Project ‘Dragonfly’ supporting disadvantaged children, Bolivia
Lea Benk (2013, Psychology)
This summer, I spent five weeks in the town of Tarija in Southern Bolivia, working with the NGO “Educación y Futuro” (EDYFU) and helping the organisation’s work with disadvantaged children in its centre “La Libélula”. This was a time where I faced more poverty and hardship than I ever have before, but also got to know a country that has a fascinating nature and indigenous culture and extremely friendly and warm-hearted people. Working with children who had already experienced much trouble but who were still so appreciative and positive about their lives taught me more than I could have asked for before I set off.
Before I begin to describe my experiences there, I would like to take a moment to explain the organisation and the work it is doing. Bolivia is the poorest of all of the South American countries, and despite its many natural resources, it has to cope with many issues: Every second citizen lives below the poverty line, and child labour, violence and crime is widespread. EDYFU was founded in 1997 with the aim to promote education amongst the poorest. They have different projects running, including a shop that sells ecological and Fairtrade products, which are often produced by members of local communities. However, the project that I was most involved in was a centre called “La Libélula” which provides “apoyo escolar” – academic tutoring – to children in need. The overwhelming majority of these children come from an extremely disadvantaged and difficult background; many must endure domestic violence due to alcoholism, sexual abuse and are often not able to attend school regularly, as they must work to support their families financially. Therefore, what the centre aims to do is give them a secure shelter, encouraging them to study and continue schooling in order to fight poverty. Furthermore, children whose parents are either not capable of providing a midday meal or who work all day attend the “comedor” in which they receive lunch.
Life and Work in “La Libélula”
I arrived in “La Libélula” in Tarija on the 28 July and was introduced to the other volunteers from France and Belgium, who were also spending either some weeks or months there and who
welcomed me warmly. We lived in a shared apartment, which, measured by Bolivian standards, was luxurious – we had a kitchen, electricity and at times even hot water!
The next morning, it was explained what my work would consist of during my stay in the centre. From now on, I would work mainly in the morning, organising the tutoring programme, and help during lunch time in the dining hall. I immediately joined the other volunteers who at that time helped with the tutoring and was greeted by some shy children who did not dare to talk to me during the first few hours! They were aged between six and fourteen years, and those coming to us in the morning were meant to attend school in the afternoon. At one time, there were usually about eight children; they would arrive, and when being asked what their homework was, the standard reply would be “No tengo tareas!” – I don’t have any homework! However, when we would ask them to show us their folders, usually they did have something to do, and so we would nag and motivate until they would start their work. This was difficult at times, as many were unable to cope with the workload and some were not able to read or write correctly. Furthermore, especially the boys always preferred to play football and so convincing them to remain with us and finish their homework was a challenge. What I noted was that if I had been in their position and would have had to do the school tasks, I would not have enjoyed them either, as they were extremely tedious and repetitive. If children made mistakes, they would be punished by the teacher. For example, one eight year old boy was required to write one word five hundred times so he would not make any orthographic mistakes anymore!
Once the children finished their duties, they usually tried to convince us volunteers to play football with them, which is something that sounds easier than it is – due to the high altitude, I was barely capable of kicking a ball, let alone running around with a dozen enthusiastic boys. Despite this, our play sessions were always the part I enjoyed most, as it was a chance to not only nag and check on their work but to simply spend time with the kids. They were so incredibly grateful for every bit of positive attention. At times, this would make me sad; when a quick bit of praise would result in a child literally running around for excitement, it made me wonder how much positive attention they usually received.
At midday, some kids would leave and others arrive in order to receive lunch. The most important rule was that they had to wash their hands before the meal began, but it took me some days to have enough mental strength to enforce that, as they would always have creative excuses as to why they could not do so. The meal always consisted of a soup, a main meal, and a desert, and the first day I was surprised how much it was. Then, one of the other volunteers explained to me that at least for some children, this was the only proper meal they would receive all day, and from then on I understood why most were keen to eat everything. For me, however, it was a bit of a challenge to eat things like chicken feet (including their toe nails), given that back home I had been vegetarian…
During the lunch time period, only the volunteers and a cook were present to supervise about twenty-five children, but nevertheless, there was always enough time to chat to them and answer the many curious questions they had about my country and Europe. Surprisingly, but lucky for me, they seemed to love Germany as we had just won the football world cup against their rivals and “enemies”, the Argentinians. After lunch, we would distribute tooth brushes and tooth pastes to raise their awareness about personal hygiene. When new kids arrived, we sometimes had to teach them how to use them, as it was the very first time in their lives that they had even seen such a thing.
In the afternoons, I sometimes helped with some of the administrative tasks the social workers and the psychologist had to deal with, but often enough, I was free to take an old minibus into the town centre to explore its many markets and stroll around. Also, thanks to the connections the other volunteers already had established, I could meet up with young locals of my age and build up friendships, which was something that I very much cherished and appreciated.
One week before I left, we three volunteers were given a new task – without any unnecessary explanations, we were given a newborn baby that had been abandoned by her 15 year old mother. While the mother did reappear after a week, this meant that for several days, I spent the majority of the day carrying the little one with me, taking her into town with me, and tutoring the kids (who all preferred admiring her instead of studying) with her in my arms! I even spent the night taking care of her, getting woken up every hour to change diapers and feed her. This was something I definitely would have never expected, and sometimes felt incapable of looking after her properly. However, when the time came to say goodbye to her, it felt like I was abandoning my very own baby. It was similarly difficult to leave the centre and all my new friends behind when it was time to leave after nearly six weeks in Tarija. What was clear to me though was that it was not an “adios” but most certainly an “hasta luego”.
Working in “La Libélula” and adapting to the South American way of doing things was initially not very easy for me. Often enough I found myself thinking “if only it could be organised more coherently, with more structure…” However, I like to think that these weeks taught me first and foremost humbleness. What I found the hardest to realise and accept was that despite all our efforts, it was more than likely that the majority of these children would follow the path that was already set for them, not being able to escape poverty. The conditions they were born into made it so difficult to alter their lives that I assume that only few would be able to change their conditions. Nevertheless, giving them a secure shelter for the day and some positive attention is so worthy and necessary. They may not go on to study, but perhaps take something from it, even if it is only the habit of cleaning their teeth after a meal! For me personally, it was a time that allowed me to reflect upon my own perception of poverty, the means to fight it and one’s own limitations. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Trinity Hall Association for their incredible generosity. It was only through their support that I was able to go on this journey and have so many new experiences.