Laura Vang '15
Student Director for Conversations That Matter
Hometown: Memphis, TNRead the full interview
I would like to start this paper with something that I have learned - a concrete truth that would explain my experience and make it clear and easy to understand. This is unfortunately not at all possible. I left Bolivia with infinitely more questions than answers, and with more confusion than understanding. My Spanish improved a lot which has helped me to say "I don't understand" in Spanish, but the breadth and depth of what I think about my fellowship in Bolivia does not make my experience conducive to verbal expression. If I were an artist I would paint something abstract with dark lines and airy spaces. Since I can't paint, I will muddle along with words alone.
From someone else's perspective, or even from my own, when I look casually back on it from college the experience seems almost diminutive. Like so many idealistic and un-corporate Dartmouth students before me, I found an obscure non-profit on the internet called "Fundación Indígena Amauta" (which more or less means Indigenous Leadership Foundation in Spanish and Quechua) or "FIA" and decided I would work there. It was in Bolivia, which sounded nice, and the Tucker Foundation actually obliged to give me money to fund the trip. I went to Bolivia with an LSA's worth of Spanish and a baffling level of ignorance. I was enthusiastic certainly, but probably not qualified in any traditional sense of the word to do anything. I had not been able to pick a major, much less marketable skills.
When I arrived in Sucre, Bolivia after a very long trip from Seattle, Washington, Victor Huacani - FIA's round and almost frighteningly enthusiastic director - embraced me with disconcerting vigor while I sat on a bench outside the Sucre train station and fought off the ubiquitous 9 year old shoe-shiners. I had, after all, not come to give money but was instead donating my time - a resource I perceived as infinitely more valuable.
Needless to say it came as somewhat of a shock that I was, by any traditional definition useless, but it should not have been. As the sage employees of FIA confidently assured me, I was joining a proud tradition of idealistic and mostly ineffective Western volunteers in Latin America who were great to have around for the sake of having around, but not much more. Upon making arrangements, I had played up my experience installing sprinkler systems one summer as evidence of my knowledge of irrigation. The Victor's thrilled response referring to the irrigation systems we would be working on together had not only tested my feeble and atrophied LSA-quality Spanish, but had also given me the terrifying misconception that FIA might actually be expecting someone who knew what he was doing. Fortunately this was not the case; it was made perfectly clear to me right off the bat that, as happy as FIA was to have me working with them, it was not expected that I would be able to actually do much for the organization.
As it turned out, I was not initially in helping shape. My Spanish was slow and insufficient and it was hard to understand what was going on most of the time. Let alone actually do something. The stack of grants and books and documents I was given in the office to translate remained a stack, declining by centimeters rather than inches. I was baffled that, although Victor had warned that no one there would speak English, no one in Sucre actually seemed to speak English. "Surely someone speaks English?" I asked Victor.
"No," was my enthusiastic response.
I probably could have found someone if I had looked hard enough, but I was too busy being utterly confused to bother with the effort. Staying afloat was my primary concern for the first couple of weeks as I adjusted to food that was simple and spicy and gastro-intestinally straining, a climate that was thankfully hotter than I am used to, and people who spoke in Spanish. A couple of weeks in and I was settled, unnerved only by the dramatic political instability that seemed to be the norm for Bolivian daily life. Here is an excerpt from my journal to that effect:
"The protests are the part of this whole experience that has been sobering and frightening and most of all different - dramatically - than any political movement I have witnessed. The simplified story, as best as I understand it, goes something like this: Long ago, people in the high altiplano found that chewing the leaves of the coca plant helped to alleviate the omnipresent altitude sickness that is an inherent part of life in the high Andes. Then at some point (19th century?) an enterprising European figured out that if you grind the stuff up and then ingest it, you really get going. The arrival of cocaine led to a boom in production throughout Bolivia and South America, financed and exported by the very rich. Then came the 1980's and the early 90's bringing with them the war on drugs. The U.S. decides it's had enough of the "Latin-American drug addicts" corrupting their children, and so they come to Bolivia and coerce the army and national police to burn coca fields and kill the coca farmers. Coca production persists and the Bolivian people view these attacks not as a war on drugs but as a war on indigenous culture.
