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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

We Built a Greenhouse…Almost

The rural Aymara community of Enequella sits out on the barren, rolling hills of the Altiplano in between the cities of La Paz and Oruro, about three hours from each. We spent four days there this past week building a green house with the community in order to increase access to vegetables for the elementary school students there. However, our experience was not a smooth, picture perfect example of service. In fact, we almost left Enequella entirely, three days into our four-day stay without finishing the green house. Before I get to that story though, I need to provide some context.

The greenhouse project, which we were helping to complete was the brainchild of Doña Maria. Doña Maria is an Aymara woman who is probably in her mid sixties, although the fire in her eyes and energy of her spirit makes it hard to tell, who has dedicated herself to improving the lives of people living in communities similar to Enequella on the Altiplano. She runs an organization that undertakes initiatives to combat the issues facing these communities and it was through her organization that we were connected with the community in Enequella. Doña Maria and her daughter travelled to Enequella with us, partially to facilitate the project and also because we had contracted them to cook for us while we were there. On a side note, Doña Maria is a fantastic cook and some of my favorite moments during my time in Enequella were chowing down on her delicious soup or pasta stew in the little classroom in the elementary school, which we had converted into a kitchen, and talking and laughing with my fellow Bridge Year Participants and the instructors. Anyways, the important thing to know is that Doña Maria is one of the strongest people I have ever met who always speaks her mind, is unwavering in her convictions, and is unafraid of calling people out no matter who they are or what the situation is when she feels they are wrong. During our time in Enequella I got to witness her call out all the authority figures in the community at the same time.

We arrived to Enequella on Friday, September 15 at about 2:00PM, just as the grey sky that had been threatening rain all day began to release its first drops. The students in the elementary school had just finished up the school week and as we arrived they were leaving for the weekend. I definitely caught the word Gringo followed by something else in Spanish I didn’t catch and then laughter as we exited the bus and passed the students on our way into the school campus. Our accommodations included a mostly empty classroom, where we set up camp, another classroom where Doña Maria and her daughter slept and also where she cooked and we ate our meals, and access to the school bathrooms. The bathrooms were an experience in and of themselves, made up of a partially open outdoor outhouse that consisted of three “stalls” with shallow holes in the ground covered by plastic plates that you “flushed” by filling a bucket with a spigot and then pouring that bucket into the hole. It was all part of the experience however as we were not in Enequella to be comfortable, but rather to learn from the community and to help build a greenhouse with them. Thus, when it turned out that after two and a half days we had barely worked for three hours and had only interacted with 15 or so community members in a town consisting of more than 700 it was time to reevaluate the situation.

Doña Maria had signed a contract with the community leaders in Enequella in order to bring the green house project to their community and not to other communities with similar needs. In the contract, Princeton/Dragons would be responsible for purchasing the materials for the greenhouse and would provide the 7 dragons students and 3 instructors to work on the project. Enequella would transport the purchased material to the town, provide 20-25 workers to work with us on the project everyday and would work on the project all four days that we were there, including Sunday. However, by 4PM on Friday, Enequella was a ghost town and that is not an exaggeration. Besides the ten or so people who worked on the greenhouse with us and a few kids who we ended up playing soccer and hanging out with, the entire town felt empty. It was eerie and strange and unlike anything that our instructor Pedro or Doña Maria had ever seen. They couldn’t explain it. Furthermore, the elementary and high school directors and the leader of the community, who had signed the contract, were nowhere to be found. On Sunday, even the people who had worked with us for the short time we had worked could not be found so we didn’t work at all that day.  Sunday morning we had a long talk where Doña Maria voiced her frustration and anger that the community had broken the contract and her desire to suspend the project and leave the next morning. We decided to wait to make a decision until after we had met with the leaders of the community who had broken the contract the next day. Since we weren’t going to work though, we took, a micro bus that I swore was going to fall apart every time we hit a pot hole (there were constant pot holes) and a trufi into the city of Oruro where we ate lunch, toured the big church their, and went into the museum in the mine below the church. Besides the over six hours round-trip travel because the micro only went 10mph, it was an awesome experience.

On Monday we woke up and met with the leaders of the community, although not the Malkhu the actual leader of the community, and the elementary school director who had returned from La Paz (he hadn’t told anyone he wasn’t going to be in Enequella when we arrived and in the contract was supposed to have been there the entire time we were there). It was really interesting to witness the power dynamics in the community and between Doña Maria and the community leaders. She began the meeting by calling out all of the leaders and asking them why the town had been dead all weekend and why they had broken the agreement they signed. From there the meeting spiraled into a game of shifting the blame onto people who were there and onto people who were absent. In the end a compromise was reached in which we would stay and finish the greenhouse, but a new contract would be signed between Doña Maria and the school director, guaranteeing the use of the greenhouse shortly after it was completed and stating that the director had to send pictures of the greenhouse being used to Doña Maria and to Pedro. Doña Maria also continued to play hardball calling the director out for not working with us, which prompted him to change into work clothes and go out in the mud with us. She also ominously added when the meeting finished that she could drop by the community anytime and that she would to make sure the greenhouse was being used. The meeting concluded and we got to work, this time with a surplus of community members young and old there to help. The next 36 hours or so was a tiring blur filled with aching muscles from carrying and lifting adobe bricks, dust and mud everywhere, and the constant direction and cry of “Exacto” from Don Calixto the leader of the school PA and expert in building adobe structures. In between working on Monday and Tuesday were soccer games in which our gringo team lost and won, games and storytelling with kids from the community and between my fellow students/instructors and me, and sleep, which came very easily.

We were scheduled to leave Enequella at 4PM on Tuesday and we worked to finish the greenhouse up to the very end. When the walls were finally complete and the door was on all that was left to do was put on the plastic sheet that would form the roof and call it a day. Yet when we tried to put the roof on it wasn’t big enough…the maestros who had been directing the building of the greenhouse had made it too big. It was too fitting of an ending to what had been an extremely interesting experience. Besides the drama surrounding the greenhouse for example, on Saturday we watched as one of the community members slaughtered a sheep we had bought, then helped him butcher the sheep, and then ate that sheep for the next three days). Anyways, the community leaders plan on buying another plastic roof sheet to attach to the one they already have since they only come in one size and then finish the greenhouse, so hopefully that happens shortly. I am certain that Doña Maria will stay true to her promise and drop in unexpectedly to make sure that the greenhouse is being used so for the sake of the community leaders in Enequella I hope they finish the roof quickly and get to planting.

All in all, I would not call the experience in Enequella a failure even though in many ways it was set up to be. We did make some meaningful relationships with members of the community, especially a few teenagers who we played soccer with and who we spent a lot of time with when we weren’t working. We also learned a lot about power dynamics in indigenous communities and the invisible structures that exist in communities that we need to remember exist when entering into any unfamiliar environment. Learning is the most important thing we came away with and the reason we were in Enequella in the first place, to learn, through working with the community to build a greenhouse. Building the actual greenhouse was always secondary. I know that I will remember the knowledge gained and the lessons learned in Enequella moving forward during the rest of my time in Bolivia. I also know that I will take into account this experience at times in the next 8 months when things just don’t seem to work out the way I want them to and I will know that no matter what I will still learn something and take something positive away from those experiences. Well that does it for my recap of our time in Enequella. In more recent news, we have been exploring the city of La Paz these last few days, and I have grown very fond of the energy, architecture, and overall feel of this city. Tomorrow we leave on a five day trek in the Cordillera Real, which I am sure will produce some of the best memories and pictures from my entire time in Bolivia. So until next time ¡Adios!