Saturday, June 7, 2008
With the ambulantes
This morning we had a presentation from Katherine Ledebur, the director of the Andean Information Network. I had asked her to bring our students up to date on the current political and economic situation in Bolivia – no small task, but Kath did a great job taking us from the collapse of the Goni administration through the election of Evo Morales, the Constituent Assembly, and the emerging autonomy movement in the country. She also gave us a lot of information about the coca trade and the US “war on drugs” in Bolivia, which will prepare us for our visit to the Chapare next week.
In the afternoon, while some students had Spanish class, I went with Group B (Yury, Jacob, Amy and Carolyn) to meet the ambulantes, the group with which they are going to do research and service. The ambulantes are ambulant market vendors who sell on the streets and sidewalks of Cochabamba, without benefit of a roof over their heads or a permanent place from which to sell. Nevertheless, they make up a large part of the informal economy of Bolivia, which by some estimates employs up to 70% of the country’s working population. The ambulantes suffer abuse at the hands of police and municipal officials who continually harass them for selling on the street (technically illegal in Cochabamba); from the owners of stores and fixed market posts who chase them away; from thieves who rob them of their meager wares; from pollution and bad weather and traffic on the city streets. Many of the ambulantes earn about 10 or 15 bolivianos (about 2 dollars) per day, and have perhaps 50 to 100 bolivianos worth of capital to their name.
A particular problem for the ambulantes, as the leader of the group told us at our meeting yesterday, is the lack of any kind of childcare facility for parents who work on the streets. Many of the ambulantes are single mothers, who for lack of a better alternative have to take their young children with them into the streets to sell. These children get filthy and sick playing in the streets, or get hit by cars or trampled by pedestrians. Some mothers tie their children to their carts, so they can’t wander off and get in trouble. This is a grim situation, and we have agreed to work with the ambulantes to create a plan for a childcare center that would help to alleviate this problem. Such a center would be a complex and expensive proposition, but our students are eager to engage the task and to try to find ways to make it work.
In addition, our students will be working with the ambulantes to make videos of their lives and work, and to create a website that would help them to publicize their situation to the outside world. Using our video equipment and in collaboration with our students, the ambulantes will learn how to shoot and edit video and design a website, so as to shape the public perception of themselves and their profession.
The ambulantes received us with warmth and friendship. For people who are ordinarily reserved around outsiders, they greeted us with open arms and many elaborate speeches of welcome and appreciation. I hope we can live up to the expectations they have of us, and actually do something positive through our service. I also hope that the students will learn something about this population, and what it means to be poor, indigenous, and illegal in Cochabamba. From what I have observed, I think the process is already underway.