How this affects me: Yesterday at the office, we're sitting around having tea, and one of the guys asks me: "Benjamin. Los Americanos -they all think we are drogaddictos, si?" This spurred a barrage of questions from all sides. "Why do they think coca is a drug?" "What stereotypes do people have about Bolivia there." Nothing that probing I guess, except that the answer inevitably pertains to the fact that most Americas don't think about Bolivians enough to have stereotypes and have never heard of "coca" except in terms of cocaine. They have never heard of Quechua, or even the small names of the cultures around here. Frankly they just have no real interest in Bolivia, as it remains a poor, undeveloped country with no real sway in the world - and, I mean this honestly, it would be pretty much impossible to know that much about all of the small cultures in small countries in the entire world. But how do you tell that to a group of people who know all about America, and are full of curious knowledge about what they don't know? How do you tell someone that frankly, because we are a big powerful nation, the rest of the world doesn't really matter to most Americans? They don't care about your indigenous culture. They probably think you are a drug addict if you chew coca and almost none of them know that 15 people died here last week in a protest to protect the only crop that supports a sustainable income in this country and that has a deeply religious and cultural significance to nearly all of the people in the country. Only the rich people here see coca turn into cocaine, or see the profits that result. The poor people know coca as the hoja de coca. They chew it because they don't have enough to eat, because they get altitude sickness and because it is sacred. They resent the fact (deeply, violently) that America has decided to wage a cultural war against people who can't really fight back."
My political coming-of-age synchronized well with the Bolivian's who were beginning to find new and exciting manners of social protest. At one point Sucre was cut off from the rest of the country when thousands of angry farmers decided to block all of the roads leaving the city with stones and branches. As I wrote at one point: "…the retired population is protesting something [I was not sure what] by riding buses that are attempting to pass the blocked roads. The newspaper is filled with political acts bordering on the bizarre, as pregnant women roll huge stones down highways and the very frail elderly cheer on a bus as angry peasants break the windows."
Within weeks I was settled and working in FIA's office. I worked on translating grants to U.S. funding organizations, translating and summarizing a book on development theory, and helping to write FIA's action plan to re-introduce traditional Andean agriculture techniques. FIA's development plan was brilliant on paper - a thoroughly logical and infallible scheme to increase the yield, nutritional content, and economic value of crops produced by the subsistence farming communities we worked with. I would later find out that FIA's infallible plan, as brilliant as it was, largely failed to work in an actual community setting. In the office however, I began to feel like I was making a difference with an organization that was defying my best expectations for sustainable development.
I found Fundación Indígena Amauta (FIA) online mostly by random occurrence. I chanced upon it while looking around for volunteer opportunities on the internet and was surprised to see that FIA is one of the rare development organizations in Latin America that is actually a grassroots organization run by Bolivians. The people I worked with - friendly and generous people as well - were actually Bolivian, and unlike their well-intending Western run counterparts seemed to work with rather than for indigenous communities - an important distinction.
I spent the first month working in the office until Victor told me I was going to el campo, the rural areas where FIA's work and projects were realized in small communities of Indian subsistence farmers. I showed up at the office remarkably unprepared and confused on the day Victor said we were going. Surprisingly the deficiencies in my planning were not logistical - I would end up with all of the things I needed - but rather of the emotional order. For some reason in considering the concept of going off on my own for an extended period of time, I had neglected to consider that being away from anyone you know in another language calls a great deal of attention to your isolation. I had been far too busy worrying about what I was supposed to be bringing than to consider that I would not talk to my family or friends for at least 4 weeks and that I was going somewhere entirely different from anything I had experienced before. The loneliness was not something I had counted on.
When we took off from Sucre, it was four other "tecnicos" (the Bolivian word for NGO employees) and myself in a white Toyota pick-up truck. I had no real idea what was going on; all anyone had told me was "you're going to el campo." You'll be there for anywhere from 12 to 30 days and you should bring some food and a sleeping bag. These are not actually sufficient details to understand what is going on. Especially when one does not know what they mean when they say "el campo." Are we backpacking? Are we staying in hotels? Houses? Should I bring all of my own food? Perhaps more disconcerting were the answers people gave me: Ben: "hey Justina; do I need to bring all of my own food?" Justina: "HAHAHAHAHA." (To Eusebio) "El gringito asked if he needs to bring all of his own food." Eusebio: "HAHAHAHAHA. All of his own food. HAHAHAHHA." Justina y Eusebio: Conversation in Quechua.
