Thursday, December 25, 2008

feliz navidad

Officially, by my clock, it's Christmas!  And apart from one too many dogs barking, all is pretty quiet in Carmen Pampa tonight.  All the UAC-CP students finished classes and took their final exams a couple weeks ago, so most everyone is gone away on summer vacation.  But the locals are here and tonight we celebrated Christmas with the people from Carmen Pampa and surrounding villages.

Little girls dressed up as cholitas and the little boys dressed with their chullus and vests.

As is the more recent custom in Carmen Pampa, there was a mass in the church that was well attended.  At the mass, young children from surrounding villages came dressed up in colorful, traditional Bolivian dress.  Holding hands, they danced down the center aisle during the offering of the gifts of wine and bread and, in boy-girl pairs, each took a turn bowing before the empty cradle.

Boys from the community pose for a picture before mass.

Following mass there was a mad rush for the back of the church where each child under 10 years received a gift bag with Christmas goodies.  Then everyone proceeded over to the main hall in Campus Manning where the few UAC-CP students who stay on campus during break to work helped served bread and hot chocolate.   Friends, family, neighbors, etc., all sat and chatted for an hour or so before getting on their way home.

After mass with my godson, Daniel, Padre Alejandro, Kristia (Daniel's sister), Fico, Dani, and a seminarian.

I was invited, along with Hugh and Sam, to the home of Fico and Dani Carrizales--two UAC-CP thesis students and administrators.  Their son Daniel was baptized during the mass and I was his godmother, so they had us over to their home for a meal and cake.  We sat and talked and ate and looked at pictures.  A lovely way to spend Christmas Eve.

Feliz Navidad a todos!

P.S.  A picture of my godson Daniel with his baptismal cake...because he's just that cute!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

look at me!

When I sat down to eat lunch at Doña Panchita's kiosk today, the last thing I expected to do was cry.  But then Maria Eugenia showed up.

I hadn't seen Mauge* (as everyone affectionately calls her) in more than three years.  Though she taught classes at the College and worked at the hospital in Coroico following graduation from the UAC-CP's nursing program in 2003, for the past year she has been studying (on scholarship) for her master's degree in public health at Austal Catholic University in Santiago, Chile. Her first day back in Bolivia for summer break and she came straight to the UAC-CP to see if there was any work for her to implement some of her coursework.

Maria Eugenia Quispe Nina is a 2003 UAC-CP Nursing graduate.

Though she wasn't hungry, she said, Mauge sat down beside me at the table and we chatted away--catching up on life, reminiscing about former volunteers, UAC-CP students, and the smattering of Franciscan Sisters who played such a significant role in the founding of the College.  

I told her that just before I returned to the UAC-CP I attended mass at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis where Fr. Tom Garvey, a long-time friend of the Carmen Pampa Fund, gave a homily about the UAC-CP and told the story of the time Sr. Damon sat on Mauge's bed in the women's dormitory waiting, in the dark, knowing that Mauge was staying out past curfew.  "Believe me," Fr. Tom told the crowd that Sunday morning, "Sr. Damon is the last person you want to find sitting in your bed waiting up for you." 

In her animated, giggly way, Mauge shrieked.  "Yes! I crept into the dorm and sat down on my bed and it was Sr. Damon!  Oh my gosh! How does he know that story?" she asked me. "I don't know," I confessed, "but now about a thousand more gringos know about your wild ways!"  She laughed and talked about how the College serves not just to educate young professionals, but to provide them with a formation that they might not get anywhere else. That's what happened in her case, at least.

She said there was a time as a young adult when she made poor decisions and when her family lost faith in her.  At the age of 18, at the College, she became pregnant with her first daughter.  "My parents thought that because I was going to have a baby that I would have to quit school. They thought I had lost any opportunity I had to become a professional.  They were shocked when I defended my thesis and got my degree."  She credits her success to the people at the College, particularly Sr. Damon, for sticking with her, for believing in her unconditionally.  Sr. Damon, she said, helped her out in some of her lowest, most difficult moments.

Mauge admits life was a lot more difficult after having children, especially as a college student (today, her two gorgeous girls are ages 6 and 11).  "But my daughters, they give me strength. They make me want to work harder so that they can have better lives.  I need to be an example for them."  

She also used her daughters to be an example to others.  Mauge reminded me of the days when she would ride a motorcycle out into the communities to do public health and extension work.  She carried her baby Alex on her back and, stepping through the straps, carried a backpack on her lap.  She encouraged women to attend community meetings with their children.  "I'd be giving talks and breast feeding my daughter at the same time.  I wanted to show the women of the community that I am one of them; I am a mom...and I am also a professional.  This is why the women in the campo trust me."

