Reaching Ancoma isn’t easy. It involves driving long hours from Lake Titicaca over a 14,000 feet pass, plunging down into a deep valley and then climbing a 15,000 feet pass – all on dirt roads.
Ancoma can only be reached by crossing this 15,000 foot dirt road pass
We reach the village exhausted, breathless with headaches from the lack of oxygen. There is a welcoming committee with dancing, speeches and an Andean pan pipe band. A leather skinned woman drapes garlands of gorgeous lilies round our necks, and we are showered with homemade confetti. They drag us to our feet to join in the dances – at this altitude our enthusiasm for dancing is limited. Children stare at us open-mouthed – visitors from some other strange world. Very few foreigners have ever been to Ancoma.
Ancoma has about 40 families. The houses are mud brick with straw roofs and dirt floors. The temperature drops below freezing every night of the year, yet there is no heating. The people live solely by rearing llamas whose fleece they trade with villages at a lower elevation where potatoes are cultivated. This is one of the poorest communities in the poorest country in South America.
I was there with Karen Lawrance from San Diego and Donald Holmes from the Scottish Highlands to inaugurate the village drinking water system which San Diego-based Quaker Bolivia Link had installed. Every house now has a concrete stand with a faucet bringing clear safe drinking water from a glacial melt stream. Families no longer have to walk a mile every day of the year over mountain slopes to bring buckets of water. The children of Ancoma will no longer be weakened by constant diarrhea and intestinal worms. This is the first rung in the ladder out of poverty.
The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth Light. We see our work as a Quaker response to poverty. If our Quakerism is focused on sitting in silence for an hour each week, composing minutes, and worrying over Quaker process then it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. William Penn back in 1692 wrote, “True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it…”
Every house in Ancoma now has a QBL water supply
Since 1995 QBL has installed 54 village water systems in villages like Ancoma, and has built over 500 greenhouses which are supplying healthy fresh vegetables in an area where malnutrition is widespread. We run a range of agricultural development projects, and have built and equipped a small hospital on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
Bolivia is a forgotten country – no wars, no earthquakes, no famine caused by drought. Just year on year of harsh rural poverty. The average Bolivian earns one fifth as much as the average Mexican. 90% of Bolivian roads are unpaved. 70% of women in the Andean villages are illiterate. Only one house in five in these villages has safe running water. Under president Evo Morales the nation is making admirable progress to confront this poverty, but the task is daunting and there is still great need for organizations like QBL which work small scale village to village. The solution is not huge national projects like dam building or exploitation of mineral resources – that are taken straight out of the country. Small is indeed beautiful, with water supplies, greenhouse construction, irrigation systems, animal breeding programs in individual rural communities.
QBL is not concerned with spreading the Quaker word. We work in villages regardless of their religion, and certainly don’t try to convert anyone. Indeed we have a deep respect for the indigenous beliefs which survived Spanish colonization and the forced conversion to Christianity that much of Latin America suffered. The Aymara language, beliefs and customs are deep and unique. When we install a village water supply we are helping to preserve that precious culture by combating migration to the city. In the squalor of La Paz and El Alto the proud Aymara heritage is lost in a generation
We are a small but very professional organization with expertise in rural development in the high Andes. Our team in La Paz is made up of native Aymara Bolivians who have worked their way through university and graduated in agricultural technology. They are giving back to their own people. This team works alongside the people in the villages. Together they explore what QBL can do for them, and what is feasible in that location. We respect their knowledge and expertise, and listen to them – they are the people who have survived for long generations in that hard environment. They may not be college graduates, but we can learn much from them. It is not the Aymara Andeans that are contaminating our planet and causing climate change.
There are countless development projects in the Third World which are broken down and lying derelict because nobody followed up – nobody returned to the village to check on progress and iron out problems. Millions of donor dollars wasted. Our QBL team returns to the project sites for at least three years after project completion. This is not a perfect world, there will always be glitches – a pipe fractures, a greenhouse has aphids, a group needs further training. For QBL it’s far better to have a few successful projects that run for many years than a long line of projects which look impressive in a report, but may be lying rusting and unused through lack of monitoring.
The next morning after our day in Ancoma the garlands of lilies were wilted and sad. Just where did those people up there at almost 15 000 feet get those lilies? I have no answer. A beautiful mystery. These are resourceful people we’ve learned to respect and love.
Ken Barratt, QBL Outreach Director