Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ayni: working for the common good

Ayni (pronounced: i-nee) is a core concept within the Aymaran culture in which people work together for the common good, helping one another to accomplish a task.

I have come to understand Ayni as good karma--the belief that if you do something for someone else, the favor will be returned, in some way, in the future. And it's not just good karma between people, explained my co-worker and UAC-CP graduate Carlos Vergara. It can also be between people and animals and the Earth. "If we want to be treated well by people or animals or the Pachamama, we have to treat those things well." We can't expect more from other people or things than we would expect of ourselves, Carlos explained.

Doña Sonia and her neighbor Don José spend a good portion of their Sunday off from their regular work to help Carmen Pampa community members maintain a local trail.

In the spirit of Ayni, Carmen Pampa Fund is hosting its annual fundraiser La Fiesta de Ayni on May 7th in Minneapolis. La Fiesta de Ayni will be a celebration of working for the common good.

The event will be a gathering of the many generous and loving people who work tirelessly to provide our students with access to higher education. People like Sr. Damon Nolan, UAC-CP founder, and Dr. Hugh Smeltekop, UAC-CP Vice Director--who have, with the support of generous donors, unselfishly dedicated their lives to fulfilling the mission of the College. Together, they will be joined by UAC-CP Education student Gonzalo Zambrana.

La Fiesta de Ayni is also the opportunity for people who are unfamiliar with our work to learn more about the College--our students, our graduates, our academic areas, our community extension projects, and our research work. It's the chance to learn why the United Nations has named the College one of the most successful models worldwide for the eradication of poverty!

Carmen Pampa community members take a break from working a day of Ayni. After their break they reconstructed a falling bridge over a nearby stream.

La Fiesta de Ayni, complete with Latin American food and dancing, will be held next Thursday, May 7th, from 6-9pm at the Foss Atrium and Chapel at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. The official program will begin at 7pm. People interested in attending should contact Carmen Pampa Fund at 651/641-1588.

An official invitation for the event can be viewed here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

won't you be my neighbor?

As a little girl I was a faithful fan of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. I'd tune in practically every day to hear Mr. Rogers talk about what it means to be a good neighbor.  And whether or not he implicitly taught it, I learned that neighbors were the people who lived in the house or apartment next door or the people who lived down the block or across the street.

Volunteer Prisca Alig, from Germany, lives with women in the Pre-University dorm.  She's learning what it's like to live 40 to a room and start the morning with a cold shower. She's made a big impression on our first-year students--and they on her, from what she says.

In college, I read Reinhold Niebuhr and I came upon a whole new definition of the word "neighbor." Niebuhr caused me to consider a more inclusive meaning, a more worldly view. Really, he made me question the boundaries I had assigned to my "neighborhood."

Here, students often comment that one of the things that makes the College special to them is the fact that it's a place, like most any other college campus, where ideas, cultures, life experiences, etc., are exchanged on a very personal level.  In a country that is quite divided--politically, economically, and socially--the UAC-CP is a place where students who often have very little experience outside of their home communities come to know their Bolivian neighbors--in the Niebuhr sense of the word.

Volunteer Lee Lechtenberg (from Boston) and the Tintaya sisters, Berta and Saida (from Carmen Pampa--Berta is a UAC-CP employee, Saida is a UAC-CP graduate) peel potatoes for an all-college lunch during the annual Inter-Carreras festivities.

And not just getting to know fellow Bolivians. Since it opened its doors 16 years ago, the College has attracted a wide array of foreign visitors and volunteers. We've had people from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Germany, Paraguay, and name just a few.  All of us in this little Garrison Keillor-esque community of Carmen Pampa, we've come to know each other not by the sweeping generalities that often accompany one's nationality, but rather by the individual people that we are.

UAC-CP visitor Kimberly Lane visited the home of UAC-CP student Beatrice Mamani in the Altiplano. Kimberly is pictured with Beatrice's three younger sisters and their father.

For example, in La Paz, I often tell our students, I'm just a tourist, a gringa.  But in Carmen Pampa, I'm Sarita.  In this remote little village nestled on the side of a mountain in the magestic Nor Yungas, people know me--the good, the bad, and the big crazy hair!  And, likewise, I know them.

