I have learned many things in my decade plus with the women of Mapusha but one teaching came slowly as I watched year after year the graceful ways in which these women work and play together. They have offered me a new experience of the word cooperative which is miles from the earnest Philadelphia food coops of long ago. Their teaching is beginning to sink in and I’m coming to understand what it looks like when ‘one for all and all for one‘ is put into action.
The other day I saw a picture of the five weavers standing on scaffolding high off the ground finishing a large and complex rug and, while still shaking my head with appreciation of their ability to join forces, I happened upon a quote from Ann Coulter in which she disparages soccer. It seems her preference is for sports where individual glory reigns and she finds fault with this sport where blame is dispersed and there are no heroes, no losers. In my African world there are neither heroes nor losers and the collective takes the blame precisely to disperse it.
Early on in my studio days I heard stories from their past that should have shown me the ways of their world. It was explained to me, when I first met them, that any money they earned in those very lean years went to the most needy members. I heard about their attempts to start a grocery store which failed repeatedly due to their inability to charge hungry, destitute neighbors. But, I was slow to digest the truth of this matter.
Many times I have watched when a visitor brings a box of cookies to the studio how carefully one of the women will divide the cookies into equal piles, three and two thirds cookies per person or some such impossible task of division. I should have remembered these little piles of cookies when I made a serious attempt to come up with an accurate price per square meter of woven tapestry. This inquiry involved understanding just exactly how much raw wool each spinner could turn into spun wool per week and how fast the weavers could weave a square meter of tapestry. When the calculations were complete it was obvious to all that the spinners were not working fast enough. Either they had to speed up or their salaries had to shrink to make our price per square meter reasonable. This was explained to all, adjustments were made and I returned to the states satisfied that we finally had neatly ordered salaries, production and pricing.
When I returned to the studio seven months later and saw the accounts I realized that all my work was for naught. The spinners salaries had magically risen once again. They were a coop after all, Regina reminded me, and little piles of cookies danced through my head. I didn’t protest that it was unfair that Anna, who peaceably dozes while she spins, should have a salary very similar to master tapestry weaver Linda. I said nothing for, finally, I understood. Mapusha is at root not a business but a cooperative and in a cooperative wealth, blame and cookies are equally dispersed. There are neither, winners, nor losers, villains nor heroes and I am wiser for understanding this, the reality of Mapusha’s cooperative.