Since launching The Warmi Project, many have asked me “What does the symbol of those golden rings signify and how did it come about?”
Since I was a young girl, my mom would take me to the local bead shop, this place made me feel like I stepped out of my small town and took a journey around the world. I would spend hours exploring the textiles, tapestries, art work and beads which came from around the globe. The beads were stored in glass jars and stocked one on top of the other in long stretches across the wooden wall organized in perfect rows, by colors and regions. You'd also find a group of women seated in the back, smelling of patchouli oil, highly concentrated as they squinted, hyper-focused on wiring tiny beads into their work of art. I too, would get quiet, focused and in the zone as I would study every bead. I would ask the store owner question after question about the history and stories behind each bead. With the little money I had, I would buy a handful of beads, head home and get lost in trance for hours putting together my version of a masterpiece. Later in life I would go on to collect beads from all the places I traveled and receive beads as gifts from friends who too have traveled to far away places. My collection grew from African trade beads, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, gemstones from Chile, pewter, silver, bronze, beads made of ceramic, murano glass, turquoise from the Himalayas, and seed beads from all over the world. You name it, I have collected it. With these collections, I would begin to design various creations for people in my life; no one necklace has ever been the same, it’s never been planned, it just is.
Beading has been a constant in my life, it is something that helps me to center as well as be in the here and now. Many years ago, while serving with the Peace Corps, I was partnered with a community of women who also had their fixation around ‘mullos‘ (pronounced moo-yos) ‘beads’ in the indigenous Andean language of Kichwa. The community nestled in the northern Andes of Ecuador, at 9,000 feet elevation, two hours south of the Colombian border. Little did I know this simple hobby of mine would later turn out to be a powerful leadership tool on finding common ground, building cohesive teams, and developing trust and credibility with others. The golden beads that awaited me in this tiny, rural, community would also become the symbol of The Warmi Project many years later…
November 1997, rural, mountainous Ecuador
I am a few months into my service and looking from the outside in, still wishing I could be on the inside looking out- fully integrated, accepted, and part of the community. The locals are not trusting of outsiders, especially foreigners. Although they requested a volunteer, it doesn't seem as though this community wants an American woman to live and work with them. One of the men in the community shared with me that they had requested a male volunteer not a female and not sure what I would be able to contribute as a woman. During the daytime, it feels like a ghost town, chickens fighting one another for their feed and pigs grunt as they eat their 'aqua sucia' (a bucket mix of food scraps and water.) Children are working the fields, few are in school, while the men are working in construction or managing garbage pick up for the larger surrounding cities. The women tending to their crops of quinoa, potatoes, and wheat. I have no direction, no guidance, no one to mentor me (or so I think.) I have all the time in the world, life moves slow, real slow in the Andes. What is my purpose here? It's a few months now and I don't have solid work, no clear goals, no connection, and definitely no audience. The poverty and need is overwhelming and I do not know where to begin. I question why I was sent here, I don’t have anything to contribute, I am lacking skills.
I decide to turn to my 'go-to' of beading as something that has helped me in the past to re-group and stay in the present. It’s a windy Andean day, with bright, blue skies and that equatorial sun has me straining to see. I pick a spot in one of my favorite open fields, set up my wool blanket, open my glass jar of beads I had collected since arriving in country. The sun rays are beaming down on the beads making the stones and ceramics glisten and glow. I sigh. How can this be a typical day of work? I can’t just bead, I will get in trouble by the Peace Corps staff for not being effective. I begin to work and get pulled into my beading vortex as the colors are changing and designs started to appear in my mind. I quickly place the beads in order, move things around and start to string the beads one by one. My mind quiets, my focus heightens and worry and self-doubt begins to diminish. I am in the zone and lose track of time, I assume a couple of hours have passed as my neck and legs are a bit achy from sitting in one position for a long period of time.
I glance up, squinting, as the sun is in my eyes. I see people surrounding me. I am startled as I was in such deep thought and my little visitors were so silent that I didn't know there was a group in a circle around me, total silence. I hear whispering and the word "mullo' being repeated many times. One child asks if he can join me. Before I can respond, he is sitting next to me. Then a little girl, sits down on the other side of me and asks if she can also make something, I move over and make space for her. She begins to carefully design her necklace, extremely focused and breathing loud through her nose. The little boy skips the design phase and quickly throws together all the beads he can on the string and shouts out "I'm done, can I make another one for my sister?" "Yes, of course, do you want to invite your sister so she can make one too?" He takes off screaming in Kichwa and next thing I know his little sister is running full speed at us and pushes her way in to our concentric circle and starts grabbing for all the red beads.