This would be a good time to mention that, as I found out when we were leaving, the farmers we worked with didn't speak Spanish. They spoke Quechua, which is an indigenous language maintained since the days of the Inca empire. Everyone I worked with spoke Quechua as well, meaning that as soon as we got out of the city I was rendered unable to communicate with almost anyone outside of our organization without a translator. On the car ride out of the city my Quechua lessons started, and I learned the catch phrase of my Quechua vocabulary: "mana atechua parlayata quechuata," - "I don't speak Quechua."
I described Pampa Wasi, the first community we visited in my journal:
"Pampa Wasi is a very undeveloped small town in the midst of an expansive and striking ridge that has been farmed for hundreds of years, ever since miners and sharecroppers from the opposing mountain range of Potosi began to escape from their slave labor to farm on steep, difficult land on tiny subsistence farms. The streets are all dirt, most of the buildings simple adobe and there is no electricity or toilets. The only cement buildings in town are those constructed by the Bolivian government for schoolteachers and doctors (the schools and hospitals were made of adobe, only the residences in cement) and what comparatively amounted to the FIA mansion. Which is really more of a two-story cement building with a little area to park the truck and running water (very cutting edge). Nonetheless, the detachment and comparative wealth of the FIA complex is perhaps only less evident than the massive extent of human excrement in every abandoned square foot of the city. I am struck, especially looking at the terraced rows of decaying fecal matter perched on the small hill that runs parallel above the cement communal irrigation channel (built by FIA) which serve as the "potable" water source for most of the town's residents, by an odd premonition of medieval sanitary disaster.
Besides feces and adobe and stray dogs that wage massive wars every night throughout the town, Pampa Wasi is filled with an astonishing number of babies and not much else. There were two small stores that sold crackers and gasoline for cooking, and a church. Also, unlike what I had been previously led to believe, the lengua-franca of the area is...Quechua. And mana atuechua parylata Quechuata, I don't speak Quechua. The landscape surrounding the city was rich and varied and generally green. Beautiful in comparison to the stark poverty of the town, but in its beauty is strikingly referent to what FIA and the Bolivian government view as the immense poverty of the area. The entire ridge is developed by small scale subsistence level farmers, and the immense tracts of cultivable (if barely so) land are divided by small stone walls, each dutifully erected upon inheritance as the land is passed down and divided generation by generation. The eventual result is an enormous and complex grid of tiny adobe houses on tiny plots of land that have shrunk to miniature proportions and a community that is largely fragmented by migration to the urban slums of La Paz or Santa Cruz or the industrial farms persistently sprouting up throughout the Bolivian Amazon. Kind of a bleak situation."
"Work" I found out on my second day in el campo, was more of a combination of adventure travel and pervading confusion than the hands-on agricultural labor I had expected. In the mornings and the afternoons, when we were trekking to villages that were accessible only by a 12 km footpath, I was in heaven; it was as if I had signed up for a personal tour of remote rural Bolivia with my own Quechua speaking guides. The scenery was unbelievable and completely untouched since perhaps the times of the Incas. Crumbling terraces and aqueducts and old footpaths leading through remote fruit farms and waterfalls dropped from bleak Altiplano pastures to densely vegetated tropical forests over the course of the 2500 meter ridge. The ecological diversity was stunning and inspiring, and patently more dramatic than the comparably tame Northeast. The vision of immense plots of lands on infinitely flat, fertile soil actually seemed to haunt the people of the Bolivian highlands, who without fail would ask dreamily if it was true that the farmers there really worked on large plots of land that were flat and productive. Yes, I would explain. But most of them have sold out by now to some enormous corporation who provides them with hormones for their cattle and tomatoes. The cynicism of the last part did not translate well.
