Weaving in Tradition: Local volunteer organization links Canada and Peru for sustainable change

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Students navigate a table through an open doorway. Sunlight streams through the many windows of the building. In the back, some people plant an herb and vegetable garden. Others paint a fresh coat of paint on the walls which enclose countless communal spaces. Looking less like a dormitory and more like a home, Victoria’s Brentwood College School has students work with Peruvian students to move into a new residence in Cuzco, Peru.

The bright and cheery disposition of the house mirrors the amiability between the students moving in and making repairs. The house is conveniently located 20 minutes from downtown Cuzco, yet is a quiet and peaceful haven—complete with apple and fig trees in the backyard. The house is the kind of place where students are able to reach their full potential and fulfill their dreams, and it’s appositely named Casa Mosqoy, which means “dream” in Quechua, a language native to the Andes.

The Peruvian students who will reside in Casa Mosqoy are recipients of funding from the Victoria-based non-profit organization Mosqoy. Mosqoy was founded in 2006, and is run entirely by volunteers. There are three different programs run by Mosqoy: the Andean Youth Program, which funds students from the Sacred Valley so they may receive post-secondary education in Cuzco; the Q’ente Textile Revitalization Society, a program through which women weavers of the Sacred Valley sell their fair-trade weaving in Canada; and the Global Stewardship program, which promotes awareness about sustainable tourism through education with youth.

The Andean Youth Program funds 20 students from over 16 communities in the area to attend a three-year diploma program at a technical institution in Cuzco. These students are required to attend classes and contribute to the Mosqoy community by attending events and carrying out volunteer service. After graduation, these students are encouraged to return to their community and contribute as educated and employable members. Instead of employing outsiders, the tourism industry now employs community members who, in turn, receive income and can provide for their families. Through this program, money is redirected to those who need it in small communities.

Mosqoy’s Modest Beginning

Eight years ago, a UVic student majoring in Environmental Studies and Latin American Studies with a minor in Professional Writing took a backpacking trip to Peru. Starting a NGO was not on her mind when she left on her backpacking trip, but she knew she wanted to get to know the Peruvian communities she stayed with.

That student was Mosqoy’s founder—Ashli Akins.

Ollantaytambo is the last town on the way to Machu Picchu. Akins only planned on staying there for the weekend, but fell in love with it. She stayed with a local resident for four months while volunteering at the local museum. In that time, she grew close to the people she was living and working with. “I just started hearing story after story,” says Akins, “They felt like they either had to choose between developing economically or keeping their culture alive.” After witnessing this conflict and being asked by community members to help, Akins became determined to discover a way for the communities to simultaneously develop and preserve tradition.

Akins recalls a mother of a potential student who grasped her hand while saying a prayer in Quechua. When she finished, the mother would not let go of Akins’ hand until she promised that she would help her son get through school. This made Akins realize how often outsiders come promising a future which is unintentionally broken when life gets in the way. The gravity of putting words into action sunk in. “I suddenly had the why. There was absolutely no way I could not fulfill that promise.”

When she got back to Victoria, she founded what is now known as the Andean Youth Program by spreading the word at her university classes. UVic was “pivotal” in helping Akins get her organization started, but classes suddenly felt difficult and expensive. “I didn’t even have the money for my own schooling, let alone 20 others.” Despite the daunting task ahead, Akins worked hard to recruit funders and volunteers, in addition to creating the UVic Mosqoy club, which still is very active today. Akins put in endless hours of work to ensure that Mosqoy would not be another broken promise.

Tourism Takes Over

November 2008: Gerry Luton watches as women weavers from the Sacred Valley stand in a half-circle. Each woman makes a speech in Quechua. These women work hours to weave the stories of their lives into beautiful textiles. Luton feels tears well in his eyes. Each woman walks to the volunteers and, while showering them with rose-petals, personally thanks them for their work.

