okonkwo, an important man in the Obi tribe in Nigeria, forced into exile by his pride and fears and finally escaping the results of his stand against the white man by suicide. It's a gripping read: not least for what it says about uprooted life-styles.
Last but not least, Fritz Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (Abacus, 1974) provides a succinct summary of why lifestyles matter in a wider context, arguing for people-oriented planning, small-scale development and appropriate technology (which includes the development of solar energy). Schumacher is a prophet whose words have yet to be put into practice.