Not to say that we all get along.  Like any family or group of neighbors, we have our disagreements, to be sure.  But the difference is that we recognize these problems as interpersonal; they are not based on language or color or nationality.

In order to love our neighbors (or at least justify a good reason for honestly not liking them), we have to know them. The UAC-CP provides a place for that to happen--something that I don't think was ever part of Sr. Damon's original goals for the College, but it's been a powerful bonus. Because, I think, today we're an example of how we can see the world as one giant neighborhood--Mr. Roger's-style.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Sometimes, the most precious and insightful conversations I have with students are the ones that happen when I least expect them.

Like yesterday morning when I sat waiting (unsuccessfully) for a ride into Coroico to meet a foundation representative.  After 20 minutes and no sign of mobi--and an indication that it was about ready to rain--I was beginning to get a little impatient. And then second-year Veterinary Science major, Leo Zambrana came along.

Leo Francisco Zambrana 

Leo, one of seven children (two of his brothers are UAC-CP students), comes from the town of Ixiamas--it's about a 24-hour bus ride from Carmen Pampa.  His parents farm land, citrus mostly, and have some cattle (Leo showed me the giant scar that runs the length of his upper right arm from a time he was attacked by a bull). 

When I asked him what motivated him to come study at the College, so far away from home, he explained that the UAC-CP was really the only option he had for a higher education...and he knew that a college degree was the key to a better life.  Students from his hometown high school, he said, generally don't go anywhere. "A lot of young people don't have much hope, I think," Leo said.  

He admitted he was inspired to study at College because of his older brother Gonzalo, a UAC-CP Education major who is currently spending a year in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a teaching intern at Adams Immersion School.  It helps to have family here in Carmen Pampa, he explained, because trips home are rare and communication with his parents is difficult.  I asked if cell phone reception can be received and he said it was coming "in three days."  For now, people use a communal phone in town.  Electricity, he said, is a relatively recent arrival, too.

We both acknowledged that while we are fortunate to have many luxuries here in Carmen Pampa (like Internet, for one!) there are still many rural areas of Bolivia, from which our students come, that are essentially cut off from the rest of the world.  "But it is changing...poco a poco," he said.  And the fact that he can recognize that is what, I believe, sets Leo apart from his high school classmates. He has the ability to hope and believe in a better life.  

As the chances of me getting a ride to Coroico dwindled and tiny raindrops began to fall, Leo and I continued our talk, sitting side by side on a stone retaining wall, discussing family, culture, education, poverty, employment, and rural development.  And at some point I felt my impatience subside, realizing that perhaps this was one of those moments--the ones I least expect; the ones that make me happiest when they happen.

In the end, I got an invite to visit the Zambrana house sometime during vacation in July, I found a ride to Coroico, and I went about my day feeling all the more confident in the work we do here in Carmen Pampa.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

earth day: dia de la tierra

Happy Earth Day desde Carmen Pampa!

Though I knew she was cooking something up to honor Pachamama (Mother Earth), I was still pleasantly surprised when UAC-CP volunteer Jean Lechtenberg waltzed into the dining room this morning dressed as Pachamama herself!

Jean dressed up as Pachamama for Earth Day.

From floral crown to tie-dyed shoes (with the traditional Bolivian chola skirt in between), Jean made the rounds today reminding UAC-CP students, faculty, and staff to respect Mother Earth by putting garbage where it belongs.  An important lesson in Bolivia where garbage is often tossed out the window of passing vehicles, dumped in local rivers and streams, or dropped on the ground without much of a second thought.

I'd like to think that the UAC-CP could be considered a local leader with the installation of its recycling centers and work in local schools and communities to teach about recycling and waste management, but we also have a long way to go as we work to incorporate these lessons into the daily habits of our UAC-CP and Carmen Pampa community members...and beyond.

Jean carried this bucket that says in both Spanish and Aymara: "Don't throw your garbage on the ground."

