From the very beginning of this volunteer experience with CUSO, I’ve felt like a bit of a fraud, for one simple reason. I knew that I was going to spend a relatively short period of time in Bolivia and wouldn’t have the opportunity to completely integrate myself into the local habits and rhythms. I was non-the-less, reassured that my contribution is very important, and if I am to accept that everyone’s role, how ever small, is important, then I must learn to be more generous with myself too. Difficult to do, sometimes, when one is made to feel insignificant unless earning a certain income or attaining a “respectable” job title.
Not to take away from others I’ve met here, but we recently visited a Spanish volunteer, Jesus Torrero Bustos, in San Antonio de Lomerio and his story most closely matches my pre-conceptions of the experience. Jesus recently completed his first of a two year posting in San Antonio, a small rural community that gained access to the electric grid only six short months ago. Previously, only the Municipal Buildings, Community Radio and Church, had diesel generators to provide limited hours of electricity. There are no telephone land-lines or cellular service, internet goes with out saying is a dream, and although there are a few municipally installed public-access hand-pumps scattered around the town, those who can afford to do so, have small water towers in the court yards behind their homes. A water truck periodically visits San Antonio and those who can afford it, pay to have their cisterns topped up.
Jesus arrived here with a mandate to provide training to existing Cooperatives and guidance to others wanting to organize and take advantage of financial assistance provided by the various levels of government. By offering workshops through his position with the Municipal Government, ranging from basic Administrative and Organizational skills to developing Marketing Strategies, he early on recognized an even more fundamental need; a Financial Education. Having most of their needs met, Jesus observed that there was very little long term thinking in the Chiquitanian tradition or educational experience. The issue is far more complex than I have space for here, to elaborate on, however, in a nutshell, when finding themselves with a bit of extra cash, the towns people are most likely to spend in quickly, rather than consider saving it to repair the roof next year or reinvesting it in their side businesses. See, we are more alike than different.
Drawing on his undergrad degree in Pedagogy Psychology and Masters in Human Resources, Jesus quickly came to the conclusion that guiding adults in the community through the process of registering businesses and offering workshops was all, well and good, but targeting school children is the only way to make long term, attitudinal changes. Coincidentally, this past year, the Bolivian Ministry of Education tabled legislation to implement changes to the curriculum and Jesus was approached, through his employer the village of San Antonio, to research teaching methods that could be used to introduce that new curriculum.
A year later, a series of workbooks, one for each of twelve school grades has been written, designed and published. The material deals with everything from Money Management, to developing a Social Conscience with an emphasis on empathy and the environment. Until the Ministry of Education, passes their legislation and obliges School Boards to adopt the new curriculum, whether or not to adopt the new material rests with the individual Principals and Teachers, which isn’t a given. Fortunately for Jesus, the Secondary School Principal in San Antonio is eager to use the material. The final and perhaps most difficult challenge for each school Principal, will be securing the funds to purchase one workbook for each and every student, each year.
Because of it’s isolated location, San Antonio is the one community where we spent the most time. One day to travel each way, from and to Santa Cruz, on a Micro, a small bus seating approximately 40, and standing, who ever was willing to do so for the bumpy five hour ride, and two full days in and around the town. On the agenda was to accompany Jesus to the nearby community of Palmeria and that is a story worth telling. He secured one of the vehicles owned by the Town Hall, for use by employees, and requisitioned the diesel fuel that would get us there and back. Only thing missing was a driver. There were five of us making the forty kilometre round trip and, not surprisingly, the 4 X 4 had a standard transmission. A quick show of hands left me as the only one experienced to drive the vehicle. Eeee Gats!!
It wasn’t the first time in my life that I’ve had to manoeuvre around tight corners or dodge pot holes, but it was the first time that I had to do it behind the wheel of a vehicle held together with twist ties. Worst of all, once at the other end of the trip, we discovered that we were without lights, and would have to cut short our visit. I already knew that their were no mirrors and that the shocks were toast, but a quick inventory confirmed that we had windshield wipers but no way to activate them, no door windows, I just thought they were cranked down until I discovered that… you got it, there were no cranks and no horn, important for driving along a narrow, one and half lane, dirt road. We made it back to San Antonio stirred but not shaken and with a slight glow in the sky, as well as our faces.
The next day was taken up sitting in on a Marketing Workshop and visiting small businesses. However, the highlight for us came later that evening when Anouk and I were asked to be interviewed on the Community Radio. Good or bad, we were up against a televised Football Game, so it’s difficult to say how large our listening audience was.
Unlike our arrival in San Antonio, which was under the cover of a star filled sky, the return trip to Santa Cruz, was in full daylight. There’s an interesting Canadian connection to the department of Santa Cruz. Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a very large migration of Mennonites from Saskatchewan to La Chiquitania. Go figure. It’s like the last untamed frontier, or something. However, I’m making it sound far more romantic than I should. That’s because, as farming communities, the Mennonites are largely responsible for the disappearance of much of the natural ground cover between Santa Cruz and Robore, near the border with Brazil, a distance of approximately 450 km. It works something like this. They purchase huge tracks of land, as flat as our western prairies, clear them to grow every crop imaginable, and because this area experiences very low rainfall, once they’ve exhausted these organically poor soils, they move along to the next parcel of land. There’s no doubt that they are producing great quantities of food, but because there are no controls on land use practices, the price, in the long term, will be left for others to pay. Returning to Santa Cruz, from our trip to Puerto Suarez, the previous week, one could see clouds of smoke rising in the distance, and the acrid smell, at times became quite thick, indicating that large areas of scrub land were being cut, burned and prepared for tilling or pasture land.
Casi me he puesto al día, aunque si quisiera, tampoco se trata de que cuente cada detallito, hay que dejar algo por contar en persona. Lo cual en las palabras del gran Filosofo Arnold Schwarzenegger “Hasta mañana baby.”