We spent the middle of every day in a "town" however, which is what the Bolivian government terms the small complex of a school, office, and sometimes church that serve as the center of each little community. In town, there was inevitably a planning meeting in Quechua, which I could not understand at all. At some of the meetings I gave little talks about sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and the nutritional value of traditional Andean grains. At other meetings I talked about women's rights, relative gender equity in the United States, and the importance of family planning and safe sex. I am not an expert on any of these things, but we hypothesized that I might be taken more seriously as somewhat of a "visiting expert." People listened attentively to the Quechua translations of what I said (not really to me talking in Spanish though), but how much they actually got out of, or believed from my speeches is questionable.
My visits were also characterized by an excess of awkward interactions with people who spoke no Spanish and had never seen a white person before. The reception in each town was different, but more or less uncomfortable: sometimes children would throw rocks at me or cry, sometimes they would all gather around me to touch me and gape. People either glared at me suspiciously or made friendly wisecracks that, when translated, were almost uniformly about how I should take one of their daughters home with me or how I should give them lots of money. It is hard to find humor in uncomfortable remarks made in a language one does not understand. Retrospectively it is much easier.
The experience began to wear on me after a while. As I wrote in my journal one afternoon: "At times I give up trying to understand what was going on all the time and resign myself to drifting off and thinking in English about anything and everything. I have more scraps of paper with sketchy plans about life on them than I know what to do with. And although I probably won't really follow up on any of them, this is the first time in a very, very long time that I really have the opportunity to sit down and think. The penetrating odor of feces and the equally penetrating observation of my every movement whenever I leave the building makes it a lot more comfortable to just relax in the courtyard or in my bedroom and just think for hours on end." The loneliness was at times stifling and unbearable. I wanted to talk to someone, a friend, anyone who spoke English or even Spanish and who could share my perspective on life in Bolivia.
I became abruptly and shockingly aware of my race, something that as a white male in the United States I had never paid much attention to before. One day in particular I decided to go for a walk on my own outside of a small town towards a waterfall I saw in the distance. About three quarters of the way there, an immense fog roiled up from the valley and immersed everything in cloudscape. Completely lost trying to find my way back to the school, I ended up just wandering which led me through people's yards and fields and such. Everywhere I went people were terrified of me. One farmer went as far as sicking his dog on me. Since no one spoke Spanish I was unable to explain myself. I half walked-half ran until I stumbled into the schoolyard where I ate a disconcerted lunch of Papa Waiku (boiled potatoes with hot sauce that made up the undisputed staple of our diet. We ate papa waiku everyday at least twice, often with nothing else) and tried to understand the resentment.
My mood in el campo changed from good to bad, thrilled to depressed, with a rapidity I had never experienced before. It was too hard to stay happy about everything I saw without anyone to share it with, and it was impossible to stay unhappy for too long when everything around me was unbelievably new:
"My 'morale' went down this morning when I put on my wet boots and left for Musaq Ll'acta (a town about four hours away by foot) with everyone for the day, tired of speaking Spanish, let alone understand Quechua and guess whether "arí" (yes) or "mana" (no) is the best answer to the inevitable series of chuckling questions someone we pass will pose to me about the local "cholitas" (marriageable girls). Down again when the meeting turned out to be us waiting for three hours in a little adobe hut, then only to be bashed by angry community members (some of whom were convinced that we had come with the intention of poisoning their potato crops). Up when a baby next to me wanted to play instead of just crying at my white face. Up again when the hike home took us up to the highest point on a ridge where we could see over into the entire next valley which was green and beautiful and soared down these striking green cliffs into a river bed. Down again when the tuna I was supposed to eat for dinner looked like ground beef with all the bones included and made me violently ill. Up again when because I was too sick to sleep I got up and wandered outside in middle of the night all alone in a beautiful dense fog lit up by a full moon and then down again when stray dogs chased me back home."
