Yes, there are Quakers in the Andes—lots of them. And, yes, they have aspirations. Working with them, as a Quaker myself, has been an intense and rewarding experience. The reward comes partly because they are very poor (annual family incomes are often below $1,000, almost always below $5,000) and have survived centuries of oppression and exploitation, which makes them quite different from Friends I know in the United States and United Kingdom. And it comes partly because their lives highlight for me one difference between aspiration and ambition. My experience with ambitious people is that they are often grumpy, generally aggressive, and tend to take for granted what they receive. The aspiration of Andean Friends, on the other hand, tends to be gentle, joyful, and accompanied by gratitude for what they receive. Their poverty is different, too, since their gratitude is accompanied by a sense that only they themselves can improve the quality of their lives.
Friends Journal published an article by Pam Barratt in February 1999, in which she described two projects she and her husband, Ken, had initiated with Quakers in Bolivia and the UK: Quaker Bolivia Link (QBL) and an annual Quaker Study Tour (QST), which brought about 20 Quakers from the UK and, eventually, the United States to tour Bolivia and visit recipients of grants from QBL. That article inspired my wife, Anneliese, and me to join the fifth tour of QST in 1999, and I have returned to Bolivia most years since then, for a total of seven trips. A lot has happened in that time. Quaker Bolivia Link has expanded its work and strengthened its administration; Bolivian Quaker Education Fund (BQEF) has entered the picture to complement the work of QBL; and an Aymara Indian with a peasant background was elected President in December 2005, giving new hope to the indigenous people of Bolivia.
QBL and QST
Quaker Bolivia Link’s second name is "A Quaker Response to Poverty," and its mission is to reduce poverty in Bolivia. It is Quaker in the sense that it was founded by Quakers, its board members are mostly Quakers, and it tries to operate by Quaker principles. It is not, however, under the care of any Quaker meeting or organization, and it is secular in its program work.
While some of its beneficiaries are Quakers, it is because they are poor, not because they are Quakers. Because its work is nonsectarian, QBL has been able to tap sources outside the Religious Society of Friends. In recent years it participated twice in the Alternative Gift Catalog, raising some $80,000 for greenhouses and wells in the Bolivian altiplano. Since I left the board at the end of 2001, QBL has tightened the administration of its grants by opening an office in La Paz, Bolivia, and strengthening its staff. There are now five staff persons in La Paz and two in the United States.
Quaker Bolivia Link works largely on the altiplano, at elevations between 13,000 and 16,000 feet, though there are several projects in the Sorata Valley (8,000 feet) and a couple in or near Coroico (4,000 feet). Its aim is to reduce the poverty of small, local communities. One motive for this focus on helping people live better in the country is to reduce the desire to move to the city. The gratitude and joy in these small communities when they receive aid can overwhelm a visitor. It is partly the contrast with unfulfilled promises of government officials and partly the concrete practicality of the grants.
Greenhouses, for example, improve both health and income, as do irrigation and drinking water. The weaving/knitting collective in El Alto, Las Gregorias, where 13 women who still live in the country come to make shawls and sweaters, is a real inspiration, both because of the quality of the women and because of the quality of their work. Raising chickens and guinea pigs and fish (brown or rainbow trout for the La Paz market), and improving cattle breeds for milk production, show the range of aid provided. As a matter of policy, QBL makes grants only to groups and does not fund educational or religious projects.
Quaker Study Tours and Quaker Bolivia Link grew up alongside one another, and though QST is now independent, the travelers in QST regularly visit QBL projects, guided by QBL staff who can explain their challenges and achievements. Quaker Study Tour groups generally also meet some of the scholarship students funded by BQEF. Through their encounters with the indigenous Bolivian recipients, Friends from the U.S. and UK are often motivated to support efforts to meet the indigenous aspirations.
Besides the 30,000 Quakers in Bolivia, there are some 5,000 Quakers in Peru. As in Bolivia, most of them are Aymara Indians. There is just one yearly meeting, INELA-Peru, with two geographical sections, the altiplano and the coastal. The altiplano section is centered in Ilave and other cities on or near Lake Titicaca, where you find the church office, two schools, and the beginnings of a seminary. The coastal section is centered in Tacna, Peru’s southernmost city, where there are five churches, all built within the last 35 years—and all still in the process of construction. All the families I met in Tacna had migrated from the altiplano and thus retained the Aymara identity. As in Bolivia, Quakers belong to the indigenous population rather than to the elite, though some are moving into the middle class. As in Bolivia, their schools need an infusion of funds and their young adults need scholarships to enable them to pursue degrees and certificates to become professionals. But the Peruvian Quakers are more isolated than those of Bolivia. Quaker Study Tours do not visit them, QBL does not work there, nor does BQEF, and Friends in Tacna said in November 2005 that Clémence Mershon, a member of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting, and I were the first Friends from the North to visit them in seven years. So, Peru is a ripe field for Friends with a passion for Quaker travel and service.
