Quakers in Bolivia

What did I know about Bolivia? Practically nothing, just the few facts I had learned in high school half a century ago and a vague recollection of hearing someone say once that there were Quakers speaking a strange language on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I had made academic visits to Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Moscow, and I had lectured in both French and German as well as English in a score of universities in Europe. But I had never been to South America, and my high- school Spanish was now my fourth or fifth language at best. So I was hardly prepared for the experience and the leadings that flowed from the article by Pam Barratt in the February 1999 Friends Journal.

Pam’s article contained an announcement of the fifth Quaker Study Tour, 16 days in Bolivia. The power of the cover photo of an elderly Bolivian Friend drew me strongly toward the venture, and the very reasonable price (about $100 per day, including transportation from Miami and lodging) led me to sign up immediately. My wife, Anneliese, having read the article more carefully than I, was initially put off by the precarious roads of Bolivia, but some weeks later she signed up and got the last place on the tour. So on July 27, 1999, we met the other tour participants in Miami, took the overnight flight to La Paz, and began our 16-day adventure among Bolivian Friends.


Bolivia has a population of about 8,000,000, two-thirds of whom are indigenous peoples who over the centuries have been brutally oppressed and abused by the elite. The country is landlocked and ranges in elevation from the Amazon basin to Andean peaks of over 20,000 feet. Following its independence in 1825, it has had land taken from it by each of its neighbors, including a piece of Pacific coast taken by Chile, so that it is now about half its original size. The area is now a bit more than 1,000,000 square kilometers, slightly smaller than Alaska. It is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere (by per capita gross domestic product, which is perhaps $3,000). Nearly half the population remains rural and suffers from alarming levels of malnutrition, with 94 percent of households in rural areas unable to fulfill basic nutritional requirements, according to figures released in October 2000 by the World Food Program, a UN subsidiary. The largest cities are the capital, La Paz (1,200,000), the Amazonian agriculture and natural gas center Santa Cruz (1,000,000), and the burgeoning La Paz suburb El Alto (800,000). All the cities are growing very fast; El Alto, where the La Paz airport is located, is on the Altiplano and is said to be the fastest growing city in the hemisphere. Sucre (100,000), which used to share honors with La Paz as capital of the country and continues to house the Supreme Court, is a textile center with historical and architectural interest but otherwise now seems a bit stagnant. Cochabamba is a larger and much livelier city (500,000), about half as distant from La Paz. Oruro—like Cochabamba about three hours south of La Paz, but much higher—lies near the southern end of the Altiplano and hosts a project of Habitat for Humanity (as do most of the other large cities). Potosí, which was the largest city on the continent in the 18th century (200,000 then), is a mid-sized mining and tourist city in the southwest. Most of the cities are very high: Potosí and El Alto are among the highest cities in the world, between 13,000 and 14,000 feet; La Paz, which ranges between 10,500 and 13,800 feet, is the world’s highest (and no doubt steepest!) capital city, and Oruro is also over 12,000; Sucre, Cochabamba, and Sorata lie between 8,500 and 9,500 feet. Santa Cruz lies east of the mountains at less than 1,000 feet.

Roughly speaking, higher is poorer, and rural areas are poorer than urban areas. The rural areas of the Amazon basin are as badly off as the Altiplano, except for being warmer with abundant food. The Altiplano lies between 12,500 and 15,000 feet above sea level. The Aymara of the Altiplano belong to the poorest segment of the population in terms of income, health services, nutrition (especially protein intake), and education. Somewhat better off are the Quechua, the other very large indigenous people, with the non-indigenous elite (all those of European origin) remaining the dominant group economically and politically. Aymara and Quechua, as well as Spanish, are official languages in Bolivia. All together there are 23 separate ethnic groups, and the indigenous peoples in Bolivia make up the largest proportion of the national population of any country in the hemisphere.

