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Ayni and Community

After a month of q’oas, charlas, and scavenger hunts, the vast world of Bolivian culture is opening up and we are starting to make sense of its distinct communities. In doing so, I have found it helpful to think of things in terms of Ayni, a pre-Incan philosophy that represents the reciprocity between humans, nature, and the universe. Put simply, when you give something, you get something back, and when you get something you give something back.

There is no place where this concept has been more evident than in the small town of San Salvador. There we stayed for three days before embarking on our 7-months in Tiquipaya to help begin the construction of two rainwater collection tanks with an organization called Fundación Abril. San Salvadore is beautiful for its people who all share an optimistic vision of the town’s future. Five years ago, the residents came together from places like Oruro, Santa Cruz, and the Chapare to found and dedicate themselves to the success of this town. As is customary before construction, the workers at Fundación Abril and members of the community gathered for a q’oa, or ceremonial bonfire, to give thanks to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). As we all stood around the smoldering coca leaves and sugar emblems in the hole dug for the tanks, I learned that the people of San Salvador recognized their need for water and reached out to Fundación Abril asking for their funding and expertise, making them the champions of their own success. Ayni is at the center of this relationship. When an organization like Fundación Abril enters a community to build, the community provides hands to help with the construction. Thus, when they give, they receive.

After the second day of mixing concrete and cutting wire, I talked to Don Mario, the vice president of the town, and asked him about his community. He pointed outside the window to an empty patch of land in the distance and told me of his dream to build a beautiful plaza, and then he pointed to an unfinished brick structure next door that he hopes to transform into a high school. He said that together the men and women of San Salvador would work to build the structures for the good of the community and the community’s children. Again, giving and receiving. To me, that makes San Salvadore the epitome of Ayni.

Over the last month, I learned that community comes in many beautiful forms, and I have been inspired to think about the communities of which I am a part of and how I can give to them as they give to me. While we all have our differences, one thing we all have in common is this concept. Whether it is the Aymara of La Paz or the Quechua of Cochabamba, the Afro-Bolivians of Tocaña or the Cocaleros of Coroico, the Coordinadoras of the Water War or our group of Dragons, we all have the power to create change.