Work Sustains Women and Children in Bolivia
by Christie R. House
High in the Illimani Mountains of Bolivia's Altiplano, Justa Mamani weaves shawls in a cooperative with about 20 other women from her village of Catacora. Mamani founded this cooperative and three others in the area, though her formal schooling ended at the fifth grade.
"In the Aymaran culture," Mamani explained, "the custom is for boys to go to school, but for girls to be raised as servants. I didn't have the opportunity to go to school. But now we realize that both boys and girls need to go to school."
That realization came about in her community in part because of the work of the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia. Despite her lack of formal education, Mamani received invaluable training through the Methodist Women's Federation of Bolivia (FEFEME). She is proud to say that her three daughters have all been able to finish high school.
On the Altiplano
Mamani became the president of FEFEME in 1980 when she was just 25 years old. The organization's national office was a tiny space where she lived and worked. Although the majority of church members were women and children, the leadership positions in the national church were held by men. Most of the Aymaran women were very poor, but they knew how to weave. "As a woman, I knew what women could do," Mamani said. "I thought we should raise our own money for our organization. The men had no idea what we could do. I saw how the women suffered in their communities."
The Altiplano is at an altitude of 14,000 to 15,000 ft. above sea level. In South America, the nights can get very cold, and many live in houses without heat. People eke out a living growing potatoes. Sometimes the crop freezes and people in the villages have nothing to eat. It is not uncommon for women to have as many as 8 to 10 children. They have little or no time to further their education.
One of the projects started by Justa Mamani's cooperatives is a garden project, in which women in the community maintain a community garden with varied crops suitable for the Altiplano climate. The crops are grown under a greenhouse tent, so lettuce and tomatoes and less hardy vegetables and fruits can be grown without fear of their freezing.
The garden project ensures that families in the community have more food for their families while still having vegetables to sell at market, which brings in a little more income. The women strive to earn enough money to send their children to school. The women in the group want their children to be better educated so they can rise out of the poverty that has crippled their communities for centuries.
Yet, today, most families have four to five children. FEFEME helped to educate women about health and family planning. Mamani has four children who range in age from 22 to 36. At first, the men in the community demanded that the women continue to bear more children, but in time, they realized that life was better with fewer children in the family.
The church is organized in 14 districts throughout Bolivia. Though women in every district work on handicrafts, which vary depending on their traditions and ethnic identities, FEFEME has 14 formal co-ops, though not necessarily one in each church district. These co-ops produce enough woven goods for a wider market distribution. Each of the 14 was asked to produce some of the Advance tote bags distributed at General Conference, for instance.
Mamani's community developed four projects that each employ about 20 women from the village. Besides the gardening project, her community supports three weaving projects. The project that she works with directly weaves alpaca wool shawls. Another weaving group makes cloth on full-sized looms, and a third uses smaller looms to make clothing.
The Weavers of Hope, another FEFEME group from a different district, is in Cochabamba. Groups from different regions make different handicrafts. Often the types of handicrafts made reflect the unique indigenous groups of the regions. Bolivia is home to about 36 different original indigenous peoples of South America. Whereas the Methodist Church has a majority of Aymaran members, Quechua is actually the largest indigenous group in the country. Quechuan people form a minority in the Methodist Church. Sara Flores' family is Quechuan.
An Integrated Program
Vaizaga says the problem in the lowlands is that many people have migrated to Spain to find work. She says many of the industries that drew people down from the mountains have now closed. While there is public education, it is not compulsory, and generally, only the middle and upper-middle class children are educated. Economic migration is causing a big problem for the community and for the church. Families are divided, fathers leave their wives and children. Sometimes the children get involved in drugs or prostitution."As a church, in the midst of this social situation, we are trying to find ways to meet the needs of the people. Yet, in my church, we don't even have a pastor. We are working with our own lay leadership."
Women in Vaizaga's district make aguayos—long stoles—which they sell to people coming through Santa Cruz, mainly from the United States. With the money from their project, the women of Santa Cruz have built two churches. United Methodist missionaries Susan and Walt Henry worked in Santa Cruz. "Susan gave herself to Bolivia," said Vaizaga. Walt Henry passed away last year.
Vaizaga, who is Quechuan, and her family came along with many other families from the Occidental Altiplano to the lowlands of Santa Cruz to work the land. In Santa Cruz there are a number of other indigenous peoples. Vaizaga thinks the church should reach out to other indigenous peoples in need.
The Rev. Rosangela Oliveira, a United Methodist regional missionary who works with women's groups throughout Latin America, says that Bolivia is unique in the structure of its women's groups. Only in Brazil and Mexico, which have much larger groups, has she seen anything comparable. In many countries, the women's organization might be run by the bishop's wife, or it is an organization of pastors' wives. But in Bolivia, this is truly a lay woman's organization, with a lot of grassroots support. Even the tiniest church has a group and that group has its assemblies and elections.
On Hand for Celebration
Interviews conducted in Spanish with the help of translator Joyce Hill, a former missionary and area executive for the General Board of Global Ministries. Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook.
Date posted: Jun 29, 2008