Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Donde esta mi gringita?

Donde esta mi gringita? Donde esta mi gringita?

I couldn't escape the hospitality of the community of Cuchumuela-or the weathered chollitas and their bidones (container-could be an old gas can, water jug, ex-cooking oil vessel, etc) of chicha and huarapa. Too bad the electricity went out-otherwise I would probably still be there dancing and celebrating with everybody....

After several tense days in Cochabamba watching the political situation get better, get worse, get better, get worse, it was a refreshing change to be in the campo celebrating a finished water system. Even more meaningful was that I visited this community last year as they were beginning their water system and I was able to go back today to celebrate the life-changing event of having clean drinking water in the 200 homes of the rural community of Cuchumuela.

Cuchumuela is the "pueblito" of the municipality of Cuchumuela. Located at above 10,000 feet, we huffed and puffed up to the storage tank where the ceremony would take place. All of our local partners expressed their frustration at the current political turmoil and wanted to assure me that we were safe here in Cochabamba. Pausing for a sheep traffic jam, we arrived at the recently constructed tank. The strong afternoon sun in Bolivia beat down as we listened to the palabras of all of the local authorities.

Bolivians celebrate the completion of their water system like a major holiday-people cook for days, spend money to rent speakers and bands, and in Cuchumuela, everybody brings out their best chicha or huarapa. Huarapa translates roughtly to grappa, but it is a welcome change for the harshness of chicha. All of the local authorities give speeches, and I was erronesouly introduced as "la embajadora" of the USA-the US ambassador. Not a misunderstanding that I want to have these days, as the Bolivian president recently kicked out the Ambassador.

Following a communal meal of steamed potatoes, habas (big lima beans), meat, and llajwa (hot sauce), we chatted with some of the directors of the schools that are participating in the national level handwashing campaign. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of their own local initiatives to sustain some of the outputs of the handwashing campaign. Rural schools in Bolivia are extremely under-resourced in terms of human capacity and materials. Trying to provide teaching materials is such a struggle that things like soap and toilet paper fall aside. But, creative local initiatives in Cuchumuela are innovative answers to the age-old problem of sustaining school water/sanitation infrastructure and providing materials.

In the community of Villa Victoria, the school is collecting all of the plastic bottles, selling them, and using the money to buy hygiene supplies. In the pueblito of Cuchumuela, a meeting with the PTA turned into a compromiso-essentially a signed promise-that the parents are contributing 50 cents a month for the purchase of soap and toilet paper for their kids' school.

It's initiatives like these-creative local solutions so that kids can practice hygiene behaviors and celebrating something that most of us will never think twice about throwing a party-water coming out of our taps, that change lives. And in times like these, where the whole country is struggling with change and conflict, it is an honor to pour a little chicha to Pachamama, do-se-do with jubliant Dona Margarita, and as Bolivians say, "vamos adelante"-keep going forward.

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