Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Vittoria's story: Picking up the loose threads

One important story which deserves an explanation is Vittoria's brief but very memorable 6 weeks involvement with Li Ch'utam and her contribution to the weaving project launched by Nicoline's team last year. Vittoria is a talented young Italian bag designer from London who came to volunteer for us at the end of April with the aim of focusing on the textiles workshop. 

The idea was to share her expertise in bag design with Mercedes women in order to create an original product of professional quality combining Maya weaving tradition and innovation which could be sold on the national or even international market for a decent price to help their makers make ends meet at the end of the month.

She took total ownership of the project straight away and the truth is that she did a fantastic job of it. At least, the part which concerned her and which she could influence. From dusk till dawn, the volunteers' house was filled with colourful threads, paintings of exotic birds, notebooks with design sketches, crayons, watercolours, wood cuttings, an array of special instruments to cut leather of which I couldn't name a single one... It was truly impressive to observe a real artist at work! Besides, her presence here brought a lovely touch to the house itself: she transformed empty wine bottles into exquisitely decorated candle holders, a fresh and tastefully arranged bouquet of flowers appeared on the table every week, and everything – candy wrappers, crisp packets, glass bottles and every piece of matter imaginable which you and I would classify as "trash" – was collected by her and recycled into something useful, worthy or simply beautiful.

She once referred to herself as "ghost volunteer" for the short duration of her stay, but she was much more vivid and important to myself and to Li Ch'utam than she believes.

As for the weaving workshop, despite her tireless efforts, things didn't quite work out as we had planned... Vittoria left us on Tuesday 9th June. Below is an explanation in her own words as to why:

"After months of dreaming about it, there it was, the 5th of March, flying to Guatemala, excited and happy to start a new experience. I had everything set up in my mind about how I wanted to organize what was going to be a handbags making workshop in Nueva Mercedes. The basics to start from had already been put in place by Nicoline and Kinga with the weaving workshop. 

Yes, I was thrilled by the idea of carrying on with the textiles and making a few nice bag pieces, possibly mixed with leather, different from the ones they were used to making. This would have been a great challenge for me, both personal and professional. I had finally quit my job in London, after four years of handbag design, to temporarily free myself from the “strict” European society, discover and immerge in a different culture and, most of all, to do something meaningful by sharing what I have learned during my years of work. 

According to the initial plan, I should have started the volunteership with another volunteer at the end of March, with the prospect of having another team player after few weeks. I had all the time beforehand to collect materials, machines and tools while being in Antigua.

And there we go, me in Antigua, cheerful and serene, had to re-think over the whole plan after the last minute bomb: the two compaƱeros I should have to start with dropped out of the volunteering. Li Ch'utam administration team was in urgent search for a good candidate to take over the positions.

Three weeks passed by and no news, I was starting to doubt that the project and the volunteering itself were going to happen.

At the end of the month I’ve been told that, yes, we were going to start. Katerina will have arrived to Guatemala at the end of April. Wonderful!

No additional help though, at least for next couple of months. This meant that the time I could have spent on the project was very limited as the main support of Li Ch'utam is of course directed towards assistance in kid’s education. 

I decided then to wait to be in Nueva Mercedes and see how to proceed once settled down.
Welcome to Mercedes! The most remote and magic place I have ever been in my life. Breathtaking landscapes in which the Q'eqchi community is quietly immersed, living a simple life, men working in fields and plantations and women looking after the house and their unquantifiable number of children. The overwhelming nature, the simple but intense life, the kids with their unlimited energies, and mostly the first steps to re-start the engine of the organization, which was left in stand-by for two months, made my first two weeks fly by without noticing. 

At the start I had limited time to dedicate to the project, on the little spare time of the week I’ve begun to involve in my ideas Imelda and Maria Elena, the only two women in the village that actually can weave without problems. 

