Here in Bolivia we enjoy lots of sunshine, but the sun does not shine equally for everyone. Doña Evarista and her husband, Don Sabino, were subsistence potato farmers when we met them at their home in Sachacaymane, an indigenous Quechua community of 16 families located in the Tacopaya municipality, at an altitude of about 11,500 feet in the Andes Mountains.
Last fall, when Sabino became ill and suddenly died, Evarista was left by herself to raise six children, ages 2 to 13. The two eldest, Genoveva and Octavio, have severe hearing impairments. Through our social inclusion project, we have been teaching sign language to them, their family, classmates and teachers. We also provide educational support for Evarista’s 9-year-old son, Gustavo, who has an intellectual disability.
To get to school, the children need to ride an hour and a half to two hours each way on a hair-raising, steep switchback mountain road with sharp turns, much of it one lane only.
Along with all the challenges of raising six young children, Evarista did not have the physical strength to cultivate potatoes. “My biggest need is to feed my six children,” Evarista told me through a Quechua interpreter. She explained that she has been trying to earn money by buying wildflowers from her neighbors and reselling them at the open-air market in Pongo. “Sometimes I make money, but sometimes I lose money,” she said.
Life is a struggle for Evarista, yet she continues to put one foot in front of the other. I admire her commitment to staying in the countryside and not migrating to the city in search of a better life that often isn’t really any improvement. When I meet with her family, I hear the cry of the poor. I can’t help but feel a Christian responsibility to give her a hand up.
Recognizing that poverty is both a cause and a consequence of disabilities, we assist people like Evarista to help themselves and their families by guiding them in methods to improve their incomes, get educational assistance, obtain access to health care and to know and exercise their rights.
We recently coordinated with a parish agricultural expert, Victor Teran, to visit Evarista and see how she could improve her farm income. Victor determined she could do that by raising medicinal plants and vegetables to sell to urban dwellers.
We met with the local community leader, Don Sebastian, who agreed that the other 15 families would help Evarista to cultivate the new crops and share with her their annual potato crop.
We discovered, however, that this year the yield on all the fields in the community was in danger. During the dry months from March to December, everyone receives water through an irrigation system fed by a natural spring, but in January heavy rains washed away large portions of the trail that supports the pipes coming from the spring.
In March, Victor, Sebastian and I, along with Ted Miles, Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ executive director who was visiting, inspected the irrigation system. It was greatly damaged.
To restore the pipeline and carry it for about 500 meters and across a ravine, Sebastian and his fellow farmers agreed to provide the manual labor and to pay for one-third of the cost of the new pipes, trails and connections. One-third of the cost is to come from the local government, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ donors are contributing the remainder.
The repairs will also allow for the annual dismantling and safe storage of the pipeline to protect it from future landslide damage.
Once the irrigation project is completed, Evarista plans on putting in her new crops. “I could grow my own flowers, herbs, apples and other things, and I could feed my children,” she said.
Meanwhile, Genoveva and Octavio are being included more in their classrooms as their teachers and some of their classmates learn sign language. “They now go to school happy,” Evarista said, “and they come home happy.”
Featured Image: Filo Siles, who with her husband Joseph Loney serves with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Bolivia, gives school supplies to Evarista (standing) and her children. (J. Loney/Bolivia)