So thanks to Jean for the very memorable reminder today that we all need to pitch in and care for Mother Earth...she's the only Pachamama we've got.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

el consejo

Tomorrow I return to La Paz to make some special deliveries to the airport. I'll be bidding farewell to Sue Wheeler, Interim Executive Director of Carmen Pampa Fund; Ann Leahy, UAC-CP co-founder and current CPF board chair; and Nadine Leahy, Ann's daughter-in-law--a first-time visitor to Bolivia.

As representatives of Carmen Pampa Fund, Ann and Sue joined us at the College for the bi-annual Joint Planning and Oversight Council--an advisory council composed of people who represent CPF, UAC-CP, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, and the Bolivian community.  

Former Bolivian ambassador to the U.S., Jorge Crespo, sits next to Sr. Maureen Coyle, a Franciscan Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception living in Peru.  Both are members of the consejo.

Together, a group of nine people come to the table (literally covered with the traditional Bolivian awayu cloth) to share information about the successes and challenges of each partnering institution.  One of the group's most primary goals is to maintain a flow of healthy and transparent communication between the College and the St. Paul-based fundraising arm of the College.  At the culmination of three days, the consejo makes joint goals for projects based on a six-month timeline.

Sue Wheeler, Ann Leahy, and Bishop Juan Vargas listen as UAC-CP director, Fr. Freddy, explains the significance of apt api in Aymaran culture.

Today was the final day of meetings for the group.  They adjourned at 1pm and were welcomed by UAC-CP's 54 administrators for a traditional apt api--a potluck in Aymaran culture.  There, they had the opportunity to taste many traditional foods, like: fried yucca, charqui, rellenos, plantain, and (my least favorite) chuño.  Especially considering traditional Aymaran culture, it was the perfect way to end the Fund's week-long visit.

Monday, April 13, 2009

equipo inca

According to my guide book, we only walked an actual distance of about 35 miles. So it was unequivocally the near 13,00- ft. descent during the period of two and a half days that proved to be the most challenging...for my left knee, at least.

When we arrived at the summit, the sign for the Choro Trail led the way through clouds and rain.

Yet despite the pain (and the cold, wet nights...and days), hiking the Choro Trail was a thrilling Easter break adventure. The scenery, in particular, was nothing short of spectacular. The first day, walking on top of stones placed ages ago by Incans who used the trail as a passageway linking the luscious Yungas to the barren Altiplano, we passed rustic homes where people make their living herding livestock (sheep, llamas, alpacas, etc.) or growing potatoes. Life, we observed as the clouds mysteriously lifted throughout the day, seemed to be of another time period.  

"What do you think the hopes and dreams of these people are?" I asked UAC-CP students Maria Eugenia and Berta as we navigated slippery, moss covered stones. Together, we concluded that the people who live there must take each day as it comes; they work hard just to survive.

Sonia Paredes, Maria Eugenia Bolaños, Erica Sarmiento, and I pose next to a rushing, glacier stream.

The trail is remote--which means the few people who live there must transport all of their food and purchases by foot from La Paz.  The eggs, the gas tanks, and the inevitable bottles of Coca-Cola are all carried on their backs or by mule. "The cement for the basketball court?" I asked at one of the few small villages we passed through. "We carried it," replied a local.  A four-hour walk from the summit with a bag of cement tied to his back. 

On the second day of the hike someone from our group asked a local nine-year-old boy where he goes to school. I didn't recognize the name of the village until Maria Eugenia pointed out that we had passed through there the day before. Every week this boy makes the four-hour, uphill climb. "High school?" I asked.  "La Paz," he responded. The way of life for the people in this remote part of Bolivia is nothing short of unbelievable.

A house along the trail; people live simple lives in these small, stone homes.

Of course there is also something incredible, magical almost, about hiking and camping in a group--getting to know people in a real, raw form. On our second day, fearful of spending another restless night trying to escape waterlogged tents, we decided to rent a small, thatched-roof/dirt-floor hut owned by a local man. And despite some debate, we all managed to squeeze into the humble abode. There, stuffed into sleeping bags lined head to foot, laying in the pitch dark, we laughed until our sides ached (or mine did, anyway). And I couldn't help but relish this precious little moment--the randomness of all of us being brought together to sleep in a little shack on the side of a mountain in rural Bolivia. "Life is ironic," I thought, as we teased Sam, in both English and Spanish, about his muddy, stinky feet.