There are about 40,000 Quakers in Bolivia, more than twice as many as in Britain and nearly half as many as in the United States. They are organized into various yearly meetings, of which the largest is Iglesia Santidad de los Amigos (Santidad), with headquarters in Achacachi; Santidad is said to have about 20,000 members and operates 30 schools (including 10 high schools), but it has no formal relations with Quaker groups outside Bolivia. Most of our contact with Santidad Friends was in the Sorata valley, about 3,000 feet lower than La Paz and the Altiplano. The two next largest yearly meetings, both affiliated with FWCC, are the Iglesia Nacional Evangélica de Los Amigos (INELA), with about 10,000 members (and nine high schools), and Amigos Central with about 5,000 members (one high school); both INELA and Amigos Central have their headquarters in La Paz. Most of our contact with INELA was in La Paz and the Altiplano. Most of our contact with Amigos Central was in Coroico, which is much lower, about the same altitude as Denver. Since all three of these yearly meetings have schools as well as churches, they have officers or committees concerned with education, social welfare, and development, through whose initiative and encouragement some projects funded by Quaker Bolivia Link have been developed. [See report on QBL on p. 19 —Eds.] Other Bolivian yearly meetings are smaller and, I believe, less well organized. Those whose names I know are Estrella de Belen, Union, and Seminario.

Quakers in Bolivia date from just after the First World War, as a result of missionary work by U.S. Friends. The 75th anniversary of INELA was celebrated in April 1999 at Amacari on the Altiplano, a gala affair held in three large marquees and attended, we were told, by 4,000. All the yearly meetings have programmed worship, with churches and pastors (mostly men, but there are a few women pastors in INELA). Sunday services often run for three hours, with much singing and with separate Bible classes for men and women; in one case there were frequent “Amen!”s. Prayers are generally very emotional, often ending with sobbing on the part of the one praying, which was sometimes solely a pastor and on one occasion the whole congregation praying individually. Both Santidad and Amigos Central sprang up from missionary work by Central Yearly Meeting, which continues (as best it can with only 300 members) to nurture Amigos Central. Both Amigos Central and INELA are affiliated with FWCC, but Santidad, although the largest of the yearly meetings, with as many members as there are in all of Britain, remains without external affiliation. There are a very few Friends in La Paz and Cochabamba who meet occasionally for silent worship.

All the Quakers we met in Bolivia are Aymara and are native to the Altiplano. Their culture and language are not only pre-Columbian but also pre-Incan. Many have remained on the Altiplano or on the steep slopes of the Sorata valley, but others have moved to La Paz or Santa Cruz or Cochabamba and are moving into the middle class. Their warm welcome and friendly smiles were time and again a pick-me-up for weary members of our tour group.


We met with Bolivian Friends in their churches three times, although at no time did we experience a full Sunday service. The first occasion was in Suriquiña, on the first Sunday of our trip. Suriquiña is a small and widely dispersed community on the Altiplano, and we stopped there an hour or so after the service had started, on our way to Sorata. The church, affiliated with INELA, is in a walled compound on a less fertile edge of the community, together with school buildings and a library. Men, women, and children came out to greet us, and we all then returned to the church, an unassuming mud-brick building with a flat, sagging roof. We were asked to stand in the front and were greeted with singing in Aymara and Spanish. We responded with “Dona Nobis Pacem,” following which there were prayers and short messages, punctuated by many strong shouts of “Amen!” We were shown around; the library is in great need of books, and there is a desire to replace rather than repair the church (small wonder, since they figure the replacement cost at $1,300). Then we were escorted into one of the classrooms where we were seated separate from local Friends (even from the pastors) and fed. Members of our group who could manage Spanish talked freely and easily with the Suriquiña Friends of all ages. One young man proved to be an agronomy student at a university in Santa Cruz. The friendliness and warmth of their welcome easily overcame the barriers of language.

The second meeting, also with an INELA congregation, was on Isla Suriqui, an island in Lake Titicaca. (It was from this island that Thor Heyerdahl flew local Quakers to Africa to build Ra II, a reed boat, from the totora reeds that grow in the shallows around the island. He then sailed Ra II across the Atlantic from Morocco to Brazil). All ages of men, women, and children took part in the service, as at Suriquiña. After one of the pastors asked the group to pray with him, he invited us all to make our individual prayers. The result was a moving scene of many individuals speaking aloud to God and sobbing visibly with their penance. It was National Independence Day (August 6) when we visited Suriqui, and the local Friends took time from their celebrations to worship with us (mostly singing and praying), feed us, and offer us their craft wares (textiles and boats and figures made from totora reeds).

The third meeting was in a church of Amigos Central in Coroico. As at Suriquiña, the church and the Quaker school are in the same compound, although in this case in an urban setting just a few steps from the main square. The church is upstairs on the street side of the compound, and there was a special called meeting on the Tuesday evening on which we were in Coroico. The headmaster of the school, Juan Miranda Calle, was also the organist and served as pastor for the occasion. He had one of the young women from the school preside at the service, during which he gave the sermon in very clear Spanish. Besides the sermon there were prayers and songs, but the service was less emotionally charged than those at Suriquiña and Suriqui.

