A project started as an act of desperation has produced better results than anyone could have imagined.
When the mines in Bolivia, a land-locked nation in the centre of South America, became less profitable, when the international tin market had crashed and the gold and silver was long gone, many of the Bolivian men who had survived the mining conditions moved to other South American countries looking for work. Often this left the women and the children to fend for themselves.
With no income, and no social support, the women found themselves on the streets of Cochabamba, selling candy or second-hand clothes on street corners to raise a few pesos.
A representative of Save the Children Canada helped some of those women organize themselves into a cooperative, knitting sweaters from the fine alpaca wool found throughout the region.
Ten years later, Beverley Edwards-Sawatzky of Oyama visited a display of the Minkha cooperative’s sweaters. She was captivated by the quality of the wool, the skill of the knitting, the beauty of the patterns.
The next spring, she made her first trip to Bolivia, to get involved in the project. She has since returned six times, building a long-term relationship with the Bolivian knitters. Last spring, she and a representative of Canadian Executive Service Organization spent two weeks helping the women develop a new program for international marketing of their products.
The sweaters, vests, scarves and ponchos sell for anywhere from $35 to $250.
“The price hasn’t gone up in 10 years,” said Edwards-Sawatzky. “They’re an amazing bargain. In any international retail outlet, they’d sell for at least twice the price.”
But the price works because every cent raised in Canada goes directly to the Minkha women. Last year’s sale of Minkha sweaters generated more than $20,000 that was transmitted back to Bolivia.
Even with those profits, the Bolivian knitters earn less than $1.40 an hour. A sweater typically takes two weeks of constant knitting — on the bus, in a market, on the road.
“For the first time, these families have the opportunity to move beyond the most basic elementary education. “They all say ‘we knit for our children.’”
One knitter’s son is in first-year medicine at university. Another knitter’s children have become a nurse and a dentist. The talent and determination of these women has created a different opportunity for the next generation.
This year’s Minkha sweater sale takes place Saturday at Winfield United Church, 3751 Woodsdale Rd., from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. More than 200 sweaters, vests, ponchos, and ruanas (a kind of shawl) will be on display.
For more information, call Edwards-Sawatzky at 250-548-6808.
Jim Taylor is a freelance writer in Lake Country, B.C.