I’d like a project please?

The phone ring penetrated a groggy fog. "Hola…." I stuttered out, almost knocking the phone off the bedside. "Hola, habla Grover" (Hi, Grover’s speaking). My scrambled brain somehow managed to pick out the face from my mental database, as he raced on. "So when shall we meet? What are you doing for lunch? How about I pick you up now?" I was already inventing excuses in my muddled mind.

I had met Grover, a rotund sweaty man with a thin black tie and jacket (like a parody of Reservoir Dogs), the night before. He was in fact the only man in a tie at a party full of campesinos that had taken place at the foot of a newly painted water tower. He told me he was the Mayor’s lawyer.

An almost continual tirade of chicha (fermented maize) thrust into my hand meant I might even have been quite friendly to him. I have vague recollections of swinging my arm over his rounded shoulder (well as much as I could reach) and talking about how much I loved Bolivia and its people. Mmm, did I say anything to him about meeting up? Well clearly I had given him my phone number.    

"What do you mean you can’t come right now. I have my friend here, who runs a tyre factory, and we are cooking a barbecue. We can talk about projects. You are here to do business, aren’t you?… No… oh you write, great then you can write about the factory and we can work on some projects."

I somehow got him off the phone eventually with some more or less truthful excuses, well at least no barefaced lies, and crawled back under the blankets.

The party to celebrate the new water tower in Totorkawa took place under a pale flourescent light circled by piles of bricks. Campesinos had gathered next to buckets of chicha and crates of beer whilst the community leader and the municipal dignatories sat behind a table garlanded with flowers, vegetables and fruit.

We entered cautiously squeezing past the municipal brass brand perched like sparrows on the narrow irrigation canal. We were soon being plied with little husks (tutumbas) of chicha, and dragged onto the makeshift concrete dance floor as the municipal band started off again. Forget social pressure at school to smoke and drink, this was the real thing. Alcohol seemed to be coming at me from every direction. Before I knew it, my head was reeling.

Most of the people I talked to were just curious to know more about where I was from, what I was doing, and expressed great warmth and welcome. Our chats seemed to bridge two very different worlds and contexts. But I found out the following day that whilst Grover had been gearing me up to do tyre factory news reports, Juliette had been cornered by one person to work on projects for the neighbourhood. For clearly one or two people and maybe more, we had looked like walking dollar signs, a rare experience but a frustrating one nonetheless. It also seemed to undermine the basic dignity of people like Grover.

Yet after the initial frustration, something I have felt at other times, for example when I lived in Pakistan, Juliette and I have been reflecting on who really bears the responsibility. For certainly the last fifty years, countless Westerners have come to countries like Bolivia with the aim to "help" and "develop" poor communities, even if these communities have lived in a rich way in harmony with nature for centuries.

Yet subsistence and living on very little was not seen as developed, so Westerners have come in with offers of projects, schools, hospitals and have imbued values in their dress, vehicles, accessories which give the message that what matters is consumption. It continues today even in apparently noble projects of "ending poverty", still seen in very economic terms. A new colonisation came not just in looting wealth from the country but undermining a way of life. Is it a surprise then when Westerners get viewed for what they bring rather than who they are? Are the values of "having" not the very ones we have brought with us?

The bigger question that arises is how then to live here in a way that affirms local cultures and doesn’t impose, even subtly, a dominant Western culture that has carried its huge costs in the North most obviously in environmental contamination. I clearly can’t deny my own culture and there is richness in sharing between cultures and peoples. Moreover in today’s world, it is no longer possible to insulate ourselves from influences that bombard us daily via television, radio and from encounters with people of all backgrounds. But given centuries of unequal encounter between European and Bolivian cultures which have invariably involved impositions by those with economic and political power, how can I prevent being part of a historical unjust trend?