Besides these church services, there were five other Friendly meetings worthy of mention. In Sucre, where we went upon arrival in Bolivia to get acclimatized at a mere 9,000 feet, we met with INELA Friends who had moved down (both south and lower in elevation) to this largely colonial city in the midst of Quechua territory. They have fixed up a large room in a private house for services and are hoping to build a church; the Friends are just a few families, but neighbors come to the services. Twice the women of our group met with local Quaker women, with those from INELA on our first stay in La Paz, and with those from Santidad during our stay in Sorata. These were not only memorable bonding sessions for the women on the tour but also productive with respect to women’s health issues. During our second stay in La Paz we met one evening with an impressive group of INELA Quakers who are professionals in the city, and who have recently formed the Comité de Servicio Cuáquero en Bolivia, modeled on Friends Service Council and American Friends Service Committee but not yet really up and running. It was a very different sort of group from others we met with, one whose members’ lives initially seemed more like ours. Unfortunately we did not get to substantive discussions, since the meeting began late, the introductions took time and had to be translated, and there was wonderful food waiting in the wings (the best chairo [Bolivian soup] we had on the whole trip). Finally, on our last evening in Bolivia we met with the handful of INELA Friends who occasionally have silent rather than programmed worship. These five meetings made a rich supplement to the church services, leaving us with a better feel for the diversity and strength of Bolivian Quakers.

Summing Up

No doubt our knowledge of Bolivian Friends remains superficial, but altogether the sampling left us with deep respect for the warmth, variety, initiative, and resilience of Quakers in Bolivia. It also left us with a sense of a bridgeable culture gap. Bolivian Friends have spiritual as well as material needs, and we were specifically asked for spiritual guidance by both the Santidad and the unprogrammed Friends. One Philadelphia Friend from last year’s tour sent down three copies of a Spanish translation of Fox’s Journal, but there remains a dearth of material in Spanish and almost none in Aymara. Since literacy is sometimes marginal, video material about the lives of stalwart Friends such as George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, and Lucretia Mott (and no doubt others) would be very useful. AVP workshops (there is already a manual in Spanish) might be another way to deepen understanding of Quaker ways, as well as to increase our meaningful interaction with these Friends.

I remain convinced that material aid is not enough. It hardly seems possible to think of ourselves as parts of the same faith if there is only minimal interaction. If there is to be significant interaction, I should think that it is we in North America who must travel, since we have 20 or 30 times as much money. We also need to learn Spanish, and perhaps Aymara, and then perhaps invite (at our expense, as FWCC already does) a few Bolivian Friends to spend time with us. Such initiative will receive a warm response. Among the thoughts I heard while in Bolivia were: that Pendle Hill should invite four Bolivian Friends for a three-month stay; that an Aymara nursing student (22 years old) would be delighted to arrange an excursion with young Bolivian Friends if young North American Friends are among the participants of the next study tour; that FWCC might pay for an Internet node or subnode (server) so that Bolivian Friends can get online without paying a monthly ISP charge ($15 to them is like $400 to us); that North American Friends help Bolivian Friends establish a Friends center in Cochabamba where visitors could acclimatize more easily to the altitude and which might be the venue for workshops and conferences; that Friends Council on Education and/or Quaker schools enter into supportive relationships with Bolivian Friends schools; that workshops on George Fox and other historical Friends be offered at one of the seminaries or theological colleges. It goes without saying that none of the face-to-face interactions will be easy, for the language, the distance, the expense, and the altitude are legitimate stops for many Friends. But I plan to return to Bolivia every year for at least a few weeks, to strengthen the ties I have made, to learn more about the needs that we might help to meet, and to search for other avenues of interaction for others to explore.

Overall the 16 days in Bolivia made a powerful impression. The country is interesting and the scenery at times spectacular, but the lasting impression is of the people, especially the Aymara Quakers. They are wonderfully warm and friendly people, whom we could not possibly have come to know without the Quaker Study Tour. I am greatly moved by the fact that they are Quakers, that they consider themselves Quakers, and that there are so many of them. That fact seems to call us to build wider and richer relationships, to search for spiritual community in spite of the cultural and linguistic differences.

Newton Garver

Newton Garver, a member of Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting, is a trustee of Quaker Bolivia Link. Plans are underway for another Quaker study tour.