Bolivians love microfinancing — and so can you!

Monday kicked off the official start to our group’s whirlwind trip around Bolivia, as we visited five different projects working toward positive social action in the country and attended our first Rotary Club meeting/lunch with the members of Rotary La Paz-Sur (Sur = South). To fit in so much in one day, we were supposed to start promptly at 9 AM, but, like all good Spanish-speaking countries, Bolivian time is “flexible,” more “conceptual” than tangible. Which means no one was there on time, suiting me just fine. (Another reason I love countries like this so much.)

Once we did get started, we were knocked off our feet by all the amazing projects going on. First, we met with the microfinance and training organization, ProMujer. It focuses on advancing and empowering low-income women to learn how to start and manage their own business, as well as providing job training, help starting a savings account, and health (especially preventative health) classes for the women. ProMujer gave microcredit loans (average loan $240) to 80,000 women in 2009 alone (Bolivia’s population is 9 million), and helped 90,000 in total use savings accounts. I was just extremely impressed by their reach, their holistic approach, and their success. (Eg., Only 10% of Bolivian women get Pap smears annually but 30% of ProMujer’s clientele are doing it. A big deal when the cultural norm is curative, rather than preventative medicine.)

We then were whisked off to celebrate El Dia de los Niños (Children’s Day) festivities at Instituto de Rehabilitación Infantil, which is a center/home for physically disabled children. One of the Rotary Clubs was donating brand new wheelchairs to several of the smiling kids and adorable little babies in matching red and blue outfits.

While there, we met Sylvana, who’s one of the Bolivian GSE members visiting Seattle in May, and she tagged along with our group. She seems really cool, and has owned her own adventure tourism agency, Radical Rights, for two years. So if you want to risk a bike ride down “Death Road” with a 2,000+ meter change in elevation, she can hook you up.

We were also introduced to Matt, a former software engineer from the U.S. who got burned out, traveled the world, and ended up volunteering in the center’s prosthesis workshop trying to build a better, cheaper prosthetic leg/foot for the kids there. He’s using very, very basic materials and outdated/semi-functional machinery, but has some promising funding opportunities with the University of Texas.

Matt the volunteer

Matt emphasizes the pathetic fake limbs many Bolivian kids have to put up with right now. Am holding back inappropriate jokes about the competing workshops not having a leg to stand on. Whoops.

Take a look at the workshop, the fake legs, and his great work here: Bolivia prosthetics. And if you or someone you know wants to help, watch the below video for contact information and for a multimedia tour of the workshop and one of the lives this project is helping:

Next up: More celebrations of Children’s Day, this time at Colegio Boliviano Japones. Yes, a private Bolivian-Japanese School. (Just Bolivian kids, I was never quite clear on the exact connection to Japan … original funding? Founders?) Anyway, we crashed a clown’s magic show, saw someone in a Barney the dinosaur suit (for some of us, it was the second time in two days, but there’d be another sighting of a different Barney later on the streets of La Paz.), and got a lesson in making little Japanese origami boxes, in Spanish, naturally. We got a kick out of this and the super-enthused and bright kids there.

Of course we would see Barney in Bolivia

George and an origami expert

George learning from a young origami expert at Colegio Boliviano Japones

Lunch with Rotary La Paz-Sur (which was notably an all-male club) was very nice, especially when I joined the gentlemen at my table in a little lunchtime whiskey toast. But more interesting than that (what’s better than whiskey?) were two things. One: The mining professional and the road sign/civil engineer I was sitting with were both fascinated and perplexed by my attempted explanation (in Spanish) of Grist’s focus on climate politics, food, and bright, green city living. It’s hard enough explaining this in English, so I don’t blame them for being confused.

Two: Their companies were both sending people from their environmental departments to Evo Morales’ world climate conference in Cochabamba next week. Moreover, neither of them thought anything which would actually protect the planet and/or climate would come out of the conference. Watching the Copenhagen climate conference self-implode, it’s not surprising. Still, they both seemed to think this one would be a political platform for the socialist Bolivian government to make lofty and idealistic proclamations, mostly in opposition to Western capitalism and in favor of indigenous people’s rights. Those crazy lefties apparently want to revert to the good ol’ times known during the Inca Empire. Hey, if they want to worship their sovereign as the “child of the sun” and invest in solar power, I sure don’t have a problem with it.