They were on board, willing to learn something new, enthusiastic about new input, new textile’s colors and so on. I was again really REALLY excited, with lots of ideas of what we could do, using the resources that we had, wood for example. A “world” opened in my mind after I have seen the carpentry and met Emilio, the carpinter of Nueva Mercedes finca. I wanted so much to use wood. Parallel to the excitement I have to admit that I soon started feeling also limited and frustrated, I wanted to spend more time on this new project, elaborate and create an order in my mind, a plan of action to follow with the women.

Finally, after the first two weeks while I was dividing myself between school, afternoon activities and the project, I got the time I wanted. Ready to focus and to start being productive for real. The objective was to get done in more or less two weeks time one/two styles of bags, to bring them with me to Antigua and see if there was a chance to sell them on the market there. I soon realized that my dream to stick with this sort of timeline was one big utopia. The main reasons were the impossibility to have a real workspace to make trials and tests materials. Women seemed to not give any priority to the workshop even when we agreed on days to meet to work on we were always ending up postponing or canceling. 

The working hours averages per week were still the same as before, just too little. We always worked at Imelda's place as for her it wasn't possible to leave the house because of course she couldn’t leave alone her kids. We were working with little "spectators" all the time, which were taking away lots of energy and concentration. 

Kids running around, climbing on you, touching and playing with what was catching their attention (this means everything, including the curls of my hair). I tried to do the best I could, being at their disposition whenever they were available, being flexible as I didn’t want to impose any deadline. I completely respect them with their daily routine and family obligations. I was often ending up doing things by myself at home in order to experiment, save time and proceed with what was possible. Until I realized that this wasn’t the purpose of a workshop and with the little time at disposition left we would have not been able to achieve the objective of this project. In a month and a half time what we achieved in total were three pieces of weaved textiles, from which only one was done precisely and could be adapted to a bag to be used.

 After analyzing all these different aspects I got to the conclusion that surely I have been too optimistic to dream of creating a little bags production out of the blue in such a short time. Something that, now I know, requires a better structure with stronger capacity of influencing women. It has to be a long-term program, built up with patience, no restrictions of time and a bigger team to work with. I should have known all these things before but I have instead had to put my hands on it and hit my head before having it entirely clear. 

Conclusion? I am happy I did it. I don’t consider it as a waste of time but as a trial that still brought some awareness and some additional skills to the women's work. In the end I did manage to teach them something, even if just a little! I left them with guidelines to complete the three bags in their own time and with the freedom to make changes, so now I’m waiting to see their fruits! They also seemed willing to continue weaving new textiles following my proposal of color-combinations that they loved while working together. I would love to keep being involved in this matter and communicate with them from abroad. Apart from the “failure” of the project it has been a wonderful experience, I loved spending my time with Imelda and Maria Elena’s, being absorbed in their quotidian life and family dynamic. Trying to establish confidence and trust with them and the kids and become less extraneous day after day.  

Katerina knows well what I am referring to, we shared our ups and downs and tried our best to be supportive to each other. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. I really want to thank her for the patience and kindness always showed during this period, it has been a pleasure working side by side with her.
It has been a short and intense life experience, I wish I could have done better but I am also a human with my million of limits. We sometimes have to accept these limits!"

- Vittoria Wuhrer

To conclude on the topic, I wanted to share a brief conversation with a woman from the village named Alba, who I went to visit a couple of days after Vittoria left. I told her about the project, about our struggles and the obstacles we faced, and why in the end it did not work out. She seemed surprised that we didn't ask more women to join in, that we did not try to create a bigger community around this workshop. "If you would have told me about it, she said, perhaps I would have found the time to participate too." She told me that the more women join, the better, because one can hardly find the motivation to take time out of their busy daily schedules to dedicate to something so intense and technically demanding. "Together, we would motivate each other", she told me, "and if one woman fails, there will be 5 others to encourage her and convince her that the fruits of her labour are worth it."

Li Ch'utam means "coming together" in Qeqch'i. How could we forget? The answer seems so obvious now that Alba has said it. Perhaps this was our mistake: forgetting the true meaning of the word "Li Ch'utam".

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