BQEF’s Beginnings and Growth
Bolivian Quaker Education Fund is religious in its mission and its organization as well as in its motivation. It grew under the care of Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting and is in the process of becoming an affiliated organization of FWCC Section of the Americas. Its beneficiaries are Quaker individuals and Quaker schools in Bolivia, and its mission is to strengthen relations between Bolivian Quakers and Quakers in the North. BQEF is therefore not in competition with QBL, but rather fills a niche that QBL has deliberately left open.
BQEF was incorporated and made its first bank deposit in 2002 after raising $5,000 as seed money. In 2003, it funded 15 higher education scholarships for Quaker young people, and Bernabé Yujra became a half-time staff person, administering the scholarships and organizing other projects. Quaker volunteers from Guilford and Haverford Colleges and Westtown School helped strengthen the English teaching in Bolivian Quaker schools. We raised $20,000 in 2003, enabling us to increase the number of scholarships to 25.
The following year, however, was challenging. Bernabé Yujra had given up his part-time teaching job at a secondary school in La Paz so that he could devote all of his time to BQEF, which seemed to fulfill a dream he’d had for years. Bernabé had a vision of three important contributions of the BQEF work:
- Giving hope and opportunity to Quaker youth;
- Giving the Quaker schools a better chance of becoming models and examples;
- Providing activities in which the Bolivian yearly meetings can cooperate rather than compete.
The vision of Bernabé has been central to the development of BQEF. But the increasing activity in Bolivia meant that administrative and fundraising work in the U.S. kept falling behind and finances became very tight. In the late spring of 2004, the BQEF board made a leap of faith and contracted with Vickey Kaiser of Fredonia (N.Y.) Meeting for various coordinating services. That initially added significant strain on the finances, but Vickey secured $8,000 in grants, raising the total income for the year to $35,000, and we gave a sigh of thanks.
With Vickey and Bernabé as staff and with project grants in hand, 2005 was a year of expansion. BQEF raised the number of scholarships to 35 and established computer labs in all three Quaker secondary schools in the La Paz-El Alto urban area; two teachers from Abington Friends School gave a workshop (with 70 participants!) on Quaker pedagogy based on that of the Friends Council on Education (FCE); and the number of contributors doubled, with contributions reaching $69,000. At the end of the year, it felt like we were really on our feet. The budget for 2006 called for doubling again the number of contributors, with contributions topping $100,000. Through the first nine months of 2006 contributions were slightly behind budget, but there had been 51 new donors.
During 2006 we initiated the following new programs:
- A Bolivian Quaker English teacher, Emma Condori, had an internship (from mid-January to mid-February 2006) at Westtown School, following a ten-day visit at Abington Friends School.
- English language labs were installed in three Bolivian Quaker schools.
- The computer labs established in 2005 were upgraded.
- Additional classes in both English and Computer Studies were offered in all three Quaker schools for the upper three secondary classes.
- Bernabé Yujra visited the United States and gave presentations at Friends Council on Education, Morningside Meeting, North Pacific Yearly Meeting, and the Friends General Conference Gathering.
- The Sponsor-a-Scholar program was introduced.
- Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops were offered in Spanish in La Paz to participants from all three major yearly meetings—two workshops in January and three in June.
- An internado (supervised student residence) was established in Sorata by Quakers from Pallcapampa so their high school students could avoid the two-hour walk each way between home and school.
The highest aspiration for hundreds of Bolivian young adult Friends is professional training or a university degree. From the beginning, Bernabé Yujra made it clear that the top priority among Bolivian Friends is to provide scholarships for post-secondary studies for young Friends who have completed all the academic requirements but lack resources. Even at a state school where there is no tuition cost, expenses can be prohibitive for families whose annual income is under $1,000. Most of the BQEF scholarship recipients are already enrolled in a post-secondary program but have been proceeding at such a slow pace that it would take them 10 to 15 years to finish. The scholarships are gender-balanced, which is not true of the Aymara culture in general, and they are open to Quakers from the three major yearly meetings in Bolivia. Inquiries at the three yearly meetings lead us to believe that there are at least 300 such young Friends, so offering 35 scholarships is only beginning to meet their aspirations.
I found out about the high priority for education among Bolivian Friends before BQEF was formed. In 2000, I learned that in a largely Quaker community near Coroico, a successful chicken project resulted in 30 children going to school, ten more than the year before. The next year, I visited the Sorata Valley, north of La Paz, a regular stop on the QST and the site of nearly a dozen QBL projects. Sorata is one of the first communities in Bolivia to have a Friends church, established in the 1920s, and there are Quakers living in the town itself as well as in other outlying communities. One of the outlying communities, about a two-hour walk from town, is Pallcapampa, which I visited on all of my first three trips to Bolivia—in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Pallcapampa is predominantly, though not exclusively, Quaker.
