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new internationalist
issue 232 - June 1992

Illustration by CLIVE OFFLEY

'I'm going to find out the year my mother died and start from there.'
Emilia Laime tells Jenny Palmer of her plan to retrace her life.

We were orphans. Four sisters. There was another one but she died through lack of care. Our mother died when I was about six, I think. I'll always remember the day - it was 2 August - when we got the news from the hospital. I'm not sure about the year. Soon after that my father left Bolivia for Argentina. He was away 12 years. When he came back I hardly recognized him.

'Anyway, for several years the four of us lived in one room, about two metres square. We had nothing. No money for food. And we didn't know how to cook. We had to steal to survive. Sometimes we lived on just biscuits and water.

'Our relatives would have nothing to do with us. We were too poor, you see. There were too many of us. And we didn't have a mother or father. Nobody would talk to us. We were outcasts, and we lived all alone in that house. Sometimes we would fight with each other out of frustration. There was some common land where people grew crops, so sometimes we would go out there and try to grow things to sell, but we didn't know much about agriculture.

'One day a tree fell on our house. It seemed like there was a curse on us. So suddenly we had nowhere to live. Our grandmother finally relented and took us in. So at least we had a roof over our heads. During that time she taught us how to cook, how to sew, how to clean. Three years later she died - and we were alone again. But at least, by then, we had learned how to live properly. We started thinking about our future lives.

'One day I announced that I wanted to become a nun. It seemed like the best thing. People had told me that I would never get married - being an orphan - or that if I did my husband would beat me. Or else I'd end up a prostitute. So I decided to join a convent. My elder sister Marguerita said to me: 'Don't get married and don't become a nun. It's not necessary.' I listened to her. I usually did. I realize now how clever she was. I'm 41 now and I'm happy and have plenty of friends. I fell in love once, but I didn't want to get married.

'While we were still living at my grandmother's we started going to school. But really we educated ourselves, my sisters and I. We would read together. We would write. Now we speak both Quechua and Spanish and can read and write in Spanish. I've read Domitila Barrios de Chungara's book Let Me Speak.

'When we left school we went to work in a small company. That was in the late 1960s. But the wages were low and the conditions awful. Sometimes we had to work right through the night. So 20 of us women decided to set up our own knitting co-operative, in our hometown of Arani near Cochabamba. We got a loan from another co-operative. That was 11 years ago and there are 56 of us working there now.

'Since then we have built up our market. Now we sell our jumpers to many parts I of the world. But we don't only do knitting. We do workshops as well. I'm in charge of the education workshops.

'Now that our father has come back to live with us, people talk to us - including our relatives. But I still remember the way they treated us before. I can't forget it. When I see children stealing in the street, I understand it. I remember that it was like that for us once, just because we did not have parents.

'Life is much better for us now. We work. We travel. Last week I flew to La Paz to find education materials for the workshop. It was the first time I had been on a plane.

'But I sometimes feel just as I did when I was a child. Last week, for example, I was followed by a man in La Paz. "You're not from here", he said. "Let's spend some time together." I told him I had things to do. But he kept following me. When I got home I found I had a notice stuck on my back. It said: "I am mad. Don't follow me". It must have been that man who put it there. That really upset me. I cried and cried when I found out.

'People will do anything these days. They'll steal your earrings out of your ears. I even heard a story about two men approaching a woman and pulling down her pollera (skirt) and robbing her while she was pulling it back up again. But what can you do when there are two of them?

'You have to be careful everywhere you go, especially if you are carrying money, as we are sometimes. My sister got robbed the other day. They snatched her bag. It was the money from the community. Now she will have to explain it to them.

'How our lives have changed, though! It was very bad at the beginning but it isn't now. We have stuck together in spite of everything. So now I'm going to write my story. I've already bought the notebooks. Once I start it isn't going to stop. I'm going to write about my childhood. Because things shouldn't be like that. I want people to know what it is like for people who are down on their luck and have no-one to turn to. I want them to think about what happens to children who have nothing.

'I'm going to find out about the year my mother died, and I'm going to start from there. I'm going to call it: This is the life of echo. Echo in Quechua means "scream when there is no-one around". It was my nickname once. On the front cover I'm going to draw an echo radiating outwards in the colours of the rainbow. That's the title and design. All I have to do now is write it.'

Emilia Laime works with her sisters at La Imilla sewing co-operative near Cochabamba, Bolivia. She told this story to Jenny Palmer, a British writer who revisited the four sisters she got to know six years ago.

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New Internationalist issue 232 magazine cover This article is from the June 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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