The young women of Calca, Peru have shared with me their stories of fear and hopelessness. They have shared their dreams for the future. Each one of them has hope alive inside of them, but they also understand the realities of being born poor in Peru.
I have worked in Peru for over 25 years designing and manufacturing sweaters and textiles after having a start in the late seventies as a young teacher. While working on a project in the Andes, I lived in a small village called Calca, outside of Cusco. Each morning, I watched groups of young girls walk to school and then walk past me on their way home in the afternoon. They told me they walked for an hour and a half to get to school. I was curious to get to know them. Where was this school? Where did they live? Were they alone?
I visited their school and spoke with the principal who told me about these beautiful young women. He told me they were some of the poorest people in the Andes, that their parents sent them away to school long ago. That they had no family support system and very limited financial support. They were only seven when they were sent from their homes. I stood there thinking of when I was seven and couldn’t imagine the feeling they had when they knew they were alone on their own… at age seven.
Their journey is a sad and sobering story of children abandoned in the hope of a better future. The girls begin their lives in poor, Andean mountain villages where parents often have nine or ten children. There are no schools. Parents send their children down the mountain to larger villages – in some cases 25 hours away – to find schools to attend. They leave with siblings that are often younger and sometimes they travel alone. The children have to find their own food, water, and shelter and a way to support themselves. Once they find a school to attend, the teachers do the best they can to support them, but taking care of so many children is impossible so the children are left to fend for themselves.
Parents send approximately 10 soles a month (about $3.00) to pay for rent and housing, which consists of a plastic roof and a dirt floor with tin walls. The girls have to work for food. The stress and hardship of the work can lead the girls into difficult and dangerous situations. Girls work at the coffee plantations during the rainy season from January to March to save for the coming school year. They make 100 soles/month ($25). The grueling 14-hour days make them feel hopeless. Other girls resort to prostitution.
I wanted to get to know these girls and learn more about their lives and where they lived and who they were as individuals. I was also thinking about how I could help them.
I asked if it would be possible to visit the girls in their homes. I was invited in. I walked with them on their journey home from school. We walked in the valley for 30 minutes and then climbed several hills to reach their homes. They were little shacks with plastic roofs and dirt floors. In the rainy season, the roofs and structures collapse leaving them vulnerable to disease and potentially death, especially for the youngest of them and any infants that may be living with the girls. The girls cook on open fires and raise chickens and guinea pigs for food. They opened their doors physically and emotionally to me. I sat on each girl’s bed and listened to the stories of their lives.
One girl told me she learned how to bead and earned $3.00 for every 100 necklaces she made. She started to cry when she told me she didn’t have enough time to study because she worried about making money so she could eat and feed her brother and sister. Another girl told me her story of prostitution. She often felt fear but no self-hate because she knew she had to do this to survive.
I visited about 10 homes in a week and made new friends. I also made a commitment that I would find a way to help them live better lives and earn a living without having to fear for their safety or compromise their education.
A guiding light
My mind started flowing with ideas. Hadn’t I worked for years teaching women in Lima how to knit and make sweaters that I imported and sold in the US? Those women had new and purposeful, healthy lives. I could do it again, here in Calca, for these young girls. I believed in these girls and they believed in me. As a textile artist I knew what kinds of projects would be right for the girls. As an importer and years of experience wholesaling to specialty boutiques and catalogs, I had a ready US market to sell their products. I would start with teaching the girls how to make beautiful, handcrafted scarves and felted bags. I would become their customer, paying them a fair wage so that they could support themselves, have enough food to eat, live in a safe home, and seek the education they wanted, needed, and deserved.
I bought yarn and showed the girls how to make scarves. They laughed with delight when I told them we were going to make a design in the scarf using garbanzo beans. They were resilient and strong and wanted to make something happen. They learned quality control and how each piece must be ready to be sold in a foreign market. They learned bookkeeping, cost accounting, inventory, customer service, how to use a computer, how to speak English, and many other things. The finished product was wonderful.
Currently we are now selling the scarves in the United States and in Europe. Our work together continues despite the floods that wiped out our schools and homes. We had to move to a different region and look for higher ground that wasn’t so close to the river.
We call our co-op Chaska Hill because the girls are the guiding lights that live on a hill. And they called me Chaska Nuiwi, which means guiding light with the blue eyes.
The revenues from the scarves and with additional help from Chaska Hill have allowed the girls to rebuild their lives and start saving money. They no longer live in shacks with dirt floors. Four or five girls live together in small houses with running water and electricity, beds and kitchens and many of the comforts they spoke of in their stories to me. They have breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday. They go to the doctor and get physicals every year. They want to continue their education and feel as though they have a chance now.
Chaska Hill is a simple dream – it’s built on the very real premise that one person can make a difference. Social change comes from shared compassion – when we find it in ourselves to reach beyond the thought that others are taking care of things (or corporations are doing it for us) and we take the first steps to make the change on our own. The most meaningful is that experience as human beings when we touch the lives of others. I believe that our work with these wonderful Andean women and our ongoing work together is a gift that epitomizes the compassionate human spirit.
Chaska Hill is an organization that is driven by the passion and the idealistic spirit of human transformation, opportunity, and compassion. When forming Chaska Hill I thought of the many experiences I had over the years and how I could share this with others. I wanted you to feel the powerful process of transformation through working with these young women who are trying to make better lives for themselves. By sharing these experiences with the Peruvian women and the young women from our high schools, colleges and beyond we can see how we all can make huge impact in one another’s lives.
We work with young women in Calca, in Cusco, in Lima and other Andean communities. Chaska Hill brings artists, students, business people and adventurers to Peru to join with us in shared community. Our future goals will partner with businesses, non-profits and NGOs to bring their skills, knowledge, and insights and apply this productively to our Chaska Hill activities.
We are not about going in and fixing something. We are all about finding out how we fix something. We listen to the community and they tell us what they want for themselves and their community. This makes all the difference to our work and determines long-term sustainability for the young women we serve and the communities in which they live.
For more information about Chaska Hill, go to www.chaskahill.com.
Kati Johnsen is a designer, fibre artist, entrepreneur and teacher. She is the founder of Mollygoggles, a handmade sweater business based on Martha’s Vineyard.