On my third visit to Pallcapampa, we had lunch at a Friend’s home. Afterward we resumed a meeting with most of the families represented. The community president and our luncheon host, Ernesto Choque, began the afternoon session by sharing with us some of the dreams of the community. First on the list was scholarship assistance to enable younger members of the community to get the skills necessary to help the community improve itself. Such help is now available through BQEF. Three students from the Sorata area have received scholarships, and the two who are continuing this year, Benito Jallurana and Loida Cutipa, show great promise of leadership. Loida (from Quichiwachini) is one of the two young teachers who visited the United States in the summer of 2001, and Benito (from Pallcapampa) conceived the internado and is overseeing its operation.
In his report to Friends Council on Education in June of 2006, Bernabé set us the goal of awarding 100 scholarships a year by the year 2010. That is nearly three times the present number, and we will have to at least double the level of contributions in order to achieve it. But with the continued support of Friends, it is no more impossible than the dream of Ernesto Choque in 2001.
PAV is the Spanish abbreviation for the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Apart from minis (half-day or one-day introductions to AVP), the first Bolivian workshops were given in 2006, two in January and three in June, and there is now a core of facilitators in the country. It constitutes a new sort of Quaker presence. As Jens Braun has reported:
There was a clear sense among participants of a new perspective from which to view conflict, and substantially more options at their disposal in how to react nonviolently and with self-respect. Upon arrival [in June], a number of participants commented on how the first workshops changed them, or how others had noted them as behaving differently.
"Now when my husband gets angry I just listen to him and try to stay calm so I can talk to him later when he has cooled down."
"My sister couldn’t believe how I’d changed and started teasing me about my adjective name [AVP workshops participant attach to their names an adjective that begins with the same letter as their first name: Delightful Deborah, Hilarious Harold]. After some time I confronted her gently but directly and she has stopped teasing."
Much of AVP thinking is quite new and substantially different from Bolivian cultural norms. For example, one discussion about punishment of children revealed that no participant had considered any way to raise good children other than by punishing them for being bad. The possibility of loving the good in children, teaching them not to lie by not lying to them (even "white" or "merciful" lies), and the vision of decision-making through true consensus left participants wide-eyed and excited. One participant from the Basic workshop in June said, "I’m supposed to work Saturday mornings and wasn’t going to come to this session. But I felt drawn to this like a magnet—I told my boss I wasn’t coming to work because I had to be at the workshop."
In our workshop discussions we frequently saw vestiges of the former cultural norms such as attitudes on how to raise children and subdued mentions of the power of the pastors in the local churches. There was no question around the lunch table that what AVP had to bring was not only a very welcome alternative to much of what participants experienced on a daily basis, but was something they very much wanted to share and communicate (to others) as an alternative to a system they found highly destructive to self-esteem and mutual trust.
Transforming Power, as they experienced it, was not a cultural imposition from outside, but rather a revelation of values and truths they found to be a very compelling alternative to violent aspects of their lives.
The past year has seen a vast increase in inquiries about doing volunteer work in Bolivia, and BQEF is reviewing its guidelines. In July, Bernabé Yujra wrote of BQEF volunteers:
These visits are greatly strengthening the Quaker schools in Bolivia; the students take more interest in the English language when they get to know visiting students who speak Spanish. The teachers of computer studies also need some teachers from the Quaker colleges in the North to visit them to help improve their work, as with English; we hope that some volunteers can come in the next months or year.
Mission and Strategy
The mission of BQEF is to strengthen ties between Andean Quakers and those of North America and Europe through programs that enhance the educational opportunities of Andean Friends, nurture their service work, strengthen their schools, and tell Friends in North America and Europe about the mission and
Our strategy is to build two organizations, one in the United States for fundraising and communication, and one in Bolivia for devising and managing the programs. The need to set budgets in the United States gives us in the North undeniable power, but program details are decided in Bolivia and the organization there grows stronger each year. Both organizations will remain in close contact with each other. In the United States, BQEF started within New York Yearly Meeting, but it now has board members associated with five yearly meetings and is recommended for becoming an affiliated organization of FWCC Section of the Americas. In Bolivia we have not yet navigated the red tape necessary for becoming a legal entity (personería jurídica), but there are responsible committees overseeing scholarships, English, Computer Studies, and AVP, as well as a new one charged to study the overall educational needs of the indigenous people in Bolivia. Bernabé Yujra has proven a competent manager, a good judge of character, and an able negotiator. Both organizations still need to be strengthened, but BQEF has grown from infancy to young adulthood, and its solid, steady growth augurs well for the future. We in the North cannot fulfill the aspirations of Andean Friends; only they can do that. But we can help them.
Friends who wish to know more about the organizations mentioned in this article can visit QBL at http://www.qbl.org, QST at http://www.treasuresoftheandes.com, and BQEF at http://www.bqef.org.