AJWS Study Tour to Bolivia: Days 1 and 2


AJWS Study Tour to Bolivia: Days 1 and 2

Posted on October 7, 2010 by Jolie Schwab, study tour participant and AJWS board member

During the first couple of days on a trip like this, you spend a lot of time reconciling your expectations with the reality before you. This is my third AJWS study tour and I thought I knew what to expect, but I was wrong. Bolivia may be the poorest country in Latin America, but its capital city of La Paz, home to almost a quarter of its population, is so pretty and strikingly clean (with the exception of some graffiti) that I had a hard time recognizing what it might have in common with the other cities I've visited, such as Mumbai, Kampala or Nairobi.

We arrived on a Sunday when the city was relatively quiet, but by the end of the day Monday the traffic we’d experienced made me think a bit more of those other cities.

Even before the formal program started, I got a short introduction to one of the main issues facing this country as some of us walked through a low-key but charming street fair whose theme can be summarized as "water is a right and not a commodity," with climate change a secondary focus. I began wondering if the cleanliness I had perceived was the result of a healthy respect on the part of the city’s residents for nature and one's environment. Not sure of that yet. But everything I am learning seems to point to the fact that key to Bolivia's future is the way in which its still-rich reserve of natural resources will be exploited and whether or how the population as a whole will share. 

Without turning this into a history lesson, it is important to understand that in 2004 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a former coca farmer. Many of the project partners we will meet this week are very proud of Evo, whom they consider “one of them.” He has taken on the United States (including, in seeking to protect Bolivia's largest crop, its war on drugs) and the multinationals who got rich by controlling and exporting the country’s natural resources.

AJWS's Melissa Extein and journalist Jean Friedman-Rudavsky filled us in on some the challenges facing Bolivia and I was stunned by two facts in particular: Half of Bolivia's population of 10 million people are under 18, and between 50 and 75 percent of the world's supply of lithium (the most important component of the electric car battery) is under Bolivian soil. So if Evo can figure out how to exploit that, maybe he can even figure out how to employ some of the youth that have migrated to the cities and not yet found jobs.

At dinner on the first day, we were treated to an inspirational talk by Congressman Jorge Medina Gara, the former executive director of one of our grantees and the first Afro Bolivian ever elected to Congress. To get there, he had to overcome the same discrimination that the entire Afro Bolivian minority faces, and his quest to strengthen his ethnic group and enable their political participation resulted in his being elected with a staggering 92 percent of the vote. Gara helped write the new constitution (Bolivia's 17th!) and represents six minority groups, but proudly points out that Afro Bolivians are the only minority group recognized by their own article in the constitution. He also said he would not be where he is now without AJWS support, and that he hopes to someday serve his country as a government minister and even run for president. We have no doubt that he could succeed. 

Sunday was also exciting for other reasons.

Most of us had our first taste of the coca leaf, which, in addition to being the prime ingredient of cocaine (but only if subject to illegal processing), makes a good cup of tea, is nutritional and is a good antidote for altitude sickness. La Paz is located at 11,000 feet above sea level and some of us have been feeling some effects.

The day started quite early, as we traveled to meet the first of the six grantees we will visit this week, Wayna Rap/KAI. Wayna Rap started out as a group of three rappers and grew into a youth-led organization made up of Aymara and Quechua rappers, dancers and artists from El Alto, a city of 1.3 million on the outskirts of La Paz. They use hip hop to give voice to the frustrations of indigenous teens, raise self-esteem as well as political awareness, get kids off the street and into after school programs, and build leadership skills and pride in their indigenous cultures.

Wayna Rap is becoming very well-known. They've performed abroad, worked with UNESCO, been profiled in The New York Times and on NPR, but are also branching out to work with rural elementary and middle school kids. I wish I could have videotaped the performance they put on for us, especially the political speech delivered by one of the youngest children. With his passionate delivery and fist pumping, we're sure he could give Jorge Medina a run for his money.

The self confidence and pride evidenced by all the rappers and break dancers proved that Wayna Rap is succeeding in its mission. There is some irony in the fact that a group that counts as one of its main purposes preservation of and pride in their indigenous cultures uses hip hop as its tool. On the other hand, hip hop has gone global and the group has had the chance to meet with many others across the region to exchange ideas and mobilize more young people.

We visited Wayna Rap in San Pueblo de Taquina on the banks of Lake Titicaca, which was really fortunate for us because it gave us a half-day of sightseeing via hydrofoil on the very large and culturally important lake. We were at 13,000 feet, but luckily all of us seemed to have acclimated. Our tour guide, Paolo, formally welcomed us to Bolivia by sprinkling some water from the fountain of youth over each of our heads with the national flower, the cantuta, and having us recite, “Amashuah, amahyayah, amakayah.” In Amara this means “Don't be a liar, don't be lazy, don't be a thief.” Good advice in any language, don't you think?