Update from M.I. Burke - Peru
I stepped into the Cusco conference room to the chattering of college-agers, the distinctive ticking sound of Apple products as someone texted friends back home, and a teen cracking jokes in a sarcastic tone of voice I have rarely heard in my eight months in Peru. Minutes later, I was standing in front of this group of business students who were working on a week-long research and marketing project for the women’s artisan collective I work with, Ricchariy Warmi. My voice shook, and I glanced down at my notes a few too many times as I flipped through slides and pictures of some of my favorite memories with the women of Ricchariy Warmi. I have never set foot on a college campus yet I found myself telling senior business students how I try to keep accounting figures and inventories straight. They shot questions at me as soon as I paused for breath.
“How many tourists come through the valley during high season?”
“I… could try to find out?” I offered.
“The problem I see is production capacity. How many scarves could a woman feasibly make in a week? Do you keep track of how many hours it takes for them to make one?”
“So according to your estimates, the group produces 36 products a month. Instead of knitting a few hours a week, what if you hold them accountable for knitting a certain number of hours a day? What about an extra meeting on Sunday, their free day?”
Their questions were analytical and to-the-point. This project, after all, is focused on augmenting the women’s income, and in households where income depends on how much a kilo of potatoes sells for in the market, even a little extra is desperately needed. But… even 36 products a month was not an accurate estimate. Celestina only made one scarf in January because she didn’t have adequate medical care for the difficult birth of her fifth child. And Sundays are not free days; Luz Marina can be found selling corn and flowers in the market, Carmen washes the family’s clothes in the river, and Goya, without fail, is in her Sunday best, singing hymns in mass.
As well-intentioned as these students were, it seemed to me that they were more interested in putting the women’s stories on a webpage to tug at the heartstrings of potential buyers than actually sit down and listen to the women. If they had, they would have learned that the women don’t spend their time talking about their hardships in life. Their lively chatter in Quechu-añol ranges from discussions of which herbal remedy is best for mosquito bites to what fundraiser is going on at their kids’ school. Their challenges only come to the surface in passing comments- Goya says that she loves to hike because it helps her forget her worries, and Antonia told me that she is grateful that her husband would often beat her instead of her kids.
I tried to gather my conflicting thoughts. I want Ricchariy Warmi to succeed more than anything but at what cost? “Peru,” I began, “is not… like the U.S. At all.” I don’t think anyone could come to fully understand that reality in one week; I know that I won’t even scratch the surface in nine months. This difference goes much deeper than what pop songs come on the radio or what we eat for lunch. Even the beautiful traditional dances, rich Incan and Spanish facets of the culture, complicated socioeconomic divisions that partition the country, stunning landscape, ugly history of colonialism and terrorism, and incredibly warmhearted population do not begin to encompass all that is Peru. Peruvians beat to a different drum than U.S. Americans or any other people I have met. Theirs is a pace that doesn’t consider time a commodity, places community and tradition first, and allows moments to flow together organically, without compartmentalizing work, hobbies, faith, or relationships on a neat daily schedule. The more I have learned to leave my own agenda behind throughout my time here, the more in sync I feel with Peruvian life.
But with so much left to learn, how could I or even a group of brilliant marketing students tell these amazing women the best way to run their group? Of course we can’t. But we can give time and a few suggestions to help in any small way that we can. The women of Chicón, to be sure, will not be pushed into doing anything that they don’t want to do. They all speak Quechua as their native tongue despite four hundred years of Spanish as the official language of Peru. Many of them grew up as near-slaves under the hacienda system, endured years of scarcity during the controversial Agricultural Reform, and are now successful, independent farmers. And all the degrees at Princeton couldn’t give you the knowledge they have gained over a lifetime in Chicón of medicinal plant remedies, knitting points, potato varieties, and how to make the most delicious rocotto relleno in Peru.