Thursday, June 4, 2009


As difficult as it is to believe, the calendar doesn't lie.  Already it has been a little more than four years since I set out on a solo journey to find a handful of UAC-CP students with USAID scholarships who live in scattered and remote communities in Bolivia's Alto Beni.

Some of our students live in places that aren't accessible by road. In 2005 Gladys Jahuira and I took a boat on the La Paz River in the Alto Beni in order to arrive at a UAC family's home.

My mission was to visit their homes, meet their parents and assess their living situations (family income, standard of living, etc.).  In the end, apart from accomplishing my mission, I came home to Carmen Pampa humbled and inspired. To understand our students, I realized, one must know the places they call home.

One of the names on my list that January was Gladys Jahuira--a shy young woman who had just completed her first year at the College.  Just as I was trying to figure out how I would even begin to locate her family's remote, rural home, I fortuetously ran into Gladys on the street (she happened to be in Palos Blancos for the weekly market).  So together, she and I made our way to her family's casa where I met her parents and siblings.  

The memory of the conversation that ensued is so clearly etched into my mind. In my report for USAID, I wrote: "Through tears, first-year Agronomy student Gladys Jahuira's father told me that he is extremely proud of his daughter."

In January 2005, I took this picture of Gladys (center) with her parents and three siblings outside their home.

On my visit to Palos Blancos last weekend, I once again randomly met Gladys on market day. Finished with all of her coursework at the College as of last semester, she is now living at her parents' home outside the village of Sapecho. She plans to begin her thesis research project in a few weeks with SIEMPRE-FORJA (a nearby bio-pesticide research and production company owned by UAC-CP graduates). Meanwhile, she's working with a cacao cooperative in her community of which her parents are members. She organizes local farmers who grow cacao for Bolivia's well-known chocolate company, CEIBO. Things are going well, she explained; based on her work she has been offered a part-time job managing the cooperative's finances. 

This past Saturday, with Gladys voluntarily at my side for visits and interviews, I kept having flashbacks--I couldn't help but think about the young woman from four years ago compared to the Glayds Jahuira I know today.

On the streets of Palos Blancos, Gladys ran into a member of the cacao cooperative she manages.

Four years ago, Gladys Jahuira was shy and reserved; she guarded her emotions and thoughts. She said very little. 

But not the Gladys Jahuira I know today. She's a pretty serious young woman who radiates confidence and maturity that is so unlike most of her female peers who live in the rural area. She isn't an overt talker, but these days Gladys easily makes conversation--sitting in the plaza, she and I discussed politics, cultural differences, and women's rights. She's ambitious; she's a visionary. She holds her own...and then some.

Lunch with UAC-CP graduates Fortunato Velasquez and Andres Florez and UAC-CP thesis student Daniel Criales (center left) in Palos Blancos. Gladys will be doing her thesis research with their local business SIEMPRE-FORJA.

Twice during the day we ran into men who were members of the cacao cooperative she's managing.  "Don Emilio," she told one man as we sat in the backseat of his taxi, "the cacao you brought me is not good quality." Gladys insisted he bring a different batch.  He gave her a wise, flirty retort and stepped out of the taxi for a moment. Gladys looked at me and rolled her eyes. "Machismo," she said, "But I know, he will bring a different batch of cacao."

I can only imagine that the way I feel about witnessing the metamorphosis that Gladys has undergone since her time at the UAC-CP is something similar to the way parents feel watching their children grow and mature. It's exciting to see how she's blossomed into a self-assured woman.

"Do you know what's different about me, I think?" she asked  as we talked about the traditional roles of women in Bolivia's rural area.  "I don't feel lost in life; I know what I want." And she's made the decisions and sacrifices to make it all happen. I'm curious to know where she'll be in another four years.

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