There was a pause in the conversation and Mauge leaned back and looked over at one of the UAC-CP buildings that she helped build with her own two hands as a student back in the day. She let out a long sigh.  "When I look at these buildings, I think, 'What would have happened if the UAC-CP didn't exist?'"  She paused, as if in thought, but then went on, "And I know that I would be working in the field with my parents.  I would be so far from where I am today.  I am so grateful to the people who made this all possible--the people who never gave up on me, the people who always believed in me. Will people ever know how grateful I am for what they did to help me become who I am today?  I'm indigenous...I'm Aymaran, I'm a woman.  Look at me!" 

Her eyes filled with tears and that is the moment when the unexpected happened--I cried at Doña Panchita's lunch table.

*Pronounced mau-hey

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

la familia paredes

Last night UAC-CP Education student David Paredes helped me transcribe some of my Quechuan "interviews" from my trip.  It was most interesting to watch his reaction to the recorded, one-sided conversation I had with his mother.  Because he was here at the College when I was visiting Apolo, it was strange for him, he said, to think that I had gone all the way to his house and met with his mother...without him.  

The picture to prove it: David Paredes' mom. She lives about an hour walk from the community of Juan Agua.

Doña Maria had already left to go work in the field by the time Edwin and I arrived unannounced at the family's home around 10am. But David's nephew ran to go get her and within 30 minutes she was sitting next to me, telling me about her life, crying. 

"I want my son to study," she said. "I don't want him to have to live like I have lived...working here and living in these poor conditions."  She said she's unable to help her son with tuition costs because she doesn't have the money.  Worse, her husband, David's father, died last year, and as an elderly widow, she's having a hard time maintaining her farm work.  "We live off coca," she said. "When there isn't coca, we are unable to survive."  Sometimes, she added, they are able to receive a little money from coffee, but it isn't as lucrative a crop as coca.

A picture of the inside of David's home.

Doña Maria spoke nonstop for nearly 45 minutes.  (Last night David laughed and said, "My mom is a talker, isn't she?")  That, she is.  The day I was there, I only had a vague idea of what she was talking about as she gave Edwin very little, if any, time to interpret.  And Edwin, respectfully, let her talk, never once interrupting her.  I was really proud of him.

"I think maybe your mom just needed someone to listen to her," I told David last night, as we both listened to her voice, waivering on the verge of tears, spout out from my little voice recorder.  "Yes," David agreed.  "Thanks for going my see how we meet my mother."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

la familia abelino

A little more than a week ago, UAC-CP student Edwin Zapata and I set out from Apolo's town plaza to find the house of former UAC-CP Education student Donato Abelino and his younger brother, Alejandro, a current UAC-CP Agronomy student.

There were two things I knew for certain about the family before I arrived: 1. they live far away from Apolo and 2. they are very poor. So, it didn't surprise me when, after an hour and a half ride down a muddy, washed out road in a taxi, we finally arrived at their home to find very primitive conditions--no electricity, no running water, dirt floors, thatch roof, no gas tank for cooking (they cook with wood on an adobe "stove"), etc. 

Donato Abelino with his family: father, niece, mother, and sister at the family's home outside the community of Copacobana.

Because they consume most of what they produce--the family generates very little income. They listed only five things that they generally buy: soap, salt, rice, candles, and matches. The Abelino family represents the poorest of the poor who come to study at the UAC-CP.

And, unfortunately, for the poorest of the poor, graduating from college is all the more difficult because of limited financial resources.  In the case of Donato, although he finished his required coursework at the UAC-CP more than a year ago, he has yet to write and defend his thesis in order to officially graduate.  When I talked to Donato, he seemed doubtful that he would be able to complete his thesis, which is costly and time consuming.

I reminded him that in the past year UAC-CP students have recently been graduating in record numbers thanks to the Cuartel de Tesis (Thesis Bootcamp) which helps students finance their thesis work.  Though Donato is aware of this assistance and admits the money would help him complete his thesis project, he seemed unconvinced that he could afford to leave his mom and dad; as the oldest of four siblings, his parents need his help at home.

A well-worn, patched up awayu hangs from the clothesline. An awayu is a traditional piece of heavy, colored fabric used for a variety of purposes (like carrying babies or food) in Bolivia.

It's heartbreaking that the only thing that should stand in the way of Donato and his thesis is money...especially considering how hard he worked just to arrive at the UAC-CP.   In high school, for example, he walked five hours every Sunday afternoon to the town of Apolo, carrying all the café and yucca and arroz he planned to consume for the week (he lived at the high school during the week and walked back home on Friday afternoons).   When he first came to the UAC-CP, he had saved barely enough money for the two-day trip; his father sold a cow so that he had enough money to pay for the inscription fee.  In awe, I asked him, "And did you ever think of giving up?"   He responded with a confident, "No."