All told I spent a month in el campo and a bit more in Sucre. In el campo I went for a good month without reading, speaking or hearing or English in el campo. I saw people who even looked like me for the first time since I had left Sucre when, on the trip back from Pampa Wasi, we found a family of panicked Canadian missionaries sitting on top of their flooded Land Rover in middle of a river. They were pretty freaked out, but maybe because I had gotten so accustomed to being appalled by Bolivian roads and shocked by Bolivian life in general, the only thing that seemed really out of place or caught me off guard was that they were white and speaking English. With the help of some locals we built a flimsy pulley system on of a couple little trees and hauled the family up on very questionable little blue ropes. Later a bunch of cargo trucks filled with commuting farmers showed up and a good 150 Bolivians waded into the river and pushed the truck out with their collective bare hands.
When it came time to go back to Sucre and then soon after back home, I was not upset to leave. Once I was on a plane back home it set in much more concretely. In my first English conversation in months, with the young woman a seat over, I realized I had mostly forgotten how to speak English - or at least was translating each sentence from Spanish in my head. It was hard to imagine that I was going to be an American at home rather than abroad. Being in Bolivia had made me acutely aware of what people who were not American thought about a war in Iraq, September 11th, and all of the other defining political moments of our generation that I had only thought of before in American terms. In Bolivia I was held directly accountable for my nationality, especially in terms of the governments coca-eradication policies, and I found myself defending an ideology and administration I do not entirely agree with. Being back in the U.S., and then back at Dartmouth, I was immediately more comfortable and less challenging. It became much easier to relax or ignore my whiteness, my nationality, and the implications which both have for the rest of the world. I am not sure if this ease of existence is comforting or terrifying.
If I left Bolivia emotionally drained and tired, I left Bolivia intellectually ignited. None of what I had seen made much sense to me in retrospect. I could not tell if I had made a difference or even helped out in the slightest. Certainly any difference I had made came from my presence as an American volunteering abroad more than from the actual work I did with FIA.
On a larger scale I questioned whether what was going on in the process of development in the "third world" was making a difference or not - and if so, whether that change would be for better or for worse. At the very least my experience forced me to realize that the situation was inherently unclear: it is even questionable that the indigenous people in Bolivia want to "develop" the lifestyle we are accustomed to and which development organizations seem to endorse. The whole process is economically driven as well, with a concrete economic incentive providing part of the impetus behind the development movement. FIA, the Bolivian government, whoever, comes in and tells the villagers that they are in fact, poor. They need more than they have: electricity, better clothes, more efficient agriculture, and Western education for their children. But to what will any of these lead? Is the final goal to improve these people's lives or involve them in an international market economy?
The answer is completely unclear. In some cases, development is probably good. Family planning will probably help prevent minifundio (the generational subdivision of land that is taxing the land resources available to rural communities) and increase the sustainability of the agriculture. Literacy will allow indigenous people to represent themselves politically (which is just now becoming evident in the recent political upheavals in Bolivia). Yet it seemed like the senior officers of FIA or the government never stopped to consider that the lifestyle people in Bolivia have lived for centuries is unique and, in my opinion, invaluable. The communities are tremendously strong and well organized, the farming practices (at least those more traditional practices) are environmentally sustainable, and the people are happy. Who are we to say that they need more stuff? But then again, who are we to say that they don't? The answer was mostly unclear, but without further analysis seems to be relatively fruitless. "Development" without community direction does not seem to work entirely well.
Being back at Dartmouth is easier than being in Bolivia. I have rejoined a culture of privilege where it is easy to take what I have for granted. It is harder now though, to reconcile my sense of entitlement with the consequences, inequities and lifestyles I saw in Bolivia. Being American in a global sense means that my life affects the rest of the world. At Dartmouth it is sometimes too easy to be unaware of that. In America it is probably too easy to be unaware of that as well, but again this seems to only provide segues into more questions: do we have to live with constant awareness of the rest of our world? Or is it possible to live with only our own communities in mind and hope to change things at a grassroots level?
Academically Bolivia continues to exert a strong presence in my life. As a result of the questions I found on my Tucker Fellowship I've started work this spring on a thesis with the Anthropology department. I'll be writing about the cultural conflict between development organizations and indigenous communities in the developing world. There is a good chance my research will take me back to Bolivia this summer to work with FIA again. I would like to write a thesis that changes the face of modern development theory, but this seems very unlikely. Instead I imagine I will find more questions.
Last Updated: 12/1/08