This is a guest post by Jade Longelin, author of the blog Bogotastic (find out more about Jade at the bottom of the post)…
The People and Place Behind the Beautiful Wayuu Bags
Wayuu bags or mochilas are a traditional craft that has been practiced by Wayuu women for hundreds of years. The craft of crocheting these bags is an art that is learned by Wayuu women from a young age.
The Wayuu people’s beliefs and environment influence each bag’s pattern and color, turning each different bag into a window onto the culture and traditions of this beautiful indigenous group. Their legends say that Wayuu women were originally taught how to weave the bags and create the complex patterns that make up the design by a spider-like deity named Wale ´Kerü.
Here’s a brief overview of the people and day to day behind these brightly colored mochila bags.
Who are the Wayuu and where do they live?
The Wayuu community is an indigenous group that lives in the northernmost part of Colombia in a region called La Guajira. Although the region is breathtaking with the contrast of the bright orange desert sand against the crisp blue ocean water, the people are very poor, living in small mud and wooden huts. In many parts of La Guajira, there is no running water and drinking water must be purchased. In many parts of La Guajira’s high deserts there has been no rainfall for over three years.
Traditionally the Wayuu live in small isolated settlements made up of five or six houses. These are known as caserios or rancherias. These settlements are usually named after plants or animals, and an area containing a number of rancherias generally takes on the last name of the mother of the family, due to the Wayuu’s matriarchal structure. Wayuu people rarely ever live in towns or large settlements, and rancherias are generally spread out over vast areas.
A Wayuu women’s right of passage
The creation of the Wayuu bag begins when a Wayuu girl goes from being a child to a woman. During her first menstrual cycle, she is obliged to stay confined to a hut anywhere from six months to a year. Previously, they used to stay confined for up to 7 years!
During this time, she is only allowed to have contact with her mother and her grandmother. Throughout these months of confinement, these 2 women will teach her everything she needs to know about being a Wayuu woman and caring for her future husband and children. It is during this time that she learns about the art of crocheting Wayuu bags. She learns the meaning of each pattern, shape and color used in her bags to carry on the craft of her people.
Working as a Wayuu women
A traditional Wayuu woman will refine her crochet skills as she will continue to practice the art throughout her life. However, it is not something she does full time. She must attend to other duties such as caring for her home and family.
How she sells her Wayuu bags:
This same woman will usually live in the rancheria. In order to sell her bags, she must get them to a larger town or city. Sometimes, a representative of the village will gather all the bags produced by the women from the village and go and sell them in the city. Other times, the woman makes the trip to the city herself and sells them to a provider that will commercialize them and add the strap.
How long does it take to make a Wayuu bag?
Although it is said that a double threaded Wayuu bag can take anywhere from 10 to 15 days, this is relative. A Wayuu woman does not spend all day working on her craft.
Between the activities of the house, she finds time to crochet. For example, she might crochet a little bit in the morning, then go and make breakfast for her children. Later she might attend to house chores and while lunch cooks, she might pick up her Wayuu bag and continue working.
On average, double threaded Wayuu bag takes about five hours to make, while single-threaded bags take 10 hours in total. This of course does not count the strap, as it is usually made by the men of the Wayuu community.
As a large majority of people from the indigenous Wayuu community have little or no access to education, so crocheting these Wayuu bags is a skill that they have become dependent on to bring in a major part of their income.
Traveling to La Guajira is an unique Colombian travel experience, and should not be missed if possible. Many rancherias are branching out into tourism and welcoming visitors to stay in their community to learn more about Wayuu culture and traditions. Buying a Wayuu mochila during a visit to La Guajira puts money directly into the hands of the artisan and would add a real personal element to your bag.
If you’re interested in picking one up and are unable to visit La Guajira to do so, I would invite you to check out my store Lombia & Co. I work personally with women in the region who provide fair pay to their artisans.
Below is a video showing how Wayuu bags are made – the commentary is in Spanish, but the images clearly show the complex inherited knowledge that Wayuu women apply to making their famous mochilas, as well as the remarkable skill involved in crafting a Wayuu mochila.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jade is Franco-Vietnamese and has always had a passion for Colombia due to her upbringing in Miami. She indulges in the curiosities of Colombian culture and feels like a kid in a candy store when you take her to the local fruit store. She has moved to Bogotá, Colombia to live indefinitely and has yet to learn how to shake her hips like Shakira and drink ‘guaro’ like the locals. Check out her Colombian adventures on her blog: Bogotastic.