As my Quechua interpreter, Donato later introduced me to his parents.  He explained to them that I was from the UAC-CP and that I was there to learn more about their lives and the hopes and dreams they hold for their children's futures.  Donato's father, who is not well, sat on a bench next to his wife as she explained that she is a poor, illiterate farmer who has worked hard her whole life, making sacrifices so that her children can study.

As his community's chatechist, Donato is responsible for organizing the building of a new church.  Above is the community's former church.

She is grateful, Donato's mother said, that her son Alejandro has a full scholarship from the Diane Watson Scholarship Fund.  While the family is able to send money (about $30 US, they estimated) every few months, they are unable to afford the already subsidized cost of tuition at the College.  Alejandro's scholarship allows him to study.  "There are no other opportunities," she said.

And oportunidad, it seems, is what all parents want for their children--the opportunity to have a better life.  Apart from this desire, the Abelinos also want their children to be good people, examples for others in their community.

Although Donato hasn't finished his degree, his mom noted that, as a college educated young man, Donato is an active member and well-respected leader in their community.  Most recently, he has participated in a series of talks aiming to resolve land ownership debates among indigenous groups in the area.  He's also organizing a group of young people from his community to start a cooperative farming project.

While I hold out hope that Donato will be able to eventually finish his thesis project, Donato's family hopes that Alejandro will some day be able to graduate from the UAC-CP.  "Like our son Donato," their mother said, "we want Alejandro to come back here after college and help us. We hope that, with his degree in agronomy, he will be able to help us improve our lives."

And that, quite simply, is the mission of the UAC-CP.

Friday, December 12, 2008

going the distance

You can't quite fully comprehend the miracle of the UAC-CP until you see where our students come from, until you experience the way they live and understand the great distances they go (both literally and figuratively) to be educated.

It took us one hour driving and one hour walking to reach this UAC-CP student's home outside the community of Juan Agua.

When I hear students matter-of-factly recall the multiple hours they walked to attend grade school and high school; when I hear their parents tell me that they themselves can't read or write because they never had the opportunity to study; when I visit their homes and see that they grew up--not only without books, but without electricity and running water (and so many other things that I consider basic necessities), I can't help but think that it seems quite improbable that many of our students would have ever graduated from high school, let alone college.

And yet, they do graduate from college. In fact, one young man just did this morning.

As I explained in my last post, I recently traveled to the faraway town of Apolo with UAC-CP student Edwin Zapata.* Together, Edwin and I spent three days visiting families of our students who live in and around the town of Apolo. We traveled by public mobility, private taxi, and on foot. We traveled down roads, across rivers, and over bridges that, at the time, all seemed impassable. We traveled, by my estimation, an average of 10 hours each day--locating families that live, by their estimation, up to 5 or 6 hours away from the town of foot.

Edwin walking in the countryside on our way to visit a family of a UAC-CP student.

We arrived at each home unannounced, but always welcomed (and always sent on our way with homegrown gifts: bread, bananas, beans, eggs, mangoes, etc). Invited into their one or two-room homes, I sat poised with a notebook and pen, a handheld voice recorder at my side, and Edwin nearby to serve as my Quechua interpreter.** And I listened as mothers and fathers explained why they believe education is the key to transforming their lives.

Every student at the UAC-CP has a story. In the coming days I hope to share some of the stories they shared with me during my visit to Apolo.

I visited the house of UAC-CP Education student David Paredes. I was welcomed by (L to R) one of his older sisters, David's niece, his mother, Maria, his nephew, and his brother-in-law.
*Apolo is located so far away from the College, in fact, that by my calculations it actually takes me less time to travel between Carmen Pampa and Minneapolis than it does for students to travel back to their homes in Apolo--which explains why they seldom go home.

**The majority of people, primarily older people, in this area of Bolivia speak only Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by the Incans.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

apolo, apolo...te doy mi corazón

This morning I returned from a six-day journey that took me to the Bolivian towns and villages that generally aren't worth mentioning--in the guidebooks, at least.  

The idea was hatched about two months ago when 24-year-old Edwin Zapata, an Agronomy thesis student, invited me to go with him to visit his hometown of Apolo--Bolivia's version of cowboy country northeast of La Paz.  I gladly accepted his offer as it presented me with the opportunity to meet UAC-CP students' families and catch up with graduates and thesis students in a part of Bolivia that I had yet to experience.

