A student reflects on preserving an ancient culture.
It’s three hours before sunrise on a Saturday morning in October when I slip out my apartment door in Cusco, Peru. I am about to board a van that will take me 40 miles northwest to Ollantaytambo, a town in the heart of the Sacred Valley that serves as a base camp for approximately one million visitors to Machu Picchu each year.
But this is where I part ways with the others.
No tour guide is there to greet me as I step into the main plaza at daybreak. It’s just my research colleague, Annie, and our two Quechua-Spanish translators, Adrian and Raul. The four of us are bound for Chaullacocha, elevation 15,000 feet, a wind-swept village high in the Andes where our task is to interview a dozen indigenous weavers. I am nearing the end of a six-month co-op that I developed with Threads of Peru, an organization dedicated to creating international markets for these isolated artisans as a way to provide economic empowerment while preserving their traditional way of life.
We climb into the bed of a market truck, finding our spot among the bags of rice and sugar, piles of bagged bread, barrels of cooking oil, and mounds of greens. As we wind up the narrow dirt road, bumping our way toward a high mountain pass, I claim a spot on a plank of wood suspended behind the cab and brace myself for the frigid ride. I count 39 people strewn atop the market goods that fill a truck bed that is only 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. I ride with live chickens, baby sheep, and breast-feeding women dressed in colorful skirts and ponchos. From large buckets, they pour countless cups of chicha, a home-fermented corn or quinoa beer.
I began researching social enterprises abroad, eventually coming across Threads of Peru, which connects indigenous artisans with the global market, expanding demand for clothing that may have only been sold through the local tourist market. The organization’s goal is to help preserve ancient textile techniques and support members of five weaving cooperatives in the Sacred Valley region without altering their culture. As we lurch up the mountain, I marvel at how far I have come from my comfortable college life in Boston, and take pride in the fact that this experience was entirely my own creation. As a combined major in political science and international affairs, I had developed a strong interest in reducing global poverty and knew that I wanted a co-op that would take me to some corner of the developing world. I also knew that I wanted to work with an established organization that would allow me to design and complete a project from scratch.
In addition to buying the products at fair-trade prices, Threads of Peru provides skill-based training in weaving techniques to ensure that the craft is preserved among younger generations.
Drawing on the skills I developed through Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute—coupled with hands-on experience gained in Cuba and the Dominican Republic—I drafted a proposal, which was approved by the organization. And in July, I moved to Peru.
The truck comes to a lurching halt, and the passengers barter with other traditionally clad women, who have been waiting by the roadside for the weekly delivery. The vendors onboard excitedly thrust their hands through the wooden slats of the truck bed, trying to negotiate a sale of their food supplies. Lacking hard currency, some of the villagers barter with potatoes, one of the only crops that grows at this altitude. But there is a steep transaction price for dealing with these middlemen, who are able to move up and down the mountain.
I try to help out by handing bags of vegetables over the railing, and soon find myself in the middle of a Quechua-Spanish argument regarding the correct amount to be paid. When the negotiations are completed, the vendors settle back into their seats atop the produce, laughing and pouring more chicha as the truck grinds into gear. The process is repeated several times as we work our way up the mountain.
After three bone-chilling hours inching our way up the rocky peaks, we reach a mountain pass with a view of our destination. Below us, scattered amidst a desolate lunar landscape, sits Chaullacocha, the wind-swept home of the Ticllay Huarmi weaving association.
Houses made of mud brick with straw roofs dot the treeless expanse, where llamas and sheep outnumber human inhabitants. Noontime temperatures typically hover around freezing, even though the village is on the same latitude as the rain forests of the Amazon.
This neglected village is typical of small communities throughout the Andes, with a way of life that few tourists ever see. l
We hop off the truck and regroup with our translators, then walk to the school that serves as the village center and meeting spot. We wait outside, hoping that our radio message requesting interviews has gotten through. With no cellphone service or telephone lines, we have no other way to communicate with the village.
Soon, we spot a pair of weavers making their way down the hillside, and another woman approaching from the other side of the valley. After such a taxing journey, I breathe a sigh of relief.
The goal of my research was to learn more about how social enterprise can best help Andean weavers—and to do that, I had to learn as much as possible about their lives, their culture, and their goals for the future.
I divided the interviews into three parts: an ethnographic baseline study of the culture, a look at the current economic situation of the weavers, and exploration of their personal and work-related ambitions.
Some of the weavers bring children or animals with them to the interviews. All carry spindles for spinning alpaca fiber into yarn, and several work while we talk.
Before the interviews begin, we make casual conversation with the weavers through our translators. The weavers blush and smile as we joke together across three languages. Once everyone is comfortable, we ask a few introductory questions before diving deep into the intricacies of their lives.
I spent July and August in Cusco designing my study. In September and October, Annie Marcinek, a 2014 Penn State graduate, helped me conduct 80 interviews in the five mountain villages. I completed the project in November and December by analyzing the data and writing a report that is already being used by Threads of Peru to inform its decision making.
My research uncovered several important trends, including a sharp increase in spending among the weavers in late February and all of March. This is driven by education spending—clothes, books, and transportation—at the beginning of Peru’s school year.
Unfortunately, their increased need for disposable income comes during the sales drought that follows the holiday buying season, and on the heels of the December-to-February rainy season, when working and traveling in these Andean communities is most difficult.
This conflict between spending and cash flow is particularly important because education for their children is a top aspiration among the weavers, according to our analysis. Threads of Peru will use this new information to devise ways to increase cash flow for weavers during the crucial early months of the year.
“She had walked for four hours from her village climbing 2,000 feet, to do the interview.”
Creating my own co-op and seeing the project through from conception to completion both tested and improved my project management skills. I arrived at Threads of Peru with a general sense of how to conduct evaluation research, but took that knowledge to another level because there was no one to tell me exactly what to do. I had to determine on my own what would be the most valuable, yet realistic, research—how to use the data, and to extract the most important correlations.
Being allowed to assume a position of leadership at a fast-growing social enterprise was unlike anything I could have learned out of a textbook in Boston. The skills I learned will be easily transferable, whether I decide to pursue consulting opportunities, nonprofit work, or even my own social enterprise or business.
When I think back to my time high in the Andes, my mind immediately skips to Juliana Huaman Quispe (pictured below), who arrived as we neared the end of our long day of interviews in Chaullacocha. Like the others, she arrived in traditional dress, carrying a spindle and a ball of fiber, which she spun into yarn as we spoke.
But there was one big difference. Juliana did not live in the village. She had walked for four hours from her village, climbing 2,000 feet, to do the interview. Her craft was that important to her.
To me, Juliana epitomized the sacrifices so many of the weavers were willing to make for greater opportunity. At almost 50 years old, she walked up and down that mountain—alone—because weaving is her life. She wanted to tell us about her ambitions and her desire to learn new natural-dyeing and color-combination techniques.
The dedication she demonstrated showed me how worthwhile projects like mine can be in creating transformative change for those most deserving of it.
-By Harrison Ackerman, originally published in Northeastern Magazine
Top photo: Isaiah Brookshire; all others courtesy Harrison Ackerman