Bolivia Uncovered 2014
It is difficult to believe that I have been here now for nearly 4 months. When I arrived in Argentina at the beginning of August I had no idea what was ahead of me. It was a complete leap of faith and as I allowed my heart to lead me into this new life adventure things unfolded as if they had been patiently waiting for my arrival.
After a few weeks settling into Argentina – made much easier by the fantastic support of our Dominican sisters who have been in this mission area for many years; Thank you! – I finally made the journey from Argentina to Tarija which was overland and fairly arduous. I had minimal Spanish but it is amazing how much one can communicate without a common language – it was refreshing to rediscover that we are all well able to connect with one another in other ways apart from speech. After spending 6 weeks in Cochabamba studying basic level Spanish, in the excellent and renowned Maryknoll Language Institute, I got enough of a basis on which to build exponentially on my new language skills – let’s just say I now know what I need to learn!
On the 12 October 2014 Evo Morales was re-elected for a third term as the President of Bolivia. Despite a bit of negative murmuring among the middle classes of Bolivian (he is the first indigenous president) he has done a lot for Bolivia as President in the last 12 years and I believe will continue to bring notice to and improve the quality of life for the majority population of Bolivia who are indigenous.
Despite the fact that Tarija has the second largest reserve of natural Gas in Latin America, according to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) World Fact Book, Bolivia’s population is now close to 11 million and ranks at or near the bottom among Latin American countries in several areas of health and development, including poverty, education, fertility, malnutrition, mortality, and life expectancy. On the positive side, it seems that more children are being vaccinated and more pregnant women are getting prenatal care and having skilled health practitioners attend their births. Bolivia’s income inequality is the highest in Latin America and one of the highest in the world. Public education is of poor quality, and educational opportunities are among the most unevenly distributed in Latin America, with girls and indigenous and rural children less likely to be literate or to complete primary school. Bolivia’s lack of clean water (absolutely everyone, rich or poor, boils their water from the tap) and basic sanitation, especially in rural areas, contributes to health problems.
Dominicans in Tarija, Bolivia
Our Dominican community in Tarija is small but very active with only three, myself, Sr. Patricia from Argentina and Mariel a young student from the countryside in Tarija. Mariel is with us because she can’t afford accommodation while at the University of Tarija (studying Forestry) so she is living with us for the duration of her degree. Sr Patricia has been in Bolivia for 12 years and has extensive experience working on projects such as Education for Peace and running and working in the Diocesan Human Trafficking Office.
Ministry of Health
My own mission project emerged from a chance encounter with a colleague/friend of Patricia’s. I had only been here for a week or two and he called Patricia to ask if I could have a look at a post op appendix wound that had become infected. I managed to treat it successfully and it turned out he had a nephew who was a young doctor working for the Ministry of Health and he was looking for a nurse to help him. This is a new government initiative to collect heath statistics and reach all families and communities in rural areas who previously had little contact with any health provision.
Dr Daniel Lima (from Tarija) trained in Havana, Cuba the largest medical school in the world called ELAM – Latin America Medical School which was set up specifically to train and give scholarships to people from very poor countries who show academic promise. The idea is that they are trained to work with the least equipment and are taught how to treat people in the most basic conditions. It is a fully accredited regular medical school and graduates are expected to give their skills in the first few years back in their own communities working with the poorest of the poor. Daniel told me he would like to be a Heart Surgeon in the future but in the meantime he is happy working very hard among his own people.
The Clinica de Salud (Health Clinic) is a small room inside a another charity complex compound and is open in the mornings from 7.00am –11.00am for people to come and see the doctor and then from 11.00am – 2.00pm we go out together on a motorbike to the rural areas in the mountains. We do regular visits to families and call in on new families to offer a full health check and let them know about the free clinic. I assist Daniel by taking blood pressures, giving injections etc and this very often happens by the roadside – so I can see how working with very little comes into play. On one visit we had to use the motorbike as a examination table to check out a little girl who had a parasite. Mostly the health problems are connected to poor water hygiene, so parasites abound along with diabetes, and malnutrition high on the agenda. This is a very poor part of Tarija and lots of people live in very basic conditions. The WHO (World Health Organisation) suggests that extreme poverty creates ill-health because it forces people to live in environments that make them sick, without decent shelter, clean water or adequate sanitation. The people of Tarija, Bolivia are strong and resilient. They are fantastic to work with and have a strong cultural identity which they extend to everyone around them. They love fiestas and at a moment’s notice will sing and dance the night away.
I have been welcomed by everyone I have met with open arms. It is my honour and privilege to serve here as a Cabra Dominican Missionary for the next 2 years.
“We travellers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark…
The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.” Wendell Berry, selection from “Sabbaths, 1999”