response: March/April 2021 Issue

Knitting a Better Future

United Methodist Women-supported Methodist Women’s Federation in Bolivia 
helps give women the skills for financial self-sufficiency.

Knitting a Better Future
Lourdes Choquehuanca, right, helps women operate a crochet machine. The machine was purchased with funds from members’ Mission Giving.

La Paz is a vibrant city in a valley of the Andes Mountains in west-central Bolivia. The capital city, it is the country’s political, sports and economic center. It is also home to the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia. I was there in May 2019 to visit the Federación Femenina Metodista (FEFEME), or Methodist Women’s Federation, a global partner of United Methodist Women supported by members’ Mission Giving.

The population of La Paz is around 2 million people, and at an altitude of 11,942 feet, it is the highest capital city in the world—sometimes making the weather as lively as the people who live there. The city’s culture is closely tied to its indigenous populations, who make up the majority of the population.

Accompanied by Nemecia Copa, national promoter of FEFEME, and Odelia Mamani Fernandez, the federation’s national secretary, I made my way through the steep, winding streets of the city’s market area on the way to El Redentor Church. We were joined by Wilson Saucedo, director of promotions and Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia, who served as our translator.

At the church we joined a group of about 25 members of FEFEME. They were gathered together on benches, chairs and the floor spinning sheep and alpaca wool into yarn and knitting, making clothes and textiles. They were mostly indigenous Aymara and Quechua women. Many were wearing their traditional bowler hats and clothing. They learned the textile skills atFEFEME workshops.

Building skills and self-esteem

Before interviews, we gathered for apthapi, a traditional Aymara meal similar to a potluck. The idea of apthapi is that both food and knowledge is shared and community bonds are strengthened. Saucedo shared that it also represents survival, that sharing food and considering themselves “one big family” is how indigenous peoples of Bolivia outlasted Spanish enslavement. All the women that day had brought different food that they had prepared, wrapped up in cloth bundles. They come together for apthapi every time they meet.

Copa has been national promoter for FEFEME since 2018, a job she calls a “joy.” She said the federation started the skill-building workshops almost 20 years ago, and it now hosts workshops in most of the church’s 14 districts, about 17 or 18 workshops a year.

“It all started because we had seen the needs of the women,” she said. “Between 650 and 700 women participate each year.”

The workshops focus mostly on sewing and knitting, learning the skills to make various clothing and knit goods. At the same time, being at the workshop itself builds independence and confidence.

“It was a challenge to show the women that they had the right to learn and the freedom and access to these workshops,” Copa said.

Santusa Mamani de Luna is a 50-year-old indigenous woman who lives in La Paz with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. Once a housekeeper, she makes more income making and selling polleras, or skirts, a skill she learned from a FEFEME workshop.

“Now I’m able to work at home while I’m taking care of my family,” she said. “I’m earning twice as much as I used to make. I have a joyful home now.”

A Methodist for 25 years, her first FEFEME workshop focused on confidence-building and self-esteem.

“This workshop was life-changing for me,” de Luna said. “I didn’t know what self-esteem was, and I realized it’s very important. I’m more sociable now, and I’m not afraid anymore to share with others. I want to thank the Lord.”

De Luna also learned how to work with wool, crochet and knit. She was wearing some of her own creations when we talked. She was so inspired by the community, skill-building and positive changes to her life that she became part of the local FEFEME leadership, spending two years traveling to Methodist districts throughout the country to help train other women.

“I have trained ladies in very remote communities, where there’s not even public transportation, single mothers and young women who are orphaned,” she said. “I have seen the need, and that’s where the Methodist Church sent us. I went there to share everything I have learned in the trainings.”

Berta Mamani Cuba, 30, has participated with FEFEME for five years. A single mother with four children, Cuba worked as a mason before learning how to make sweaters, skirts and coats thanks to a federation workshop, which she now sells, providing her a more consistent income. She lives in the southern part of La Paz city. Both of her parents are Methodist, and she started going to church as a little girl. Her father passed away when she was young, and she left school after the 5th grade to help her mother at home.