But I digress in sarcasm. Post-whiskey, er, lunch, the group checked out Hospital Arco Iris (Rainbow Hospital, doesn’t it sound like a pleasant place to be ill?). Another fantastic organization, the hospital is of exceptional quality for Bolivia, and was founded by a crackerjack German priest who wanted to provide great medical care for anyone in Bolivia (whether you can pay all, some, or none of the bills), but especially the kids living in the streets. They reach these kids primarily though mobile medical units that also double as schools. They also focus on health, education, and nutrition for pregnant women, kids under five, and the elderly. Good people.

Hospital Arco Iris
Hospital Arco Iris ambulance

You could do worse than end up in an ambulance that looks like this one.

And, at this point in my unapologetically long and wordy post, you may be wondering why I called it “Bolivians love microfinancing …” Well, we rounded out the day at Swiss Contact, a cool organization run through a — yes — Swiss foundation that seeks to promote jobs and income in developing nations, such as, but not limited to, Bolivia. Anyway, they have a lot of microfinancing projects. Sidenote: If you don’t know what the heck microfinancing is, see Kiva’s excellent and quick primer. So we made a tangent delving into lots of cool things about what microfinance can do for disadvantaged but eager entrepreneurs the world over. It was pretty much the catchphrase of the day.

The focus of our meeting with Swiss Contact was on their expanding environmental projects in Bolivia, mainly in waste (education and outreach about the single wastestream coming out of Bolivia and gleaning the recyclables and compostables out of it) and in clean air projects. The clean air projects take an interesting stab at the issue, by specifically training Bolivian mechanics to better maintain, retrofit, and improve the efficiency of the public transit fleet there, which mainly consists of “mini-buses” and taxis. Both of which are comprised of converted secondhand Japanese cars that have had the steering wheel switched from the right to the left side. Not the safest. Also, not the most efficient vehicles.

There were several other exciting projects coming out of Swiss Contact, such as a climate change initiative in Cochabamba to retrofit the brick kilns to burn more efficiently (and maybe not use tires or “who knows” what else at night when no one’s watching, yuck). Also, unlike Seattle (cough, cough), part of La Paz has successfully banned single-use plastic bags in stores, which is excellent news for llamas and alpacas all over the Altiplano, who sometimes mistakenly eat the plastic bags and, well, it’s not a pleasant way to go. Ooh, ooh, and they’re preparing a proposal for a holistic “eco-building” initiative to notch up building energy efficiency and ramp up solar energy in a place thousands of feet closer to the sun than most of us. W00t!

A final note about Bolivian homestay family life: it’s been great! The conversations I get to have with my gracious host family are great for my Spanish skills and give me a slice of Bolivian life and culture I couldn’t get in a hotel. This includes helping 17 year-old Ernesto brainstorm Earth Day games for 11 year-olds. Environmental action Bingo, anyone? I was wondering if anyone outside of the U.S. actually did anything for Earth Day besides throw world climate conferences.

Also, look forward to a highly visual account of Tuesday’s fantastic trip to Lake Titicaca, which will be mostly an orgy of photos with captions coming soonish. There will be llamas and llama-likes!

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3 thoughts on “Bolivians love microfinancing — and so can you!

  1. Dounia says:

    Bolivian-Japanese School? Ask if it had to do with JICA, the Japanese version of the Peace Corps. They’re freakin everywhere, and they always have more money than Peace Corps volunteers…they probably could have built a school. Keep up the postin’!

  2. Sarah KB says:

    but no pics of llamas eating plastic bags, i hope.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Hey prospect! Thanks for including me with the link to this. Such an amazing opportunity and I’m so proud of you for applying on a whim. You inspire me to maybe apply to all thosesummer teaching opportunities that I always read about and mull over. I’ll keep following you and your adventures. Also looking forward to hearing more about ES Reunion #4 (it’s four right?)!!!

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