Issue - December 2008

December 2008

In this month"s issue Victoria Cowell took a trip and visit the amazing weavers project in Candelaria; Dental Health is important, John Arnos shows us an interesting initiative being taken by the City Hall on Dental Health; Healthy Living is something to think about, especially closer to the Christmas celebrations; a folk craftwork more...

December 2008

Weaving Wonders

Victoria Cowell
Projects Abroad volunteer
Coventry - United Kingdom

The Weaving women of Candelaria and Dana Cadwell talk to Victoria Cowell about their association, and how their small fair-trade venture benefits the community and preserves their hand-weaving culture for the future.

For generations and generations the people of Candelaria, a small village two hours north east of Cochabamba, have been weaving, by hand, their wonderful blankets, rugs, ponchos, bags and belts; protecting themselves from the cold and injecting a burst of colour into their surroundings. Often wool from their own sheep spun into yarn is used and now mixed with commercial dyes to create their bright and vivid articles, hung against the backdrop of their tiny adobe homes.

Many of the patterns and colour combinations must have been handed down over hundreds of years: The hand-weaving process and the expression of individuality it generates (no two articles are exactly alike!) represent a Quechua tradition that would be a great loss were it to die out with the onset of computerized and machine-led weaving. They would fall, perhaps invisibly, into the long list of cultural and economic casualties, inflicted by neo-liberal globalization and westernization.

Fortunately, this is where Dana Cadwell, a weaver herself, steps in. She heard about the Candelaria weavers, now mostly women, on a short-term mission trip to Bolivia from her home state of North Carolina back in 2005. Their wonderful hand-woven articles impressed her and she was convinced, not only that these women have God-given abilities, but that there was potentially a small, but viable market for their goods back home in the US and here in Bolivia. Out of this conviction, a fair-trade business venture was born in which Dana, as well as agreeing a fairer price for their products, gives advice on how best to present, clean and thus successfully sell their weaving.

Accustomed to living in rural poverty and harvesting their own beans and potatoes, many may not have running water and only one light bulb. In the house, I visited there was only one bed under which you could hear the squeals of a herd of guinea pigs. Many of the women get up at four thirty in the morning to get the breakfast ready and start work. Christina told me, ´I like this work, weaving, because I can do it at home and it is not hard like carrying heavy sacks of potatoes and I do not have to travel far.´ ´Weaving is relaxing work´, they all agreed. This market for their products means as Dana herself hopes, that now ´they will have more food and if a child gets sick, for example, they will be able to afford medicine or go to the doctor.´

Many of the women are single mothers, abandoned by husbands or the local men, some of whom left to seek work in the Chapare region or in the cities. Theirs is almost entirely a female community, brought together by their weaving, particularly this opportunity and by their Christian fellowship. However, Eliodor, an eighty-five year old widower who lives in the village, has been weaving all his life, and demonstrates that the weaving was not always an exclusively female activity.

‘Tejedoras Emanuel’ is the name these women have chosen for their project. Their local church is also called Emanuel and it is in a large room at the back of the church that much of the weaving takes place. This room holds their new, more complicated loom in which the women receive lessons from Florentino, a weaving teacher who knows both Spanish and Quechua, as for many of the locals Quechua is the only language they speak. A biblical verse seems particularly relevant to these women, and appears on all of their little leaflets: ´She looks for wool and flax and works with her hands in delight.´

Dana understands that, with her not being around forever, she needs to help these women gain greater independence and business knowledge so that their community can go on selling their weaving work in the future. Many of the women, especially the older ones, have probably never even come into the cities and many are afraid to do so. Their weaving used to be simply something they did for themselves. Some younger women come into town, including Sara who has also trained as a nurse and can speak Quechua and Spanish. They are encouraged to come into the cities with the aim being to help them take their wares to arts ´ferias´, with one booked in early December. This opens up another new market for their products and encourages the learning of basic bookkeeping skills.

One very exciting prospect is also just underway. This involves a woman from Cochabamba, Mary, who lives in the city and owns a leather shop with her husband. The project combines the weaving work and her leather making to create wonderful products such as bookmarks, guitar straps and bags, which work very well together, benefiting both parties. Now you might be able to buy a handwoven bag made with a real leather flap, or a leather bookmark decorated with a colourful hand-woven pattern. Such combining of projects and branching out is a move in the right direction for the Candelaria weavers.

They are also gaining new skills. Many of the older women were illiterate but now Cristina is able to run a class in the back of the church teaching the women the basics of how to read and write. These skills are so important and alongside the sale of their weaving help to give the women greater self-esteem and worth in a very macho culture. And in our 21st century culture of mass produced commodities, it could be a very good feeling to know who made your bag; that they made it, not on some factory assembly line but with personal and careful attention. This is exactly what you get when you buy anything made by ´Tejedoras Emanuel.”

The chance of success for this project is high if people pay for and value the hand made quality. As Dana remarked to me, ‘paying the kind of prices charged at La Cancha market may be cheap; but it does nothing to help people out of poverty, it actually keeps people poor.’ Choosing to buy your bag or shawl from Tejedoras Emanuel might cost only a fraction more, but for those who can afford it, how can they justify not doing so, when it can make such a difference to the simple lives of these hard-working people? Ultimately, the success of this project rests on peoples´ willingness to pay fair-trade prices. Will they take up the call? We can only wait and see.

A few ´Tejedoras Emanuel´ products can be bought at the SIM guesthouse on Villarroel Avenue at the corner near Beni Street.

Escuelas Saludables
Escuelas Saludables is the publically funded health and dental health project currently running in Cochabamba. Created in 2006, this project aims to improve the health of the children who attend the public primary and secondary schools in Cochabamba ...
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