Thursday, February 25, 2010

porfirio kapa

I never cease to be inspired and amazed by people I've met here at the College. People like Porifirio Kapa who, despite all odds, embody the spirit and mission of the UAC-CP.

Porfirio is the son of an alcoholic father and the brother to six siblings who grew up in a remote village in the South Yungas. When he was in the third grade, he was forced to drop out of school after his mother died so that he could support his younger siblings while their father went away to work in the mines. Though his life seemed to be destined to be the same as his father's, he never allowed himself to give up on his dream to go back to school.

UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Porfirio Kapa. "People need to understand that the mission of the UAC-CP is to serve. It is to return to our communities to replicate all that you've learned so that we can help lift Bolivia up," he said.

"I witnessed my father's life and the life of my neighbors...working so hard just to be able to eat, but never achieving anything that would offer them a future. And that made me think of my own future--of what kind of life I wanted to provide for my children and what kind of example I knew I could be for my Bolivian brothers and sisters."

After finishing his obligatory year of military service as a teenager, Porfirio finally made a very serious commitment to go back to school. Though there was no road, he walked 12-hours, round-trip every weekend to attend alternative education classes in the nearest town of Irupana (he often spent Saturday night sleeping in the street because he couldn't afford a place to stay). After five years, with the equivalent of a high school diploma, he enrolled in classes at the UAC-CP. He finished his coursework in the College's Agronomy department in 2005--an accomplishment he credits in large part to scholarship assistance from USAID.

Since leaving the College, the 33-year-old has worked as the assistant manager of CORACA Irupana--an organization that provides technical assistance for an association of more than 800 organic farmers in the Municipality of Irupana, South Yungas. "The mission of CORACA is to help ensure profitable, all-organic farming for local producers."

Following a meeting with local farmers in Porfirio's home village (where he and I talked to locals about the UAC-CP and the importance of education), Porfirio gives a training session on organic pest control methods.

Porfirio manages several areas of agricultural production, trains producers, develops and manages projects, and makes contact with outside markets. In collaboration with government agencies and private organizations, Porfirio has written training manuals about conservation and organic practices. Bolivia's Vice Ministry of Social Control has paid him to give presentations to more than 4,000 producers. In addition, Porfirio works as a farmer himself--using his land to model successful agricultural practices.

"I wasn't put on this earth to be a rich man. As an agronomist, my vocation is to help producers and that's why I do what I do. That's my help others. And maybe I won't be able to make a giant change, but by speaking to people, interacting with people, showing people--I can help change ideas. And that's why I'm proud of my work with CORACA."

The house Porfirio grew up in is still occupied by his father and sits on land that the family still farms.

Located seven hours by bus from Bolivia's capital city of La Paz, there are very few trained professionals dedicated to living and working full-time in Irupana. Porfirio is the only college graduate from his home village. While he's been offered higher paying jobs in La Paz, Porfirio is committed to serving the rural poor. "Some people think if you're a college graduate that you shouldn't be in the countryside...but for me, it's different. The first thing I tell people is that I'm not interested in money. What I want is to improve the way of life for my people."

Porfirio, his wife Maribel (UAC-CP '09), and their youngest son Jonathon pictured outside CORACA's processing plant in Irupana.

Porfirio recognizes that his success has been dependent upon the help of others. He is most grateful to have his wife Maribel at his side (Maribel is a recent graduate of the UAC-CP's Veterinary Science program and provides veterinary consultations to farmers in Irupana.) Together, they have three children: Nathaniel, Daniella, and Jonathon. His kids, Porfirio said, give him energy. "I studied for them, for their future...and now my kids are proud of me--that I'm a college graduate." The value he and Maribel place on education is obvious--their two older children both carry the Bolivian banner in local parades (an honor which signifies that they are the best students in their grade).

"I always believed I was going to be something in my life. I didn't want to be the same, I wanted something better. And in that sense, with the help of education, I feel like I have achieved that dream."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

highlight of the week

Last night at our communal Volunteer House meeting we each shared a high point and a low point of the week--a pretty hectic week that marked the beginning of the 2010 academic year at the UAC-CP.

My high point, I said, came after a full day of running work and household errands in La Paz. I was pretty exhausted when arrived to Turbus Totai (the minibus company we use for transport to the Nor Yungas) in the late afternoon. The small office was experiencing mild chaos as -UAC-CP students, faculty, and staff, frantically tried to secure tickets for their trip direct to Carmen Pampa. While Monday afternoons are often busy days, this past Monday was particularly so as everyone had their bags and boxes of belongings needed to start the new semester.

With bags and boxes and bodies everywhere, there was no place to sit inside the office, so I stood outside on the sidewalk leaning up against the building, happily watching everyone greet one another with the traditional handshake and kiss on the cheek. "It felt like I was part of a family reunion," I told the other volunteers last night.

Victor Choquehuanca finished his coursework in Education at the UAC-CP.

Former UAC-CP Education student Victor Choquehuanca (who I hadn't seen since 2005 when he was a member of the College's student food cooperative program) stood with me as I waited for my bus to arrive. Initially, we kept each other company by commenting on all the young faces ("You wouldn't recognize anyone at the College these days!" I assured him). But after reminiscing about days at the UAC-CP, Victor brought me up to speed on his life. He's been busy, he explained, working in his home community in the Province of Inquisivi--where he's planning to make a run for mayor in April. Currently, he's employed by PyMES--a group of micro-enterprises. Specifically, he works in the area of mango production--working with farmers to help increase yield and find markets.

"Sometimes I wonder if I studied the wrong major," Victor told me. "Maybe I should've studied Agronomy." But he also agreed that his background in education is what helps him work effectively with farmers--facilitating workshops. And agriculture technical training that he's received in Bolivia and Peru have not only provided him with important tools and knowledge, but it has animated him to pursue post-graduate studies in Agriculture. But first, he admitted, he has to graduate from the UAC-CP.

Victor is one of many students who, though he has finished all his required classwork at the College, he is yet to be counted among the number of graduates because he hasn't defended his thesis--the final graduation requirement. I literally pulled his ear and told him to get on that. "I know," he admitted. "It's just hard to find the time...but I will."

Just as Victor and I exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, I was swarmed by a group of UAC-CP students who wanted to make sure I knew my bus had arrived. Flanked on either side by a new generation of UAC-CP jovenes carrying my purchases to be loaded onto the bus, Victor bid me farewell--I promised that I'd visit him and his work project and he promised that he'd make some headway on his thesis.

And then, crowded into a packed 15-passenger minivan, our bus full of UAC-CP students and professors made our way caravan-style through the gorgeous Yungas mountains all the way Carmen Pampa.