It is 6.10 a.m and I am already late. The bus to the altiplano region is leaving from the other side of town in 20 minutes, and it is key that I do not miss this transport : the first village we are to visit is a little over 2 1/2 hours away on rocky country roads, and we have several communities to call on today.
A frantic teleférico commute brings me, fortunately, to the hotel reception where I meet Ximena Murillo for the first time: the sunny Britney – Spears lookalike is a former academic and Director of Quaker Bolivia Link. Also milling in the lobby are the financiers of QBL’s work, cheery American Rotary members in baseball caps and shorts. It is to be one of the strangest and most valuable days of my life.
Quaker Bolivia Link is an NGO based in La Paz, which works with communities in the rural altiplano. Originally founded in 1995 by Quakers Ken and Pam Barrett, the Quaker principles of integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the Earth, and peace guide its work and interactions with communities. As well as developing water irrigation systems, greenhouses, and agricultural projects, QBL maintains close relationships with villages. This means community leaders can discuss their particular requirements with Quaker Bolivia Link, in order to most effectively develop projects. No hierarchy exists here: such close co-operation is far from the paternalistic approach of many international NGOs.
My involvement with QBL began a few months ago, when I started managing their social media. I was fortunate enough to attend Bootham School, a Quaker school in York, which encourages students to develop an adventurous and ethical perspective of the world; on my mum’s side, much of our family are also of a Quaker background, and have been involved with Quaker work: it was this valuable education and family history that motivated me to seek work with a Quaker organisation. Now in La Paz, I am working part-time in the QBL office.
Our journey from La Paz takes us from the run-down reaches of El Alto, through lush green plains and cragged red rock: finally, then, to the dusty broad landscape of the altiplano. At at altitude of over 3,900m, tiny villages exist in thin dry air, as the sky sweeps past mountain and hill. It was on one of these hills that Colque Alta was situated and as we emerged from the minibus the villagers stood tall in a u-shape, ready to welcome us. Music played as we climbed (breathless), and on our arrival every villager greeted every person in our party.
Each welcome was as warm as this first: a flurry of kisses and handshakes, ‘cómo esta’ and ‘gracias’. Villagers wore traditional Aymara clothing: full broad skirts for the women, with squat bowler hats and cloaks of heavy wool, usually with a brightly coloured scarf tied around the neck, carrying a baby, produce, or an extra blanket. The stripes of these cloths signify the birthplace of each person. For the men, clothing varied between neat suits and dress more suitable for manual labour.
In each village one of the leaders, a member of QBL, or a Rotary Club representative, would turn on the faucet for the first time. Everyone would gather round to hear the water swish through the newly- constructed system and to look at the water flowing through the tanks. As part of this ceremony, we would fill a ceramic bowl with alcohol and flowers, and smash it on the ground, as an offering to Pachamama, Mother Earth. The villagers would also dress the main faucet of the water system in the form of a cholita:
Each ceremony would be followed and preceded by lengthy speeches of gratitude and companionship.
In one village, we were also served food: llama or pork, with sweet yams, beans, and revuelto de chuno, the ubiquitous dehydrated potato, accompanied by home-made alcohol and more music. Dancing took place in each community, and all were invited to join.
A particularly moving moment took place in the village where we were served food: after lunch, representatives from one community approached the high table (where the mayor of the region, Ximena Murillo, and the American Rotary club president were sitting); they prostrated themselves, and explained that they were in desperate need of water. They asked for help. Such a supplication was deeply humbling: this is a group of people who are deeply proud of their traditions, culture, and way of life, and to have bowed their heads to these richer authorities is diminishing.
I reflected on my day on the way back to La Paz. I felt deeply privileged to have been welcomed and invited to the public spaces of these communities, and to have spoken to people whose life was so different to my own. To witness the joy and celebration expressed in receiving water for the first time was incredibly moving. I also felt angry towards the global inequalities which mean that countries such as Bolivia are unable to provide such basic necessities to their population, but angry also that the government of Bolivia has made no effort whatsoever to support these rural communities. It was gratifying to learn more about the work of QBL: to see how it functioned on a grassroots level, in intimate co-operation with the communities and villages. Although a relatively small NGO, it has transformed the lives of thousands of families and manages to do so in a manner that is both ethical and profoundly effective. I feel honoured to be a part of this organisation.