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3 Comments

  1. Andy May 17, 2007 at 3:52 am - Reply

    Enjoyed your latest report, as ever. There are aspects of wry comedy as well as tragedy in this history – I can imagine some locals feeling disappointed that the West is only sending poor people to live among them and help them.
    I agree that measuring poverty and wealth in very economic terms is a narrow and constricting viewpoint, afflicting all of us. But we shouldn’t assume that the influence of the West is always negative. It is inevitable that countries and cultures, like individuals, will interact with each other and affect each other. As with personal relationships, there is a duty for nations to behave with sensitivity and respect for others; too often the wealthy nations have been guilty of raping and brutalising other cultures.
    But some ways of life deserve to be undermined. Let’s not neglect the importance of improving access to education and healthcare to the general population, rather than confining these privileges to an elite. While respecting the nobility and integrity of ‘poorer’ communities, it’s important to retain a clear-eyed perspective of the hardships that life can entail. I totally agree that poverty shouldn’t be measured in dollars and cents. But any definition of poverty should incorporate literacy, life expectancy and freedom from labour.
    I hope you’ll write a book about all these adventures (yours and Bolivia’s). Maybe you’ve started?

  2. Juliette May 18, 2007 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    Nick, Andy – you have both touch on topics near and dear to my heart these days.
    This blogging thing still feels a bit like posting a personal journal entry on the internet, but I will give it a go.
    There is lots to unpack in what you said Andy about the importance of the “poor” having access to education, freedom from labor, life expectancy, etc.
    The common assumption that countries of the Global South are wallowing in problems of “underdevelopment” and “poverty” has given one outside Northerner/Westerner after another free license to impose what I consider a fairly flawed, not to mention completely unsustainable, model of Western development (education, healthcare, industrialization, etc.).
    Each country, each place, each community is so unique and complex in its history and web of relationships, and yet we continue to perceive places like Bolivia with the same “poor country” lense.
    Take life expectancy for example. Where I have lived for just a short while in Totorkawa, I have met one healthy, robust abuelita (grandmother) after another. Our neighbor who routinely collects wood in front of the house is so old people have lost track of her age. Some say she just turned 106, others say she is 120 years old!
    Granted, she occassionaly gets lost on her way home, but thanks to the fact there is still a community of people here that care about each other, she gets found and makes it home eventually.
    Meanwhile, I cringe thinking about my own grandmother who is rotting away in a senior citizens home, getting bored to death by bingo games (pun intended), freaked out by people around her talking to walls and still asking when can she please go home? If this is “development”, I prefer not to get old.
    If a society can be judged by how the young and old are treated, then this might be a clear indication that our society has lost its humanity, no? So isn´t the key question facing our generation how do we regain our dignity and restore (ecological) sanity?
    Nick wrote about the annoyance of being viewed as an enterprising piggy bank rather than a full human being. This is the baggage we are saddled with by virtue of coming from a “developed” country. Until we can honestly and openly critique the problems of our own society, and be willing to abandon our false priviliges* we can{t enter into an honest dialogue with people that are bombarded with the razzle-dazzle, Hollywood-produced image of “developed” countries.
    *False privilige = anthing we do that can{t be sustained if 6 billion people start doing the same thing.
    ok, done with rant…I fear I have become a blogger{s worst nightmare – the person with lots of hot air and too much time on her hands…but there is a general strike in town here today and only the internet cafes are open. Maybe I am just getting the hang of this…
    cheers.

  3. Andy May 27, 2007 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Hi Juliette. I hope you’ll also be visiting the UK in June so we can give this complex subject the time it deserves? Meanwhile…while I agree that the current “Western model” of industrialization is unsustainable, I would argue passionately that the ideals of education and healthcare are both sustainable and exportable. In our haste to critique the problems, let’s not overlook the merits of our own societies. And let’s not fall into the trap of labelling them “Western”. The average age of death in the UK and the US is 77. In Japan it is 81. In contrast, in Bolivia it is 64, in Uganda it is 42, in Zambia it is 37. I feel that outsiders are entitled to make critical judgements about societies where fundamental rights to education and healthcare are restricted to elite groups. No doubt the wealthier countries bear some responsibility for the difficulties and deficiencies in the social infrastructure of many poorer nations, having neglected, abused and exploited them for centuries. But there are things to admire about every society, even our own. I want to ask this question: as a woman, would you rather have spent your teenage years working in college or working in a field? I’ve seen extreme poverty – not in Bolivia, but in Pakistan, India, Nepal – so I am impatient when affluent Westerners romanticize the real hardships of the world’s poor. Certainly we should respect people’s dignity, but let’s not pretend that premature death is dignified. Let’s appreciate the true privileges (in contrast to the false ones) that we’ve been given. Look forward to seeing you one day. Cheerio for now, Andy

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