Sunday, June 8, 2008

uac-cp: reflection of hope

The Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP), a college dedicated to providing higher education for Bolivia’s poor, rural population, does not match the stereotypical image of poverty in the developing world. Located in the second poorest country in South America, the UAC-CP surprisingly feels like most any other college—it’s filled with young, energetic students aspiring to obtain their college degree, find a decent job, and make a difference in the world.

The presence of UAC-CP has spurred positive economic and social change for all who live in the small village of Carmen Pampa. Locals enjoy the basic, yet relatively recent addition of electricity, indoor plumbing and one shared telephone. Students have access to books, computers, television, a copy machine and, on sunny days, the Internet. The ongoing construction of new classrooms and dormitories indicates a growing number of Bolivianos who are improving their lives through education.

Because of Carmen Pampa’s relative prosperity, it is hard to imagine that a majority of students come from families whose annual incomes rarely exceed US $300. The quality of life in Carmen Pampa does not reflect the true reality and standard of living for the majority of people who live in the Bolivian countryside.

Curious to discover more of Bolivia’s daily realities, I traveled during summer vacation to the hot and dusty parts of Bolivia’s interior region that many UAC-CP students call home. My goal was to find 16 USAID scholarship students in seven days and verify where and in what conditions they live. I was equipped with two items of very important, yet highly inaccurate information: a hand-drawn map scribbled in pencil on a piece of scrap paper and a list with the names of the 16 students I needed to find. Noted beside each name was their major area of study at the College and the name of their hometown.

Thanks to a combination of several helpful strangers and a lot of suerte, I located five students within the first three days of my trip. In addition to the UAC-CP students I was required to find for the USAID report, I coincidentally met many other students who were not on my list. I accepted every offer to visit students' casas; at each household I was truly humbled by the overwhelming generosity and hospitality with which I was received.

Siblings Eva and Tatiana Cruz provided me with a memorable visit to their family’s home in Illimani, a small community of coffee farmers in a mountainous region on the outskirts of Caranavi. After providing me with a quick tour of their tiny, one-room adobe house and small outdoor kitchen, I was offered a seat on their only piece of furniture: a wheelbarrow lined with a deer pelt that sat in the grass-less, muddy yard. While their mother prepared lunch and their father sharpened his small collection of machetes, I watched the younger children play soccer (barefoot) with a deflated ball. The game ended abruptly when we responded to shouts from the cafetal—that one of the siblings had found and killed a five-foot snake. This, I caught myself thinking as I instinctively joined their father and we ran through the trees with machetes in hand, is just another day in the Bolivian campo.

Eventually sitting down to feast upon rice, plantain, and chicken (considered a delicacy reserved for only special occasions, the chicken was served in honor of my visit), I asked the Cruz family questions that were part of my routine investigation at each home visit: Do you have running water? Electricity? Bathroom facilities? How do you bathe? How do you cook your food? What is your typical diet? How do you earn money? What is your estimated family income? Do you own land? Do you have animals? While conversing with students and their parents, I also made mental note of their physical living conditions so I could write it down later in my official report for USAID.

After only four days of home visits, I was beginning to notice subtle, yet significant differences that indicated which families had a little money and which families had even less. Some families lived in homes with cement floors, while others had only dirt. Some families had doors and windows; others had blankets to cover the entryways. Some families had homes made of brick; others were made of the more affordable adobe or bamboo. Some families had propane tanks sitting in the kitchen indicating they had gas stoves, others cooked over small fires contained in adobe pits. Some families had electricity, running water and an outhouse, but most households I visited, like that of Eva and Tatiana, lacked all of the "luxuries" that a gringa like me considers basic necessities, if not basic human rights.

After each visit it was easier for me to understand how UAC-CP students share one giant dorm room with 20 of their classmates; it made sense that students never complained about the College's ice-cold showers or the erratic water supply. Compared to their living conditions at home, students enjoyed many amenities at UAC-CP. “I never had electricity until I came to Carmen Pampa,” admitted 25-year-old Donato Albeline, whose family still lives life dictated by the rising and setting of the sun.

Unlike Carmen Pampa, transportation in most small villages is limited to one day per week. Generally, the only mobilidad is available on Saturday when people take their products to market. Unfamiliar with the area and on a tight schedule, I opted for the guilty pleasure of private taxis when public mobility was scarce. Of course UAC-CP students, I reminded myself, who are paid an absolute maximum of US $3.80 for one day of hard, physical labor, would never consider a US $10 taxi ride. First-year education student Juan Carlos Mamani told me that when he comes home to visit his family, he always has to walk the last part of the journey. “It’s a two-hour walk,” Juan Carlos said matter-of-factly. “It’s not bad…except when I have many things to carry or when it’s really hot.”

Riding in the back of open-air camiones or squeezed into the far back seat of windowless minibuses, I marveled at the great distance students travel to attend school. The farther away a student lives from the College, the greater their cost of travel and the more difficult it is to communicate with their family. The distance, it seems, also prevents visits from parents. “I would really like to visit my daughter,” the mother of one nursing student said. “My husband has visited Carmen Pampa only one time in four years. It is such a long trip and we don’t have the money.”

Parents, for many of whom Spanish is their second language, bombarded me with questions. “How are my son’s grades?” one mother asked. “Is he behaving himself?” a father wanted to know. I explained to all the parents that the reason I was visiting them was because their children are USAID scholarship recipients. I told them that this speaks highly of their son or daughter’s grades and character. They have good reason to be proud of their child.

Through tears, first-year agronomy student Gladys Jahuira’s father told me that he is extremely proud of his daughter. “I never had an opportunity to study,” he told me while his wife sat quietly at his side and their four children stood around the room that serves as both their kitchen and living room area. “We need a professional agronomist in our area who can teach the people how to care for the Earth,” he said. “Many people don’t know that they are hurting the natural resources. They don’t understand why it is important to protect the water supply or to have a system for maintaining waste.” He shared his hopes that his daughter might specialize in environmental problems and, one day, return to help their community.

Many parents, while initially shy and reserved, eventually shared with me the importance of his or her child’s education. Everyone talked about the day when their son or daughter will return home to serve their community. “My daughter will graduate in one year,” Sonya Tintaya’s mother said. “And then she’s coming home and our village will have a nurse!” her father added. I was happy to tell the Tintayas that their daughter will not only come home to serve her community, but she will be guaranteed a yearly salary according to the provisions of her USAID scholarship.

My eight-hour ride home in the back of an empty cargo truck provided plenty of time for reflection. During my week of solo traveling, I had met some wonderful people whose daily lives exemplify the reality of life in the Bolivian countryside. I was touched that so many people had shared their most personal thoughts and feelings with me. I was inspired by their determination to provide educational opportunities for their children. I was encouraged by their dreams to improve lives through education. From our candid conversations, I ultimately discovered that while the standard of living in Carmen Pampa does not reflect the reality of the Bolivian campo, UAC-CP does reflect the hope that someday its prosperity will be the reality for all Bolivians.

*This piece was written for USAID and the Carmen Pampa Fund in January 2005.

1 comment:

Stacy said...

The UAC is such a special place. You are a great writer and I look forward to your future entries when you return to Bolivia.