UAC-CP volunteers Andy Engel and Sam Clair lead the way.

So I do recognize that the hike wouldn't have been the same without the stellar cast of characters who made up "Equipo Inca," as I took to calling our group. Gracias to Fico, Carlos, Andy, and Sam for making me laugh harder than I have in a long time and for, quite literally, holding my hand and helping me up the many times I fell.  Gracias to UAC-CP students Sonia, Erica, Berta and Maria Eugenia for your giant smiles and positive attitudes--your spirit-filled energy always seemed to find me when I needed it most. 

Also, gracias to Prisca, a short-term UAC-CP volunteer and my logistics woman who kept me sane and organized before the trip (unfortunately, she fell and hurt herself 10 minutes into the hike and had to go back to Carmen Pampa).  Gracias to Tara Nolan for the use of your tent and Kirsten Anderson for the use of your sleeping bag--without these things I would've been a miserable icicle.  Gracias to Alexander Parkes, the inventor of plastic--I'm not sure how the Incans lived without Ziplocks!?  And last, but not least, gracias a la Pachamama--your wonders never cease to amaze me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

el camino del inca

Several UAC-CP volunteers, students, administrators, and myself are taking advantage of the the College's multi-day Easter break to hike the Choro Trail--an ancient Inca path that connects La Paz to the Yungas.  We leave Carmen Pampa tomorrow at 5:30 am!

Starting at 15,000 feet and making, at times, steep descents, the trail promises to challenge our lungs, knees, and feet. Though as the rain and heavy clouds descend upon Carmen Pampa this morning, I realize that the weather might be our greatest challenge as we hike the trail with the UAC-CP's sub-standard camping equipment.

UAC-CP volunteer Andy Engel makes a valiant attempt to fix old tent poles by threading them with an elastic band. For both educational and recreation purposes, the College needs camping equipment.

But from all that I've heard and read, these difficulties, in the end, prove worthwhile as the three-day adventure provides "breathtaking views." Mountain peaks, clear glacial streams, monkeys, snakes, butterflies, eagles, waterfalls, cloud forests, rustic bridges, etc., await us.  It will be an amazing opportunity to experience Bolivia's vast diversity!

It is also another fundraising opportunity for Carmen Pampa Fund--one that we would like to make an annual event for UAC-CP volunteers.  Volunteer Andy Engel, for example, has made an online fundraising page where people are welcome to make donations to support CPF's Scholarship Partners Program.

Also, it's a way for us to remind people that CPF is accepting in-kind donations to be shipped down in our container.  In particular, we could use camping equipment--tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, camp stoves, etc.  (For a complete list of items on the UAC-CP wish list, click here). All items are stored at a warehouse in Minneapolis until shipped to Carmen Pampa. For more information about the container, please contact Nadine Leahy at 

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I just finished working on a special newsletter to provide donors of Carmen Pampa Fund's Scholarship Partners Program with an update about the 28 students they are, as a group, sponsoring this semester at the College.

After interviewing students for this project, I'm ever-the-more convinced that it's the scholarships that allow our students to stay, study, and succeed.  Graciela Huanca Zegarra is one of many examples.

Graciela Huanca's dream is to be a professional, support her family, and serve the poor.

A couple weeks ago I had coffee with the third-year Agronomy student. She's 19-years-old and comes from El Alto--the urban slum high above Bolivia's capital city that draws mostly poor campesiños in search of work and a better life.

A confident, yet soft-spoken young woman, Graciela responded to my first open-ended question by saying, simply: "My family has been destroyed."  Her father, she explained, has been accused of a crime that she (and, at one point, a judge) believes he did not commit.  But because of a Bolivian "justice" system that is often based more on money and power and connections, her father remains, indefinitely, in Bolivia's infamous San Pedro prison.

For the past two years, Graciela's family has struggled to keep things together (emotionally and financially) without her father.  Unable to support her family with her meager earnings as a housekeeper, Graciela's mom had to ask her four younger children (ages 10, 13, 15, and 17) to quit school last year and go to work.  Graciela also worked every weekend in the neighborhing community of Trinidad Pampa where she harvested coca for about $3/day.  The whole family, Graciela said, has made extreme sacrifices so that she wouldn't have to quit school.

