Monday, 12 October 2009

The South Rupununi Sewing Project

About four years ago, a Jesuit here drafted up a funding bid for sewing in the South Rupununi. He requested money to buy sewing machines for six villages, so that local women could make their children’s uniforms at cost, and also earn a little income to support their families. The Austrian Women’s Day of Prayer responded generously, and the funding arrived last summer, two years after the Jesuit who requested it had left Guyana for good. And so it sat for a year, cogitating, while the current personnel wondered what to do with it.

Sounds tidy, eh? What’s not to like? A neat little development project which will benefit local women, and we can all feel satisfied and benevolent. But people change. Circumstances change. Village governance changes, and with it the dynamics and stresses in communities. Sewing can be politicised just as any resources can. In a world with as few systems as this one, which may sound like bliss to any vaguely left-wing psychoanarchists out there, it is almost inevitable that personality clashes and power dynamics dominate every group, and get their own way more often than not. There are six small villages named in the bid, and six big complications that thicken the plot.

Having visited one last month, we spent the last two weeks travelling round the other five villages. [Complication 1: the messages radioed ahead arrived as a particularly inventive Chinese Whispers]. All but one clearly need some kind of support, but their needs are different in each place. The bid was imagining sewing machines, not nuanced discussions about pinking shears, pattern books and paltry human resources. [Complication 2: in all but one village, sewing machines have appeared from other sources, so let’s hope the donors are feeling flexible, as buying more machines wouldn’t make much sense].

Of the six centres in the bid, two already have sewing centres. [Complication 3: two of the villages claim they are about to build a sewing centre. They also said so back in 2005 when the funding was applied for. They haven’t. Will they?]. The village we visited last month was given everything they needed to build a new sewing centre, and it is already half-built; halfway through, their only chainsaw broke and they have to cross the border to Brazil to get a new part. [Complication 4: half of the money was spent on this one village before I got involved, leaving one half to go into fifths, which sounds rather like too many children and not enough cake].

I said two villages already have sewing centres. [Complication 5: one of these actually has TWO sewing centres! One is Catholic and one falls under the village council. I’m here with the Jesuits, so who gets the money? Both centres assume that they are the appropriate recipient].

This leaves three. I take along my little form, and talk through my little chart, but people are bewildered by choices. I ask about their priorities in several different ways. “What do you find yourself needing here? What is frustrating about sewing in your village? What supplies are hard to get?”. No reply. “If I dropped you in Georgetown with $100,000 for your sewing centre, what would you buy?”. Confused silence. “If we were only able to get you one thing, what would be most useful?”. Blank stare. This applies even when the marvellous Ivy translates into Wapishana for me. In one village, I finish my meeting, leave the women to chat and then come back half an hour later and ask if they want to add anything. They blurt out that what they really need is training on how to run a centre- how to manage their money, how to keep tally of supplies, what to lend and what to give away and what to charge and how to form a committee. This does not come within the project in question. I might be able to help later, off my own bat, but will I have the time, opportunity or permission? I still don’t know.

And two of the villages prove disheartening company. [Complication 6: a bright and dynamic young member of our own village council said to me today “It’s a problem we Amerindians have. We wait. We lie back in our hammocks and wait for someone to come and fix things for us. We don’t want to work for ourselves. Some of our people are like that.” Apathy lurks at the bottom of every bottle of parakari, rises off the Department of Education paper with your CXC fails listed on it, sneaks in the door that closes behind the next white person who had parachuted in with the answers to all your problems].

To summarise. Village One wants everything (that’s the easy one). Village Two has everything and wants more (token gestures will have to do). Village three needs everything but actually wants training. Village Four wants a new machine instead of repairing the existing one. Village Five wants to create a new generation of seamstresses. And Village Six is torn between wanting supplies and having no-one who cares enough to use them.

I look back over the visits and see all their faces once again. Brenda beaming, showing off the little skirts and trousers they have made for their sewing centre fundraising event. Vivintia tight-lipped and solemn trying to choose priorities in the face of all that need. Edwina doughily determined not to understand a word I say. Toshao Arnold talking enthusiastically about converting a half-finished mud and thatch building outside his office into their new sewing centre. Saydan bright with excitement about the sewing training she has just been booked to deliver in WaiWai territory. Ann biting down frustration about yet another woman dropping out of the free training she was due to begin the following week.

How to be fair? How to split the money? Will it really make a difference to anyone? It’s like living in the textbooks I studied for my Development masters. Will the sewing projects be sustainable? To be honest, I do get rather sick of donors banging on about sustainability- why on earth should it always be possible for villages to sustain projects when the donor pulls out? Do you think they were just being LAZY, not finding the resources themselves in the first place? In which Deus’ Machina is the money going to float down when a community has so little they are thankful to feed themselves?

If I thought that donating money was the best way to help, I would be a management consultant with a lot of standing orders. But certainly the money is needed. I just feel even more strongly now that the money needs to be in hands that live close to local people, that lived there before the money arrived and stay after it is spent. Among all the challenges of working for the Catholic Church here, the biggest plus is their commitment. The Jesuits have been here for a hundred years- they are not going to pull out when the money is spent, or huff and leave when it doesn’t change people’s lives to their exhaustively researched satisfaction. The developing world is not a problem to be solved. We are all ball-bearings in a Newton’s Cradle- sometimes a harmony, sometimes mesmerising beauty and sometimes a battle. The sewing centres will follow their path and I will follow mine. The Austrian women have taken action to make someone’s life better, and so have I, and now I will try to support them in making use of it rather than bossing them into a pseudo-perfection which our own efforts did not attain.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a task. I can't think of anyone better than you to work through it, although that doesn't actually help you at all does it!?!