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Quipu project interview: Trying to cement a collective memory

Published Date: 20 July 2016

‘In the 1990s, during his 10-year reign as president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori launched a new family planning programme that resulted in the sterilisation of 272,028 women and 22,004 men in only 4 years.

The sterilisations were done almost exclusively to indigenous people living in rural areas. Thousands have claimed this was done without their informed consent. Their stories have taken a long time to emerge because they have almost no means of media representation, often living in isolated villages. Many of them are illiterate or only speak Quechua; therefore, they struggle to access the institutions of the Spanish-speaking Peruvian state. It was only after President Fujimori’s resignation in 2000 that the injustices really started to come to light. After almost two decades they are still seeking justice.

About the Quipu project:

Quipus are knotted cords that were used by the Incas and Ancient Andean civilisations, to convey complex messages. This interactive documentary project is a contemporary interpretation of this system. Through a specially established phone line connected to this website, the testimonies of around 150 sterilised people have already been collected.

The aim of the Quipu Project is to shine a light on the sterilisations, creating a collective memory archive of this case. Our intention is that these stories are never forgotten, that these abuses will never be repeated. We are working in partnership with Amnesty International to support their Against Their Will campaign, and in collaboration with local women’s organizations who hope to use this archive in their fight for recognition and reparation.’

What was your inspiration for creating the Quipu project?

We wanted to do something about this issue. We came at it from the angle of a documentary and then began to explore how the project could be interactive with the Internet. We wanted to understand how we could use an internet-enabled service and connect with people who were offline- particularly through a mobile phone. We wanted to work with the people to create something truly participatory that captured their own words.

Combining tools to tell a story
We’re using open-source tools that are already available, but combining them in a different way. Our main purpose is to tell a story. It’s documentary project, so we’re producing it in an innovative and new way.  We’re trying to cement a collect memory.

The sterilisations only happened 15-20 years ago, but there are still many people who either don’t remember it or deny that it happened. It’s not something that’s been burned into the memory culture. We’re trying to create an artistic and cultural project by using technology – the project doesn’t focus on the immediate need, but tells the story of the past using new technology, and that’s what sets us apart and makes it unique.

What is a quipu?

A quipu is a knot that stores information. It’s a beautiful metaphor for our project. It represents something that is mobile, passed from generation to generation, and is deeply rooted in the culture that we are working with. The threads are a testimony and the knot act as a platform. The quipu was not only the cultural artifact for the visual design but also helps understand the culture and how our archive is built.  

How did you design of the project?

In the beginning, we knew that it would be a phone line but we weren’t exactly sure how it would work; so we had three different models of phone line to test and see which one would be best.

It was really important for us to understand the people that would be using the platform, so we spent over three months (and three different trips to Peru) to co-design and co-create the platform. It’s been really important for us to not just meet the women and men whose stories we tell, but to maintain a relationship with them. In this way the women realize that we’re still here and that we haven’t given up on the project

What were the main challenges?

Funding was one of the biggest challenges. There’s not much funding available for interactive documentaries, especially about social topics. However, this encouraged us to things that we perhaps wouldn’t usually do and also encouraged us to fail.

However, we’re lucky to work with a lot of volunteers: for example, we work with students at the University of Michigan to set up a translation marathon to assist in the project.

What impact has the project had?

This topic is very controversial and political in Peru. But our impact is the in the fact that the stories are being heard. Outside of the country, the project has been very well received. However, it’s gaining momentum. The Peruvian prosecutors are going to try and assemble a list of everyone that was sterilized, which in itself is amazing.

The project has impacted the digital social innovation sector as well, as people have seen what is possible and can take inspiration from producing a story in this way and demonstrated how you can use different technologies in new ways.

When you call to either share or comment on a story, you are actually calling the website rather than an automated phone service. One of the distinct characteristics of the website is that it allows participation from simple mobile phones in rural areas. This participatory element has really enhanced and excited the documentary elements.  

This connection between the web and a mobile phone is really innovative for us. These women are able to use a simple phone to record their testimony and listen to others for the first time in decades.

What’s your focus for the future?

Our focus for the future is on reaching more people and ensuring the legacy.

We’re hoping to launch a radio campaign in 2016 to reach more people, particularly in rural areas.

We’re also conscious of the legacy. We’re working with the University of Bristol to ensure that the material will remain in the public domain for at least the next 20 years, helping to keep the stories alive.’

You can see more about the Quipu project here. This interview was conducted as part of our work with Bond and Oxfam to demystify social innovation in international development. You can read the report here.