“I would like to continue learning different skills and continue my studies,” she said about the workshops. “My hopes are for my children to continue studying and for them to finish their studies.”

Methodist support

The second day of my visit we went to the home of Julia Siñani Pate. She lives on 6 hectares of land in the Altiplano about two hours outside La Paz near Lake Titicaca. She raises cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and rabbits and grows onions, potatoes, oca, papalisa, quinoa, barley, wheat and oats, both for selling and feeding her family. Pate, 54, has been part of FEFEME for five years, participating in the free workshops and learning how to knit by hand.

“I get along better with my family because of my participation. All of my family is part of the church now,” she said. “Since we’ve become part of the Methodist Church, we have learned the love of God and we feel more joyful.”

Methodism arrived in Bolivia in 1906, when Methodist missionaries came to La Paz. At the time, explained Saucedo, under Mestizo rule, indigenous peoples were forbidden from learning how to read and write. Using the Gospel, Methodist missionaries began to teach indigenous Bolivians how to read and write. From its founding, Methodism in Bolivia was seeking to liberate the marginalized and oppressed.

“The missionaries were one of the first groups that started to have schools for indigenous people and especially for indigenous girls,” Saucedo said. “The Methodist Church was among the first to conceive of indigenous folks as equal to Spanish folks and others, so the Methodist Church has a very special role in the history and development of Bolivia.”

The president of the country at the time of my visit, Evo Morales, was Bolivia’s first indigenous and longest-serving president. Saucedo described the president as publicly thankful to the Methodist Church.

“There’s a very special place for the Methodist Church in Bolivia in the development of the indigenous leadership because most of them were Methodist at some point,” he said. There are about 270 Methodist churches in the country.

I spoke with Saucedo during a visit to the North District offices not far from Pate’s home. A group of women had gathered there as well, and we shared apthapi again. It was a way to relax and honor one another.

Juana Parraga Alano, 36, runs a beauty shop in Catacora, where she lives with her husband and two children. She’s been part of the federation for more than 10 years, serving as a local president, but didn’t join the workshops until 2018. Even in her short time participating, she’s seen an improvement with her life.

“They have improved my self-esteem, and I have studied how to become a person in charge of a beauty salon,” she said. “I learned how to make tulmas, ornaments for braids, and I earn money selling them whenever there is a festival in this area or sometimes in La Paz. I feel more confident in understanding that I can do many things and I can learn more.”

Saucedo shared that some of the biggest challenges women in Bolivia face are access to resources and education. He said more girls now are staying in school, but it’s still a struggle to obtain a university education, and there’s still a stigma against women living alone. Alcoholism and domestic violence are also barriers to women’s thriving.

Copa explained that a main reason for the workshops is to help women be more self-sufficient and independent.

“For the national FEFEME, we would like to establish self-sustainment for the women who have been through these workshops,” she said. “Now all the women are eager to learn about computers. And because many small communities now have electricity and water, they want to learn about electricity and plumbing.”

She said much of the funding from United Methodist Women supports sewing machines and materials for the workshops. Mission Giving also support staff salary. Listening to women in their contexts is part of United Methodist Women’s theology of mutuality in mission, building women faith partners around the world.

Confidence and community

Victoria Nicolasa Mendoza Mamani has been part of the workshops for 10 years and is a leader in her local Methodist church. She makes and sells shawls and skirts thanks to the skills she learned in federation workshops. Making clothes for herself and her family is cheaper than buying clothes, she said.

“These workshops have been very helpful for me. These workshops have been a big support for all of us,” Mamani said. “We also share our knowledge back in our local churches and support others with these trainings.”

Now she works to increase participation in the workshops because she wants more women to gain the skills and confidence she has gained as part of FEFEME and the Methodist Church. It’s a chance for women to earn a livelihood but also learn their worth.

Alano agrees.

“The improvement to my self-esteem has been very helpful for me, and it also improved my relationship with my husband because in the past I used to think that I was less than him,” she said. “The workshops have helped me provide support to my home and have taught me that I can do many things and that I can be a better person every day.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 3/3/2021 12:00:00 AM

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