I’ve grown extremely fond of Bolivia over the last 12 days. I feel sad that its been such a short trip as friendships have been made and yet again I will be leaving a piece of my heart in another country.
It’s been a real privilege to see some of the work that Mosoj Yan do with street children here. They (and their many friends) are warriors in the fight against poverty and being around them has been nothing short of inspiring. I haven’t stopped hearing the phrase “we’re building relationships” since I got here, which is music to my ears. It echoes everything I have seen and understood about poverty over the years.
There is a wealth of history and culture in this place and I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learnt of the story with you (a very simplified version, I’m sure)…
In the early 1950’s a new government came into power in Bolivia. In an effort to better support those living in poverty they initiated a land reformation, increased access to education and gave around 300,000 people jobs working in the newly nationalised tin mines. For a while this brought about positive change, but unfortunately these mines were as good as empty when they were nationalised, and empty mines don’t produce money to pay salaries. The price of tin decreased and the expenditure on salaries increased and so, in the early 1980‘s, the economy collapsed and hundreds of thousands of jobs were cut.
A tremendous opportunity to develop and export the mass of natural produce from the country was sadly overlooked and people were left to find their own way. Facing poverty once again, with little assistance from the government, many took to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to dull the pain – and so began the great depression in Bolivia. Many who did try to harvest the land soon found that growing and selling coca was the fastest way of making an income and as a result the drug business rapidly grew – to date Bolivia has one of the highest rates of cocaine production in the world. Husbands moved away to try to provide for their families and in their absence many a step-dad entered the scene. This change in the family structure massively increased the rate of abuse of the children, and in response to this abuse many children took to the streets. It’s estimated that there are around 3,700 children and adolescents living on the streets in Bolivia and roughly 60% of them are reported to have left home due to physical abuse.
In a culture where belonging is vital, these children left what was supposed to protect them and fled on mass to the city streets, working and begging for survival.
Bolivia is part of the majority world that functions within a culture based on “collectivism” (as opposed to “individualism” which is the culture of most developed nations). The heart of collectivism is the group. Simply put, you cannot survive on your own, you don’t even try to, you are heavily dependent on others, and your family – by which I mean your incredibly extended family – are the most important thing you have. The premiss of this culture: “I belong, therefore I exist.” If you do not belong, then you do not exist; in your group you find security, identity and acceptance, and to be without that is to have nothing.
So these children take to the streets, feeling rejected by those that were supposed to protect them and bring them life, trying find a new place to belong; a new group in which they find their identity, a safe place, and somewhere they are accepted no matter what they do. Their commitment to each other is strong. This group culture overrides all other common values (of which, it would be fair to say, they had few to begin with – they were brought up without much food or water, so how much less a set of moral standards to live by). Any behaviour or action is acceptable if it for the sake of your group – they are protecting you and it is your responsibility to protect and provide for them. Stealing, lying and cheating becomes ok because you are looking after those who have looked after you.
It’s at this point that I understood once again the need for- and purpose of- building relationships. You cannot convince someone that there is a better life than the one they’ve grown accustomed to on the streets or grown up with, because the idea of doing life outside of their group is inconceivable. You are asking them to step away from the patterns of their family, their security, their identity, the people who have taken them in in their time of need. These groups have become everything to them and no other bond is stronger.
So people like those working with Mosoj Yan invest in building relationships and learning to love each girl individually. They spend time with them, get to know them, come alongside them. They do nothing to them, but everything with them. Almost without realising it the girls are being invited into a new group, a new family, a new identity. It is a group where there is safety, hope and a chance at a brighter future. The change of heart takes time, it often feels like two steps forward and one step backwards, there are no quick wins, no easy solutions – but they are creating life-giving relationships and overtime they are seeing restoration stories take place.
I’m grateful, as ever, for the opportunity to travel and meet new people, share more stories and have my mind and heart blown wide open once again.
I’m sure I’ll return.
(p.s. Credit and thanks to my wise friend Mauge. Sharing stories and dreams over good food was one of the highlights of my time in Cochabamba. I’m grateful for you.)