U-C: What I See

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Kuichi Reflection from Peru

“My life has been powerfully changed,” says Idivia.

We’re gathered in a small, one room house with a blue tarp for a roof, walls made of woven matt and particle board, and a dirt floor. The wind is blowing against the little house, which sits on a high bluff on the edge of a reclaimed garbage dump that overlooks the beach and the Pacific Ocean. It would be considered the high rent district in any U.S. city. Here, though, the women have squatted the land, putting up small houses made of whatever material they can scrounge and trying to make a life for their families.

The sewing machine in one corner of the room is powered by an electrical cord strung from someone’s house much farther down the hill, on the side toward the city of Lima that spreads out for miles into the distance. There are five women standing in a little clump behind the sewing machine, beside a table displaying piles and piles of their beautiful products. The rest of us, a delegation of about a dozen, barely fit in the room. We’re seated on narrow planks propped on buckets and pieces of bricks. Beginning with Idivia, each of the women shares her story.

“This has helped me to have a new vision for what my work means,” Priscilla proclaims. “We set our own wages and hours.”

“That’s right,” says Sylvia. “Before, I worked twelve hour shifts sewing in a factory, but I didn’t make enough money to support my family and I was never home with my kids. Now we say, we can do anything when we want it badly enough.”

Ruth, who informs us that she is in charge of quality control for the group, agrees with Sylvia. “It’s true that we can do anything,” she says, “but we needed capacitation (training) to make it happen.”

Then Janita chimes in, “I only studied for one year, and I didn’t know the first thing about sewing. My husband works in a factory, but it’s not enough to support our family.” She tells our group that she has one child in elementary school and another that is a baby.

As the women serve us crackers and soda that we pass around the little room, they explain that they spend time sewing together in the little house each afternoon. It gives them a chance to share stories with one another – the same kind of support and story telling that I see in women’s circles back home, but that I experience most often when folks live in conditions where they genuinely need one another to survive.

“Staying together to do the sewing also keeps our work consistent and helps us to keep the quality high,” explains one of the women. All are active in churches, though it appears that each comes from a different religious tradition and from different parts of the country. “We think that our diversity is part of what makes our group strong,” one woman proclaims, and I think of all the management seminars in the United States where well-educated consultants share the very same wisdom.

As everyone else crowds around the table to purchase products, I probe deeper with Sylvia about her household economy. She shares that the average wage in Lima is about 120 soles per week (equal to about thirty-five dollars because the sol is about 3.3 to the dollar). Her husband makes as much as 35 soles (roughly ten dollars) per day in the construction trade, but there often is no work so his salary is not consistent. In order to feed her family (they have five kids), Sylvia figures she needs about 20 soles per day. That means that it costs more than a week’s wage just to provide the most basic of diets for her family. On top of that, she spends thirty soles a month for the electricity that she “borrows” from a neighbor, thirty sols every three weeks for the small tank of gas that she cooks with, ten soles per week for transportation, and about three sols per day for each of her three children who are old enough to attend school (for things like books, computer use to do school assignments at the local internet cafe, etc.). “My work here in the cooperative is the difference between surviving and not surviving,” she says matter-of-factly.

These women are one small part of the “fair trade corridor” that Joining Hands Against Poverty is resourcing in several communities in Peru. Their primary market is provided by the folks back in Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, who sold more than $80,000 worth of goods to folks in the U.S. last year and assured that almost all of the profits were returned directly to the artisans themselves back in Peru. In fact, it was folks like the women in the “Kuichi” cooperative up there on the hill on the outskirts of Lima who provided all of the beautiful commissioner bags for the General Assembly where I was elected moderator in Richmond last year.

Later, Conrado (who is the coordinator for the Network in Peru) explains to our group that providing a direct, “fair-trade” corridor through which the artisans can move their crafts is a very real way that we can create alternatives to the “free trade” agreements against which small businesses and artisans simply can’t compete.

I find myself agreeing with him, but anxious about the responsibility that places on the “Church” (meaning the broad, global family of faith) to imagine an entirely different economic paradigm. Efforts, like those of Joining Hands, that are partnering Presbyterians in St. Louis with women like Sylvia, Janita, Idivia, Ruth and Priscilla are like small cairns marking a hiking path on a fog enshrouded mountain. We can see the marker we’re standing beside, and maybe even the next one, but we can’t see a lot further into the distance yet. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Traveler there is no path, the road is made by walking.”

It’s hard to imagine exactly what a genuinely sustainable global community looks like, but these women can certainly name the principles upon which it will be founded. They want enough money to feed their kids, and they’re hoping for a good education so that their children might be able to get a better job and get a step ahead of where they, themselves have gotten. They’d like to be able to enjoy one another’s company, because they clearly value the support they get from one another. Like the women I’ve gotten to know in Mexico and Guatemala, and the ones I visited in the Congo, they use the word “dignified” a lot.

“We want una vida digna,” they say. Come to think of it, that’s the fundamental hope of most folks I know in the U.S. as well, though our notions of what we actually need for that life of dignity have been corrupted by living in the heart of the consumer culture.

Here’s the surprising news for most of us in the global north, though. These women know that joy and laughter and fun can’t be purchased, but they are available to all of us. As everyone else left that little house perched on the side of the hill, I couldn’t tear myself away. In just a few minutes, we had gotten to telling jokes and sharing belly laughs with one another, and I could have been with the women I’ve known for years in similar communities in northern Mexico or with shy Mayan women with broad smiles in the highlands of Guatemala.

In just a few moments, with a smile and a shared language that wasn’t entirely about the ability to speak Spanish, the women were poking fun at me and making the same slightly off-color jokes that work everywhere in Latin America. As I walked down the steep hill with Sylvia and Ruth trailing behind, I turned around to model the new bag I had just purchased that was slung over my shoulder. “What do you think,” I asked with a big smile? “Looks great,” one of them responded. Then as I turned around and continued down the hill, the other added, “Looks better from this angle,” and they burst into laughter. Shared moments of humor are intimate moments of community that lift us up and last a lifetime.

Gifts from God, for the people of God. And the best news is, we’re all invited.