By Andrea Baker
Executive Director, WMF Bolivia
“Community… grows from [knowing] that we are alive not for ourselves, but for one another.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen
Our bodies jerk as we stop and start for each passenger along the road. It’s a bustling morning as cholitas with their pleated skirts and shawls climb in with babies and wares on their back. Businessmen scoot inside with manila folders in hand and schoolchildren in their neat uniforms fill the common, 15-passenger van.
“Haha, look at all this stuff, one says. “Let’s make room.” “You can sit here,” patting down the large agauyo on the floor, “And put your bag over there.”
The lady to my left knits intently with her tiny glasses slipping to the end of her nose. The air fills with wafts of coca leaves being chewed like tobacco and happy conversations in Aymara, their native language.
As a foreigner, I catch the sentiment of their complaints though, about the young man who wouldn’t give up his seat for the older one who must stand. It’s a public shaming, and the younger of the two sits with his head bowed in quiet rebuke.
The heavy door slides back and forth and a man with a cane struggles to close it tightly. I reach my arm over, but can’t slide the door from my angle either. “Help me,” I say, and we push and tug together until the door slams shut. “Juntos se puede!” I giggle with delight tapping his weathered hand. “Together, we can!” Spoken in jest, but referencing a historical political mantra of the poor: collectively we can overturn injustice, oppression and power! The bus laughs together and I feel at home.
This is one of the things I love about Bolivia, a shared sense of belonging, living in close relationship with the people around us.
Community is woven deeply into the Bolivian identity. Meals and get-togethers often linger for hours, with little more than good conversation and home-cooked food. Extended families meet together regularly. At social engagements, we share our hellos and goodbyes with every single person in the room: an intimate brushing of cheeks often accompanied with a hug and a handshake too. While passing a dinner party at a public restaurant, we offer a “Buen Provecho,” (similar to bon apetite), politely acknowledging our shared space, and even, in a passive way, breaking bread together.
With less access to technology, we’re forced to talk and barter with the vendor lady in the open market. Our hands brush hers as we exchange goods. And to secure the best prices and produce, we return to her the next week, and the following one. In return, she remembers our names and our preferences.
Once a foreigner critiqued the backward ways of the Bolivian people. With cell phone in hand, he approached a vender and filmed himself offering a clean sum of money to cover a day’s worth of goods. Rather than accepting his offer to enjoy a day off, the vendor refused and the foreigner balked, misunderstanding her client loyalty to those she knew would visit that day. People are valued above the most effective and efficient systems.
With all the time-saving conveniences in more developed countries, it’s tempting to fill the empty spaces with more activity. Yet isolation grows. Researcher and analyst, Brené Brown once told a story about a village where all the women washed clothes together down by the river. But when they got washing machines, there was a sudden outbreak of depression and no one could figure out why. The absence of community, time simply spent doing things together, had devastating effects.
Researchers say that feelings of loneliness affect the length of our life expectancy similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “Deaths of despair” related to suicide and addiction are reaching an all-time high, particularly among young men. And although tucked into pockets of America, there may remain a sense of community, the view from afar shows an ever-growing sense of lost-ness and isolation.
What then can we learn from the simplicity of Bolivia? For all that it may lack, Bolivia keeps me grounded. Sharing the mundane and the gritty with my neighbors is good for me. Overlapping pieces of life together highlights our shared humanity. And a slower interdependence with one other means that not only do others matter, but I matter to others as well.
I am grateful for that.