Hours continue to go by and more and more children are gathering around the beading blanket finding their ‘here and now’ creating their little masterpieces with my bead collection as well as random rocks and seeds became part of our design. One little girl leaves the beading zone running and screaming rapidly in Kichwa, I notice her mother steps outside her home, takes her daughter's hand and walk together back to our group. I don't know this woman, she looks to the ground and in a soft spoken voice asks me if she too can join the group. I notice she is smiling while her hand is covering her mouth. I open our concentric circle even more and we make space for her. She too quickly falls into the zone grabbing at the limited beads and oh so carefully begins to string away. The news has spread through the community as though everyone was on some sort of instant messaging. One shy woman, invites another friend and next thing I know, there's a group of women waiting and wanting to bead.
As we sit in a circle and bead away, the women not only slowly begin to show up yet open up. One by one, they share about their lives, upbringing, families, husbands, children, their challenges and their dreams. I continue to listen as they share. I stay quiet, letting them lead the conversation, and listening to every word they have to say. This is the most I have heard this group of women speak in months. With me and with each other. It has been each woman on her own, tending to her family, daily chores, work, and their fields. One woman looks up and makes direct eye contact with me for the first time. I am not sure how to respond as the women would look at the ground and cover their mouth with their hand when talking to me and the men. I look back at her and smile and ask if she could help me with my necklace as I’m stuck and not sure what beads to use next. She jumps up and sits next to me, grabbing my arm, pointing at some blue beads and puts her hand on my shoulder.
Since my arrival, I have noticed the beautiful golden layered necklaces that all the women and girls wear. I ask her about the significance of the golden necklaces. She explains that the golden beads represent the maize, the sun, wealth, strength, and wisdom. The younger you are the less beads you wear, the older you get the more beads you acquire. Especially when a woman marries, she gains even more layers of the beads. More wisdom, strength, and age is being shown ‘around her neck’ as she is entering this new stage of her life.
That one afternoon turned into a weekly beading group yet we have run out of my beads and string. I am learning to work with the scarce resources we have. Stateside, I would just go to a local art store and buy the supplies at an affordable price. Here, I have no funding to supplement, the community doesn’t have a seed fund for women’s groups or kid’s projects. We need to think outside the box on how we can support our beading habit. We go to the big city to ask some of the store owners if they'd be willing to donate beading materials to our community. Two stores agreed and give us the scraps of seed beads and what they have at the bottom of the barrel or lose beads that are on the floor. We take whatever we can get and are grateful!
I pose the question to the women, if they’d be able to contribute 25 cents to create a seed/bead fund so we could begin to save and purchase our own materials versus ask for donations. To my disbelief, all the women show up at the next gathering with 25 cents each and one woman brought 50 cents! I have always believed it's important for people to contribute what they can so they take ownership over it versus solely accepting charity or donations. Even the girls begin to show up and play big with their 25 cents. The girls seem to ‘get it’ even more than the adults and want to have a variety of materials to work with each week. They also see the power of collective impact and when we come together and pool our resources, we can buy more, create more, and eventually sell more with a greater return on investment.
Our weekly beading encounters surprisingly turned into a income generating activity as they made and sold necklaces in the big city. The Otavalen market was known as one of the largest artisan markets in South America located only 10 minutes from our community. We were already strategically positioned as tourists from all over the world would travel to Otavalo. We gave it a try and reinvested the money into our business and the girls in the group used the money to go to school and purchase school supplies. Our 'here and now’ activity led us to great things over the years to come...
Prior to that windy, sunny Andean afternoon alone on my beading blanket, I had spent so much time trying to force things to come together and wanting so bad to have a plan, a path forward, and a purpose for my time in this community. I was insecure as I didn't have great language skills, nor technical skills and doubted my ability to be effective or to be able to bring people together. By surrendering and not having a goal, and being in the ‘here and now’ I was able to simply use beading as a tool to connect, communicate and educate. We came together from the simple act of beading. We come from different worlds, different upbringings but had the love for beading in common. I never would have thought that this would have been my gift or 'entry' to this community.
We would bead every week and during these encounters we would discuss important topics they brought up around: women's and children's rights, gender equity, domestic violence prevention and response, their dreams, community issues; and how the women want to lead in their lives. They also strategized on how to get the first female as president of their tiny community, which would happen a few short years later.
I learned from these wise older souls that silence is ok and sometimes by speaking less you say more and give others a space to share. I learned that sometimes we need to slow down in the moment in order to speed up later on. I was no longer on the outside looking in, I was on the inside looking out and part of this tiny, Andean community.
The golden beads form a chain and more layers, interconnected and never ending. This has resonated with me for many years and became the foundation of The Warmi Project and its symbol of the rings wrapping around the bold W. The ‘W’ representing women walking brave, and bold. Be it in a tiny village in the Andes mountains, in the work place, on the race course, or with community; I began to see how women lead.
I too was given the gift of the golden beads from the women. To this day, I wear my beads (especially on important occasions) and am reminded of the powerful lessons I learned about strength, patience, the here and now. As I get older life continues to give me more and more strands of wisdom and those golden beads…
P.S. Be on the lookout for my October blog post for International Day of the Girl to see what happens when you Let Girls Lead…