Traditions past down from generations are valued in all cultures, families and ethnicities. Most of us value that which identify us as part of a group, with deep roots to plant ourselves to the world and relate to.
Being Colombian, but specially "costeña" or from the Caribbean coast, I grew up very close to a few indigenous tribes like the Aruhacos and the Wayuu. Those are only two of the over 100 tribes in Colombia alone. Being able to work directly with the Wayuu I feel a strong sense of responsibility in bringing awareness to how our products are made, not only in technique but also the human artisan behind them. Here is the story of how a rough journey sealed the deal for me.
On a very hot morning in Valledupar (as most mornings are there), we hop in two cars and make our way to Rioacha, the last city town before we take route to deep in La Guajira, where a very talented group of Wayuu knitters and their families live. Most of the Wayuu tribe live in the desert, an arid region in the north of Colombia and Venezuela and they are the largest indigenous tribe in Colombia. Like most indigenous tribes in Latin America, the Wayuu are subjected to government negligence which have left them with one of the highest rates of infant mortality year after year due to malnutrition, a horrible sense of desolation and abandonment and a truly humanitarian crisis.
In Rioacha we switch cars to "all terrain" ones, with expert drivers that know the region like the back of their hand. After 6 years of drought, the rains finally came; with them any trace of a semblance of a road disappears, and in its place, huge mud holes threaten to make an already difficult trip, a much longer one. In the end, we travel 21 hours to get to our destination.
Our team consists in Zulima, Nadia and myself, the three SUSU partners, Juan and Juan, our photography team and Marine, our wonderful designer. We bring provisions to last us a week and groceries to give to the knitters (getting their hands on food, even the conventional kind, is very difficult deep inside the desert), along with payment, for coming to our workshop and working with us. Along the way, we encounter dozens of people, most of them children, begging on the side of the "road" for some food. We are more than glad we brought what we did and hand out provisions at every stop.
After catching a few hours of sleep in our hammocks on a makeshift shelter, since it was too dark to continue, we move along and finally make it to the house of our Master knitter, Señora M., our host. She welcomes us with lots of charisma and hopefulness, which is a pleasant surprise coming from someone who loves and is so loved by the Wayuu community. She has worked relentlessly towards improving their situation but has seen first hand the abandonment by local and national governments, and how time and time again their art has been undervalued, under paid and even stolen.
As we are launching a new collection, our visit has several purposes:
- Introduce the team to knitters from the region who don't know who we are and how we work yet.
- Meet with knitters currently working with SUSU and give them and the new ones updates in our progress, where their creations are being sold and how big an impact their art is making.
- Listen to their stories and get to know these wonderful women on a deeper level. Listen to their plights and together look for ways in which we could help alleviate them .
- Show them the new designs, the inspiration behind them and the design process that Marine has. Get first hand feedback from the knitters on what could or couldn't work while creating smaller samples.
- Break bread while working together. This is a 3 days workshop where we hope to build stronger relationships with the artisans and their families.
We knew our visit was important and even relevant but we couldn't have imagined the extend to which it would change each and every one of us, for the better.
Expecting about 50 new knitters, over 100 showed up. Talented, beautiful women (and even two men!), hungry for work and opportunity. Proud members of a community that has suffer for centuries the oppression of those in power, but always fighting to keep their tradition, customs and way of living intact, and succeeded.
Playing games as ways to break the ice, working together and learning from each other, we find ourselves achieving all of the goals for our visit but so much more: the realization that what we are doing has real value; the renewed conviction that the Wayuu don't want anything for free, just a fair chance to earn a living and we can help them with that; the sweet pressure of knowing that we can't fail them and that we need to use our voices to create change all around us.
Leaving tomorrow, with over 100 new friends, work partners and their stories in our hearts, we realize that we are able to pay them for their time and work with money but the food we brought as extra gifts will not be enough to distribute since so many people showed up. We ask Señora M. to keep the groceries and distribute them among those with the biggest need. Her answer fills up with same amounts of sadness and admiration: "you guys take them with you, because here you will always find need but on the road back you will find misery... those people need it more".
As we make our way back, with our commitment to this community seared inside of each of us for ever, delivering the groceries to extremely malnourished children without hope in their eyes, watching a rail thin child bathe himself on a deep tire-print filled with rain water, I know with total certainty that we are heading toward a new tomorrow, an era in which humans, not things, are held dear.