Bev Edwards-Sawatzky, an Oyama woman, took 45 poverty-stricken Bolivian women under her wing.
Fifteen years ago, when Edwards-Sawatzky saw a display of sweaters knitted by the Minkha Co-operative in Bolivia, she knew she had to get involved. The next year, she flew to Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, to get to know the knitters and their story personally.
Until the late 1980s, the women had lived in Oruro; their men worked in the world’s richest tin mines. Then world tin markets crashed. The mines closed.
In that machismo culture, the men abandoned their wives and children and left in search of new jobs. Relocated to Cochabamba, lacking education, employable skills, and incomes, the women eked out an existence on the streets.
The only skill they had was knitting. All through the Andes women knit — while walking, while talking, while riding the bus, while tending children. A Save the Children volunteer organized a few of these displaced women into a knitting cooperative, called Minkha and brought some of their sweaters to Canada.
In the local Quechua language, “Minkha” means “women working together.”
Since then, the annual sales that Edwards-Sawatzky has organized in Edmonton, Calgary, Cranbrook, and in Lake Country here in the Okanagan have sent close to one million dollars to the Bolivian women.
There’s another sale coming up Saturday, May 13. As in past years, it will be held at Winfield United Church, 3751 Woodsdale Road in Lake Country.
The Bolivian sweaters will be on sale from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sweater prices range from $190 to $210. Ruanas, a knitted wrap worn like a coat, cost $250. Shawls and hats come as low as $40.
“It sounds expensive,” Edwards-Sawatzky admits. “But the alpaca wool alone would cost that much here in Canada. In any international retail market, the price would be at least twice as much.”
Some garments are also knitted in lighter-weight pima cotton, which Edwards-Sawatzky calls “the Cadillac of cottons.”
Internationally renowned clothing designer Kaffee Fassett was so impressed by the quality of the Bolivian women’s knitting that he personally donated some of his trademarked patterns to them.
All of the money received for sweaters goes to the Bolivian women. Canadian sales are run entirely by volunteers.
Each sweater takes about two weeks of steady knitting; a ruana can take three or four weeks. After buying her wool from local suppliers, each knitter makes about $1.60 an hour.
It’s not much. Some of the Bolivian women still live in what Canadians would consider poverty. Chickens roam through dirt-floored houses. A few women still cook on open charcoal fires.
But others have improved their homes with brick walls and permanent roofs.
“When I used to knit for the local people,” said one mother of three children, “I could use my payment to buy two pounds of sugar. With the payment from Canada, I could buy 104 pounds of sugar!”
Since the Minkha Cooperative was launched 30 years ago, one of the knitters has now had two children in university: One to become a nurse, the second a human-rights lawyer. Another woman’s son recently graduated as a doctor, and has returned to the city of Cochabamba to serve the people where he got his start.
And in perhaps the finest compliment, one woman asked Bev Edwards-Sawatzky to be her daughter’s godmother.
These kinds of personal connection make differences in language, customs, and religion fade into insignificance.
The doors will open for this year’s Bolivian sweater sale at 10 a.m. May 13, at Winfield United Church, 3751 Woodsdale Road in Lake Country. For more details, call the church at 250-766-4458, or Edwards-Sawatzky at 250-766-6808.