Every year one of Mosqoy’s students is funded by the centre to attend UVic. Luton, who has been an instructor at the UVic English Language Centre for 20 years, took a trip with Mosqoy to experience its inner workings. He observed the sustainability it brings. “They are never helping just one person. By helping that one student, they are helping a family, which will help the community.” As Ashli says, “It’s not a hand-out; it’s a hand-up.”

Alexander Herrera’s 2013 study, “Heritage Tourism, Identity and Development in Peru,” notes that in the past 10 years, the growth rate of tourism has increased by 8 per cent. Tourism currently accounts for 4 per cent of Peru’s total GDP, which is $197.1 billion USD. According to Herrera, the large tourism industry in Peru is due to an increase in a desire for a unique travel experience.

However, rural communities in Peru do not benefit from these tourism initiatives and struggle to provide sufficient health care and education. According to “The Intersection of Gender and Ethnic Identities in the Cuzco—Machu Picchu Tourism Industry” by Annelou Ypeij, “The authorities are ambivalent toward the indigenous populations. On the one hand, the images, artifacts, and customs of indigenous peoples are used to promote Peru as a tourist destination. They contribute to the idea of Andean mysticism, which the state values as Peru’s most important tourist asset. On the other hand, indigenous people are seldom perceived as autonomous actors who should be taken seriously in the national tourism project.” Thus, the commodification of Peruvian culture fails to benefit those who need it the most.

Mosqoy has Momentum

Flash-forward to 2014. Mosqoy is now a not-for-profit based in Victoria and Ollantaytambo with 15 volunteer managers, plus an additional 10-15 volunteers for casual events.

Alison Root, 22, has volunteered for Mosqoy since September 2013. As the administrative officer, Root coordinates the volunteers in both Peru and Canada and sees to the organization of both the physical and online offices. A full-time, third-year Linguistics student, Root volunteers for Mosqoy 10 hours a week. All of Mosqoy’s unpaid volunteers work these hours around busy schedules, which is a testament to their dedication.

In the past year, Root has witnessed the passion of volunteers which comes from being driven by the motives of the organization itself. Rather than get lost in the networks of a large organization, Mosqoy volunteers get to know each other through events such as potlucks, creating a sense of community. In particular, Root is drawn to how the Andean Youth Program is done in a “responsible way,” in the sense that the money is not simply being thrown away but is put toward the core of the problem: lack of education and employment. “[The students] are expected to contribute money back into the program after they’ve graduated and gotten a job so eventually, in theory, Mosqoy could pull out and the program could be self-sustaining.”

Root praises Ashli for inspiring volunteers and keeping up morale. “As a really passionate go-between, [Ashli] just manages to facilitate all of these really cool relationships,” Root says. “She’s a really powerful force in the organization.”

Back at Casa Mosqoy, the doorknob is repaired and the rooms are furnished. Students gather in the most valued room of the house, the dining room. Here, the full-length windows provide an incredible view of the city. However, even more inspiring than the view from the dining room is a painted mural in the house created by both Brentwood and Mosqoy students.

The eyes are first drawn to an open book, representing education. The wind causes a page to flutter over, revealing a page full of red and white, symbolizing both the Peruvian and Canadian flag. Over the book, on the left-hand side, stands a maple tree. From that tree, a leaf floats down into the flag. On the right-hand side is an Andean flower, a cantu (a symbol of Peru), blossoming. Near the flower is an Andean cross, a chakana, which symbolizes Andean mystic belief—an integral part of Quechua culture. A column stands with a thread weaving up the side and as it spirals up the column it turns into a loom, and evolves into a textile.

The mural is a mode of communication that speaks more than words. Colours and images swirl together to create a masterpiece manifesting Mosqoy`s vision. Similarly, Mosqoy combines the efforts of two different cultures to create beauty and change. Mosqoy is more than its name suggests. More than a dream, Mosqoy creates tangible realities which are as solid as the wall upon which the mural is painted.