This was my third trip to Bolivia as the enterprise part of medical missions led by Solidarity Bridge a non-profit started by an old friend, Juan Lorenzo Hinajosa. On this trip, 20 or so surgeons, nurses, doctors & anesthesiologists spent a week operating on and caring for the poorest of the poor. There were 43 surgeries done, 358 patients seen and a ton of medical supplies distributed.
Why Bolivia? Mainly because I was asked to come by my friend and see if I could provide some work for the poor. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world and the poverty particularly crushes the indigenous population, the Quechua and Aymara indians who have been maltreated for centuries.
The Wara Wara co-op we supporting during the last year, had a melt down towards the end of the year. Conflicts between the two major family groups over the sharing of the incoming work and money could not be resolved even with the mediation of a social worker we provided. Sadly, we had to disengage completely from the Wara Wara co-op and organize a new co-op with entirely different members. On this trip we assisted in the leasing of a workshop and financing of the sewing machines and equipment. Dharma fronts the money to purchase the fabric for each order and the co-op sets their selling price. Dharma continues to sell their products at little or no profit to provide the work for them. They have already shipped their first order to Dharma Trading and are working on the second.
Previously, we visited a crochet co-op. A group of women trying to earn a living making children's dresses with crocheted tops and fabric skirts. We spent the last year helping them to change the product so that it could be sold in the US market. We've now received the first shipment and you can see (and buy) the dresses on the Dharma web-site.
Part of the problem is Goodwill Industries, who sells the used clothing we donate to exporters who send it in huge containers to poor countries like Bolivia where it is resold at cheap prices which have destroyed the local textile industries. The co-ops are shut out of producing for the domestic market by the huge availability of cheap used clothing from the US. Pretty twisted!
The fourth co-op we are supporting is affiliated with a school about an hour outside of Cochabamba started and developed by a couple of nuns. This group of Aymara women has already been sending orders to Dharma and all is going well. The work we provide is importannt because the girls want to stay in the village with their families. Those that leave to find work in the cities are often taken advantage of and maltreated. I also learned something inspiring about the bravery and depth of faith of the nuns who go off to the farthest corners of the world, spend their entire lives living as the people they are helping do, with only their faith and commitment to rely upon, and in the end, will die and be buried there.
Pacemakers & Heart Surgery
There is a bug that lives in the houses of the poor throughout the Andean region. It sometimes bites people and injects a bacteria (I think) which slowly grows and makes its way to the heart over maybe 15 or 20 years and gradually weakens the heart until the person can no longer walk and eventually dies. It's called Chagas. The life can be saved with a pacemaker. Unfortunately, pacemakers and their implantation costs are totally out of reach for the poor. Solidarity has had a program of providing free reconditioned pacemakers in place for several years. This year the manufacturer has begun donating a very large number of new pacemakers. Our task is to now organize and finance the screening, distribution, tracking and reporting. This also enables a limitd number of open heart surgeries each year. When one thinks that each pacemaker represents a life saved, it's very cool!
The thing about places like Bolivia is that a small amount of money can have such a big effect. Sometimes when I listen to the news or after 10 hours in a cramped airplane seat I think "What's the point?" The world is a bottomless pit of need. Last time, someone rescued me with the starfish story.
A man is walking on the beach and sees a another man standing amid an endless number of starfish that have washed up on the beach. The man #2 is picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the sea. First man says " Why are you bothering? There's so many. It doesn't matter. You'll never rescue all of them." Second man says, as he flings another out into the sea, "It mattered to that one!"