Edwin and I started our journey together early Saturday morning in La Paz.  Our bus, filled primarily with jovial Apoleños headed back to their hometown to celebrate the town's annual festival on December 8th, left the city promptly at 7am.   As we made our way across the brown, barren altiplano, passing the infamous Lago Titicaca, the woman across the aisle cried out what was to be the first of many hometown anthems: Apolo, Apolo...te doy mi corazón! (Apolo, Apolo...I give you my heart!)

By noon, the sun had made way for cold, misty weather and I woke up from a nap to see alpacas grazing the rocky countryside, fearlessly walking across the road in front of our bus.  

After a brief bathroom stop in Charazani (elevation 10,000 feet, mas o menos) the road started to drop and we entered greener and, more importantly, warmer, territory.  Edwin, ever the agronomist, was quick to point out plants, animals, and points of interest along the way. From the window, he took pictures of waterfalls and the mountain scenery.

A photo Edwin snapped from the window of the bus--about 4 hours away from Apolo and about 45 minutes before our flat tire.

Originally, he had told me that Apolo was about 12 hours from La Paz by bus.  But, due to some technical glitches (i.e. flat tire and no gas) and the fact that the bus moved at, according to Edwin, "a turtle's pace," we didn't arrive to the main plaza until 10:30pm--more than 15 hours after leaving Bolivia's capital city.  

Anxious to be off the bus, we gathered our things, exited the flota, and walked to the outskirts of town.  In the dark, we made our way to Edwin's family's house where his parents, worried that we had not arrived sooner, anxiously awaited our arrival.

Immediately, I felt welcomed and at home in their casa.  Edwin's mom quickly made us something to eat--she fried up yucca and the UAC-CP smoked sausages that had survived the journey with us to Apolo.  By the light of a lone light bulb that dangled from the ceiling of what was to be my bedroom for the next three days, the four of us sat and talked--primarily about education.  Because neither of his parents have had the opportunity to visit the College, they asked about their son's studies.

Edwin pictured on Sunday morning with (from L to R) his mother, paternal grandmother, uncle, and father.

"You told them, right?" I asked Edwin.  "About yesterday?"  Edwin shook his head no and I gave him a disgruntled look that prodded him to share his exciting news.  Sheepishly, he admitted that the day before he had defended his thesis pre-defense, one of the final steps to officially graduating from the UAC-CP.  His parents beamed; they immediately wanted to know when he would graduate.  Probably February or March, Edwin told them.

"We never thought a poor family like us," Edwin's dad said, "would have a son who would graduate from college."  Edwin's mother said she just couldn't believe it.

"Well, believe it," I said, smiling at Edwin as he washed down his yucca with a glass full of guarapo, the traditional Apoleño sugar cane drink.  "The next time he comes home to Apolo, he'll be Ingenerio Edwin Zapata."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

la cooperativa

The other day I was invited to eat lunch with students at the Virgen del Carmen Cooperativa--one of three food cooperatives at the College.  What originally started as a small group of UAC-CP students pooling together what little money the had to be able to eat, has since turned into the College's primary cafeteria system.  Today, most UAC-CP students are socios, or members, of the food cooperatives.

A typical meal at the cooperatives:  a bowl full of rice, potato, lettuce, platano, and meat.

Though it had been a while since I had eaten lunch there, I am no stranger to the co-ops.  When I worked as an administrator at the College in 2004 and 2005 one of my primary responsibilities was to manage the cooperatives.

I worked with groups of students, elected by their peers, to manage each of the co-ops.  The governing board makes and enforces the rules, decides turns for cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping, and manages all the finances.  They also make sure that all members have paid their monthly dues--a difficult task considering students often don't have the money.

Lunch with Jeronimo Payhuanca and Gladys Rivera (the picture taker) at the Cooperativa Virgen del Carmen.

Thanks to the generosity of the Roach Family's gift to the Carmen Pampa Fund, the College is able to subsidize the cost of the food coop.  Though it actually costs about $30 for a student to eat at he co-op (this covers food, salaries, kitchen utensils/appliances, and building upkeep), UAC-CP students each pay approximately $20 per month.  Still, for some students, this cost is prohibitive.  Many look for work off campus or receive help from their parents.

Though the primary function of the co-ops is to ensure that students have three regular meals to eat each day, there are other benefits, too.  For one, students learn (often difficult) lessons about working together as a team.  They also gain valuable leadership experience--I've watched shy, introverted first-year students transform into confident, respected leaders.

That said, the coops are by no means problem-free; it's a lot of work to organize college students to feed nearly 300 people three times a day.  But on the day I visited, as students went out of their way to make sure that I had a bowl full of food and mug full of jugo, I couldn't help but notice the good things about the co-ops--like the camaraderie of sitting together and sharing a meal.