Tuesday, October 13, 2009

creating change...poco a poco

Remote. Isolated. Far. Uphill.

Those are the words that kept running through my head yesterday as I made my way to Villa Copacabana--a community of about 40 families perched high in a tucked away corner of the Nor Yungas mountains that is accessible only on foot.

I was part of a four-person contingent that set out from Coroico at 6am. The purpose of our visit to Villa Copacabana was two fold: I was going to visit UAC-CP Education student Ruben Pari who recently founded a one-room schoolhouse in the community. My companions (Sr. Carmen and Fr. Israel) were going because Ruben had asked representatives of the parish in Coroico to celebrate a mass and offer the sacrament of baptism to community members.

A 9-year-old girl hauls provisions up the trail to Villa Copacabana...with her piglet in tow.

After a two hour drive along the road between Coroico and Caranavi, we arrived at the sad little river town of San Pedro. From there, our driver Salvador parked the jeep and we set out to finish our commute on foot. Slow but steady we made the 1 1/2 hour hike upward to Villa Copacabana.

Sometimes, even though I know the answer, I ask the question anyway so I can hear someone else say it aloud. "How do they get all their belongings to their community?" I asked Sr. Carmen, a native of Peru of who comes from a poor, rural family. "They carry everything on their backs," she responded. "Incredible, isn't it?" Incredible, if not almost unbelievable.

But not entirely unbelievable as all the way up we passed (and were passed) by members of the community carrying large loads on their back. We met one woman with a week's supply of food (rice, potatoes, etc.,) for her family of nine strapped to her shoulders. In her hands she carried a thermos of water and a giant 2-liter bottle of cooking oil. Her oldest daughter, age 14, also carried a load on her back in addition to carrying the family's newest member, 4-month-old Ana, in her arms. They make the trip down and up at least once-a-week for food, they told me. I promised myself right then and there: no more circling the lot on beautiful summer days looking for the closest parking spot to the door of the grocery store.

Ruben Pari, far left, stands at the head of the class. The dirt floor, he said, often turns to mud when it rains and water leaks through the roof. The community recently stuccoed the inside walls.

When we finally arrived to Villa Copacabana we were welcomed by Ruben and his flock of little wide-eyed pupils. Sweating profusely from our final ascent under the hot sun, I was happy to find shade inside the one-room, adobe schoolhouse. As I caught my breath and re-hydrated, I started quizzing Ruben about his work. Question number one: "How did you ever end up in this remote village?"

Thirty-year-old Ruben, who hails from a small community near Carmen Pampa, said he learned about the need for a school in Villa Copacabana through the mayor's office in Coroico. A young man whose vocation to be a teacher is, I think, both unique and inspiring, Ruben said he chose to live and work in Villa Copacabana about seven months ago because he believes in the power of education to transform and improve lives.

Ruben outside the home the community built for him. He is one of four siblings to study at the UAC-CP. His sister Karin is a graduate of the Veterinary Science Department.

"I want to be a part of making change. And these kids," Ruben said, gesturing to his students, "are the future of their community, the future of my country." Ruben explained that many children from the countryside grow up and leave for the city because they don't learn to value what they have and are unable to appreciate who they are. That's why Ruben's goal is to empower children with not only the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic abilities, but to provide them with technical training and human formation.

Shy at first, this young student took to calling me "tia" (auntie) by the end of our 6-hour visit.

Ruben admitted that living in a remote area isn't easy. There is no water, for example, which means a 25-minute hike to retrieve and carry buckets home. And a few weeks ago when Ruben became severely ill, he had to rely on community members to carry him down the mountain in search of immediate medical attention. Funding for the school itself, Ruben said, is also in peril which means his salary has no long-term guarantee. Currently, his students work a communal plot of land where they harvest and sell coca in order to purchase basic school supplies such as paper, chalk, etc.

But despite the difficulties, challenges, and uncertain future, Ruben remains positive and optimistic. He has to, he told me--the kids need a place to learn and he feels called to educate them. "Do you like what you do?" I asked Ruben, who has a tendency to look and act rather serious. A smile immediately consumed his face. "I love it."

Under a makeshift tarp, Fr. Israel celebrated mass (in Spanish and Aymara). "Today, we are here to share and celebrate our gratitude for all that we have; to give thanks for our lives, our families, our health, and the addition of your new little school."

Again, I didn't have to ask. I already knew the answer; it's obvious that Ruben loves his work. Though he's paid for teaching 8:30 am - 12:30 pm every day, his students and community members tell me he often works until 6 or 7 pm. It's also obvious that everyone loves having him there. "He's so dedicated to his work," the village leader told me at lunch (the second of two lunches the community fed us). "We hope he stays with us regardless of what happens with school funding."

In addition to working as a teacher, Ruben also finds himself in the role of community organizer and student. He's using part of his teaching experience at the school for the basis of his thesis project--a graduation requirement at the UAC-CP. And he said he's gaining important experience as he helps the community learn to determine how they want to structure the school and what vision they have for themselves as a group. They want to grow; their hope is to provide education for students through the eighth grade. (The nearest high school is a four hour round-trip walk each day which one student in the community currently makes).

Me, Sr. Carmen, Fr. Israel, and the community leader of Villa Copacabana pose with Ruben (in the doorway) and seven of his 11 students.

By the time lunch was served at 1 pm I had had a few hours to observe and interact with Ruben, his students, and Villa Copacabana community members. I had a better understanding of why the addition of the little school was so significant.

As I looked at the plate of food set before me, feeling very conscious of the fact that everything on it--the potatoes, the hard boiled egg, the cheese, the lettuce, even the plate itself--had been carried up to this place on some one's back, the same words from earlier that morning came to mind: Remote. Isolated. Far. Uphill. But as I started to feed my growling stomach, I noted in my notebook a new segment of words that rushed over me: Gratitude. Value. Inspiration. Human spirit.

The ability of people to survive with so little. The appreciation for education in its rawest and purest form. And the passion and determination of young people like Ruben who are committed to making the world a better place...poco a poco. "You have to start making a difference somewhere," a community member told me soon thereafter, "why not here?"

Additional photos of the visit to Villa Copacabana can be viewed here on my picasa site.

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