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Ernesta’s Muchila: Weaving Our Stories Together

August 9, 2014

I realize it has been way too long since my last post and I will write an update soon but for now, in honour of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples , I thought I would share a short story I wrote about one of the many inspiring indigenous women I worked with in Colombia, Ernesta, a leader of the Wayuu people.


Ernesta’s Muchila

My roommates’ eyes blew wide open beneath their thick-rimmed hipster glasses. They had opened the door to find me sharing a coke with an indigenous elder on the sofa of our trendy Bogota apartment. It was the first time a traditional leader had crossed the threshold of our home.

Ernesta was a leader of the Wayuu people, one of the more than one hundred indigenous tribes in Colombia. I had met her that morning, when she turned up at my office well before its doors had opened for the day. She had travelled more than twenty-four hours by bus from the Guajira, a remote territory in the far north of country. She had come looking for help, what would soon become my help. I was working as a lawyer for indigenous people in Colombia and represented them in all kinds of scenarios, but what Ernesta was asking was certainly a first.

I welcomed Ernesta into the dark office. Overnight rainstorms had caused yet another power outage. The day was as chaotic as it was ominous, with my colleagues scattered all over the city. Ernesta sat waiting for my colleague who was sitting across town, waiting for our boss. Everyone was waiting.

We sat quietly across from each other in the dark office. I sat behind the desk in my grey suit, typing away on my laptop for as long as the battery would let me. Ernesta sat across the room in full regalia. She wore a powder blue robe that hovered over her sandal-clad feet. It had a lace overlay that sat like a bib around her neck, with a pattern similar to that of the mochila she was weaving in her lap. Mochilas are traditional hand-woven purses, with braided shoulder straps and a single string with pom-poms on either end that you tie to close the bag. They come in as many styles and colors as there are indigenous groups, with patterns as complicated as the stories of those that wove them.


As the morning went on, the distance between us narrowed. Ernesta told me her story as she wove her mochila. She was the leader of her community but was involved in a power struggle with her eldest son. He was trying to usurp her power by representing himself as a tribal authority in negotiations with outsiders. This included dealings with nuns who had moved onto Wayuu territory. Without Ernesta’s consent, he had made a deal with the nuns, allowing them to operate in the territory. This had created a rift within the community; there were those who were with Ernesta and those who were with the nuns and her son. At least that is what I thought was going on. I always found it challenging to get an indigenous client’s story straight. What I needed was a scarf with orderly lines, but what I would get was a mochila with a complicated web of a pattern. While I expected a linear timeline of relevant facts, they told their stories like they wove their mochilas; in a circular and layered fashion, with relevant facts tucked deep up into the folds of an intricate pattern.

But this time I had to understand, Ernesta needed the head nuns to understand what was going on up in the territories. She wanted us to negotiate with them at their headquarters in Bogota. She had come to us as a last ditch effort, with 9000 pesos (or $4.50) left and a bag of mochilas to sell for her bus fare back to the coast.

We waited hours for my colleagues to arrive at the office. We tried every phone number we could find for the convent. Someone finally answered but hung up when they heard who was calling. I pleaded with the other lawyers to help but no one would; they hear stories like this every day. After pestering one of them for an hour, he finally said to us: “I don’t have the time nor the money to help her.” Helping her would require taxi fare that the organization had no money for. We found ourselves alone again, waiting.


My boss finally returned to the office but when I asked him to speak with Ernesta, he refused and said: “You go. You be her lawyer.” This was far outside the scope of the work I was to be doing as a visiting foreign lawyer, but this detail seemed to be of little interest to anyone but myself.

I grabbed my briefcase and Ernesta grabbed her bag of mochilas and off we went to find a taxi. We were an unlikely pair on an unlikely mission, making our way across rainy Bogota in search of the unresponsive nuns. We located the convent, but after several attempts at contact the nuns remained elusive. We wandered up and down the street concocting a plan. We ended up going with the straightforward banging-on-door and ringing-bell-incessantly approach until an exasperated gatekeeper finally let us in.

It was my first time in a convent and it had a calming effect on me. It was a feeling I fought against, knowing the chaos these nuns had caused in Ernesta’s community. We were taken to the office of the Mother Superior. While I shuffled in nervously, feeling like a schoolgirl about to be punished for disturbing the peace with my incessant phone calls and door-knocking, Ernesta blew through the doorway with her head held high, announcing she had brought “her lawyer.” The Mother Superior listened patiently while Ernesta told her story. At one point during the meeting, I crept outside my body to observe the scene below; me in my suit negotiating between a nun and an indigenous woman in flowing robes. It was far from the corporate office I had left behind to do this work.

The moment we stepped outside the convent, Ernesta was on her cellphone excitedly explaining the outcome to her daughter back home. Although the negotiations had gone well, I could not help but feel a little sad that she needed a foreigner to get her voice heard in her own country. It was a sentiment I felt all too often during my work with indigenous people. I was awoken from my melancholy thought by a cell phone being thrust in my face. Ernesta insisted I talk to her community and the phone was then passed around for me to speak with half the Wayuu in the Guajira.

I did not know where to take Ernesta as the office had long been closed. We headed to my apartment in El Parkway, a somewhat glitzy section of Bogota. We sat on the sofa, shared a coke and recounted the day’s events. My roommates stumbled over each other as they opened the front door onto this scene. As Ernesta told them about her life, I looked on, in awe of the different existences that make up the patchwork of this country.

Once my roommates were on their way, I went to get money to buy a mochila. It would be a gift for a friend, but was also a way of ensuring Ernesta had bus fare home. I rummaged through the bags until I found the perfect one. It was black with a braided strap of neon greens, pinks and yellows. When I turned back to Ernesta she was holding out another mochila in her hands. It was the one she had begun that morning. The one she wove as she told me her story, the story that at some point during that day, had become our story. It was green and interwoven with bright red triangles going up and down, as unexpected as the events of our day. She wove the final stitches now, just as our story together was coming to an end. She handed it to me and said: “this one is my gift to you, to remember me.”

Mochilas for sale on the street in Cartagena, Colombia

Mochilas for sale on the street in Cartagena, Colombia

Let me know whether you enjoyed this first attempt at a more narrative short-story-style post, comments welcome! I hope you enjoyed the story and that it will trigger a bit of reflection on just some of the many issues facing the world’s indigenous people today.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Elva permalink
    August 9, 2014 4:19 pm

    Great story, that’s definitely Colombia.

    • Bill permalink
      August 9, 2014 9:50 pm

      Great story…..enjoyed!

  2. Sarah permalink
    August 9, 2014 7:19 pm

    Very well written! I enjoyed it very much and would like to hear more. Hope you are both well. Talk soon.

  3. Erica permalink
    August 11, 2014 12:48 pm

    The story of your mochila comes to life, what a great experience 🙂

  4. Pauline Sullivan permalink
    August 11, 2014 9:42 pm

    Great story, really enjoyed.

  5. Megan permalink
    August 13, 2014 5:07 pm

    More please. 🙂

  6. Sally permalink
    August 14, 2014 9:29 am

    A touching story. Now I want to learn more. For sure the stories of Columbia could take many lifetimes to tell. I am very impressed that you made it a mission to support this cause and this leader.

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