But even working overtime during the semester and staying to work at the College during vacation, Graciela was drowning in worries.  It was a scholarship from Carmen Pampa Fund that came to the rescue.

Graciela's scholarship pays for her to be in one of the College's three food cooperatives where students must take turns buying food, cooking, and cleaning.

Based on her economic need, grades, and good character, Graciela was one of 28 students awarded a scholarship from CPF's Scholarship Partners Program this year.

I asked Graciela what she would've done had she not received a scholarship.  "I would've had to leave the UAC-CP," she said.  "I mean, I have friends who loaned me books--they fought for me, too, so that I could stay here.  But I didn't have money for food or studies...much less for extras like transportation, class materials, notebooks, etc."

Though her scholarship, which requires her to work 120 hours per semester on campus, will cover her tuition and room and board, Graciela said she will continue to work off-campus for extra money, too.  "The truth is, the extra money helps me a lot--it's the money I use for all my other costs.  But the scholarship pays for my tuition and my food--I'm very thankful for this assistance."

Though she obviously still worries about her family and money, her scholarship eases a great financial burden that allows her to focus her energy on being a full-time student.  "I always wanted to study Agriculture," she told me.  "And I'm also called to help poor people.  There are a lot of people in this country, even in the city, who don't have the economic resources to buy things. For that reason, more than anything, I want to be able to help people in a large way."

"My life has been hard," she admitted, "and sometimes I wonder why I have been handed such difficulties.  But in the end, I've learned from it...and I'm a good person.  I'm proud of myself....because despite all of my problems, I've made it.  I'm here. I'm happy."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

missing: maytag

Recently I found myself longing for those late Saturday mornings when I would load up two weeks worth of laundry and drive over to the laundromat off of Broadway Ave. in Northeast Minneapolis. After stuffing three machines full of quarters and dirty clothes, I'd sit and work on a crossword puzzle, read the Startribune, or talk on the phone.  Looking back, that once dreaded chore now seems like a guilty pleasure!

My "washing machine"--the first cycle is to wet the clothes in a bucket.

There is no avoiding the fact--anywhere I find myself in the world, I despise doing laundry.  And here in Bolivia, where each article of clothing, bedding, kitchen and bathroom towels, etc., is washed individually, by hand, I am especially laundra-phobic.

The first time I did laundry here I wasn't quite sure what to do with the bar of soap and scrub brush I found in the laundry area of the Volunteer House.  And, truth be told, with more than two and a half years of Bolivian campo-living experience under my belt and some pointers from the locals, I still haven't mastered the art of effectively washing any fabric-based product by hand. (Though, I have learned to keep sweatshirts and sweatpants out of my wardrobe--saturated with water, they are heavy and impossible to wring out!)

Students aprovechar a nice day to wash clothes at the campus "laundromat."

Really, I have nothing to complain about; I only have to do my own laundry.  Comparatively, my Carmen Pampa counterparts with two or three or more children, wash laundry for the entire household.  "You must be doing laundry all the time," I said incredulously when I came upon my friends Dani and Fico, parents of two very active (read: dirty!) children, doing laundry outside their home.  Unsurprisingly, "Sí!" was their unanimous response. 

And just when one thinks the never-ending chore can't get any worse, along comes the rainy season!  Torrential evening downpours or mid-afternoon sprinkles make way for forever wet and/or musty smelling clothes. Which is why on those glorious, sun-drenched Monday afternoons when many students have the day free, articles of clothing can be found draped all over campus.

Clothes hangs out to dry on hedges, rocks, and railings on Campus Leahy.  The recent excavation of land for the building of the new women's dormitory eliminated more than half of the clothes lines where students previously hung their things to dry.

Living in Bolivia is a good reminder that we can, in fact, live without all the modern conveniences that we've come to call "necessities."  Life does go on without toasters, televisions, microwaves, vacuums, and dishwashers.  ...But IF I got to choose just one luxury, it'd be an easy pick.  Oh, Maytag man!