Monday, December 1, 2014

What happens when you lend a Bolivian child your camera?

Written by Rebecca Baker

I should probably regret lending my camera to the children of Doña Emiliana, one of the producers we work with in El Alto. Abraham and Gabriel are energetic, excitable and have probably never been taught how to care for a digital camera. As I watched them tear off down the street to capture pictures of insects, my camera dangling precariously from Abraham´s wrist, I sensed that it may not be returned in one piece. Rather surprisingly, the camera actually still switches on…but not without making a horrific grinding, cracking sound. Oh, and the lens only half opens. And all the photos come out blurry. 

I share this story with you because I believe that lending the boys my camera was an excellent decision, not just because of the joy it gave them, but because if anything gives an insight into a child´s life it´s letting them loose with a camera for a few hours (although it’s perhaps more advisable to do this with a disposable camera…see this excellent Childfund blogpost!). Flicking through the photos that evening, it was like a light turned on in my head. I felt for the first time that I was beginning to understand the situation faced by Emiliana and the other family´s that Focapaci work with in El Alto.

Since the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people have migrated to El Alto from the surrounding altiplano in search of employment and to escape the harsh farming lifestyle. The water and sewage infrastructure has not kept up with this population expansion meaning that, in many communities on the outskirts, the local river is the toilet. As well as the sanitation problem, unemployment, crime and malnutrition are significant issues. Focapaci aims to combat some of these issues by providing the funding and training to enable local residents to produce their own vegetables. This is particularly useful in the case of mothers with young families, for whom the vegetables provide both nutrition and a source of income which doesn’t require leaving their children at home. When I found out that I would be working with Focapaci, I was delighted to be involved with a project which deals with such vital issues. 

Perhaps I shouldn´t admit this, but in the first few weeks on project, I found it rather too easy to detach myself from the social problems I was seeing around me. The not uncommon sight of a makeshift ‘guy’ strung from the lampposts with the words ´thieves will be burned alive´ written alongside was, to me, something interesting, something novel, but did not instil in me the anxiety, anger and injustice felt by local residents who are left to take the law into their own hands. Similarly, whilst I could see that the families we work with live in challenging conditions, I somehow didn´t truly relate on an emotional level. As far as I was concerned we were doing a great job, and I found it easy to head back to my cozy host home feeling that my few hours’ work had made a positive difference. When one evening, instead of photos of smiling volunteers posing with pickaxes your camera has been filled with images of children playing in the dark, cramped, mud brick room which they and five others call home, you realize the difference we are making barely scratches the surface.

Words of warning to potential thieves on a wall near one of the producer’s houses in El Alto. The words read ‘thieves caught will be burned alive’.

As my place here was largely funded by UK tax-payers’ money, and the rest sponsored by friends and family, I constantly feel the need to evaluate the impact we’re having. In some ways it does seem strange to send five young UK residents to do manual work which local people could carry out just as well, in a country whose language they do not fully speak. I suppose this is why some of the producers have assumed we have some kind of expertise, and have asked us detailed questions about our own vegetable growing in the UK! The phrase ‘voluntourism’ is often thrown around in these contexts, and you could say that for the first few weeks I was a voluntourist, as I was naively positive about the impact I was having and had not truly considered the depth of the issues faced by the families I was working with.

Members of Team Focapaci preparing soil for Emiliana’s greenhouse.

Members of Team Focapaci feeling proud after preparing a patch of ground for planting vegetables. Our practical work with producers has visible results, but our work developing workshops and manuals is essential in moving towards a more sustainable situation where the producers no longer need the help of volunteers.

Thankfully, throughout the past ten weeks I have moved past this superficial perception and now feel that I better understand what our project has been working towards. We are proud to have helped provide practical support to eight producers (with plans for more), since this is of course essential in enabling them to grow vegetables. But, despite having less visible results, we have come to realize the importance of the other side of our work - the development of workshops and manuals for the producers. This office-based work both makes better use of our specific skills and is more worthwhile in the long-term, since it gives the producers the tools to take control of the cultivation and commercialisation of the vegetables themselves. This is the ideal that we are working towards: a situation where our help as volunteers is no longer needed. 

As we are now in the penultimate week of our project, I am starting to look ahead to my return home. Perhaps just as important as whatever impact I have made here in the last three months will be the changed attitudes and better-informed opinions which I will take home. Working alongside Bolivian volunteers and living with a host family has given me an understanding of the cultures, beliefs and events which have led to today’s Bolivia. As part of ICS we have visited a women’s prison, debated social issues with students in an El Alto school, and had talks from a psychologist and the employee of a local NGO. What is more, there has been time set aside to discuss issues such as the root causes of poverty, the North/South divide and the Millennium Development Goals. My time in Bolivia has given me a much more informed idea about the causes of poverty and what we as individuals can do about it, and I believe this is something which will change the way I live the rest of my life.

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