Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Bolivia: how exactly have I ended up here?

Well, I think it's about time I wrote a blog to introduce you to Bolivs! I've been in Bolivia for a little over three weeks now, and so far it's going great. I will try and keep this as concise, yet informative as possible. Although three weeks doesn't sound like a long time, it's plenty of time to have gathered enough information to overload you all!

So, how and why have I ended up here?
study anthropology at Brunel University and I will be starting my fourth and final year this September. It's a year extra because the course allowed for two terms worth of placement. The first, was during my second year which is why and how I needed up in Ecuador for six months in 2012, and here I am now in Bolivia for the second placement! I found and chose my placements myself. The course requires you undertake the placements, but as for where and what, that's up to you! This second placement is what I hope to write my 10,000 word dissertation on for my degree.

I first inquired to an organisation that I found online about a project working with street children. They emailed me with info and also told me about a prison children project which was also available. I immediately researched prison children in Bolivia and was hooked. It was different, shocking, intriguing and sounded like a challenge. I was up for it.

Where do I work? 
So here I am! I'm in a lovely city called Cochabamba, working in a centre called La Casa de la Amistad (The House of Friendship). La casa provides support, health care, education and religious teachings to children and adolescents who live in prisons with their incarcerated parents, or who live with other family members due to having an incarcerated parent. Sounds crazy, right? I've just seen the arrival of three new children, which has taken the total up to 90 children, aged from four to around sixteen. The majority of the younger children live in the surrounding three prisons. I believe Cochabamba has four prisons in total. The fourth is a high security prison where children are not allowed to live, however, elsewhere in Bolivia, a high security prison doesn't stop children living in them. Opposite the centre is the San Sebastián prison for women and the San Sebastián prison for men. Around the corner is the San Antonio prison, also for men. Within both men's prisons, often whole families will live there. Therefore, it is not at all segregated to only containing men. Many of the young girls and mothers live inside the prisons where there is, unfortunately, sexual abuse, violence, awful language, overcrowded rooms, and of course, insufficient living, sleeping and studying environments for the children to thrive. The centre for them can often be an escape; somewhere to learn, receive help with homework, eat decent meals and be surrounded by good people who want to teach them a way of life that is very different to that of their parents, in order to encourage them not to go down the same route. 

At the weekend, I went on a hike to a lovely laguna, way up high above the city! This was a photo I took of the view over Cochabamba. The steep hike and exhaustion was worth it!

What are the prisons here like?
Get ready.....
They are pretty much like small cities. I haven't been inside one.....yet.....but from what I have read and from what I have been told by local people, they are unimaginable. Once convicted, you enter the prison where you have to then buy a room. If you don't have money, you sleep outside in the courtyard. Depending on how much money you have, you have the option of buying a room with a system equivalent more or less to one star rooms through to five star rooms. The prisoners have everything they need inside the prison to sustain themselves. There are restaurants and small shops, and most will work inside the prisons to earn money to buy the things they need. The prisons are run by the prisoners. There aren't really guards inside. The government is supposed to pay a small sum of money to each prisoner every day, but the day before I arrived here, I heard there had been a hunger strike as the government hadn't paid them for a few months. I walked past the men's prison the other day and saw a television in all the top rooms, with a few men just stood watching the world go round outside of their barred windows. Clothes hang outside the windows and in the courtyards. It's a whole new reality. 

View of San Sebastian mens prison from La Casa de la Amistad. The beds that you can see are made by the prisoners and sold.

What do I do?
I am mainly a support for assisting with their homework. The children who attend school and college in the morning, will come to the centre in the afternoon, and the children who go to school and college in the afternoon, will come to the centre during the morning. I work with the middle group and the oldest group, so with children aged from about seven to sixteen. I've also had to take a few of the children to the dentist for their check ups, and have accompanied a group back to San Antonio prison at the end of the day. 

It's tough seeing the reality here and how living in a prison is just a normal part of every day life. Many children are born in prison, and it's a very open thing to talk about. Too often, the children who are misbehaving will have to be threatened with the prospect of being suspended for a week, where they would have to stay in prison the whole time. Not only is that bad enough, but their parents would most probably hit them for this. Occassionally, a child will come in with a cut or a bruise on their face, or complain that they were hit by someone. The centre also tries to work with the parents to try and teach them alternative forms of discipline and anger management. Standard taunts from one child to another, will often consist of calling another a glue sniffer, which is a huge insult to the children. Two weeks ago, a father of three of the children at the centre was released from prison to the joy and happiness of his son and daughters. But the tone was lowered when I heard the son taunt another child, saying that the other child's father would never come out of prison. 

On the whole, they are lovely children who are in a sense, suffering for the mistakes and crimes of their parent. Yes, they are quite violent towards each other at times, and yes they do say some awful things that they shouldn't even think of at that age, but growing up with criminals is exactly what is putting them at a disadvantage. They do listen and generally respect the staff at the centre, showing affection and willingness to take in new things.

I have been working quite closely with a boy of ten years who I only ever saw misbehaving during my first week, and was often having to tell him off. On one occasion I decided to take a different approach. After repeatedly telling him to stop messing around and do his work, I sat down next to him and his friend, and casually spoke to them about football. Him and his friend both live in San Sebastián men's prison. This Saturday, (12th April), it is the national day of the children. The boy told me how the boys from San Antonio prison are going to go to the San Sebastián prison to play a football match. The playing space at SS is a better shape and size for a match than in SA. I asked him what else he liked to do, and he said "to kill". My first thoughts were, what on earth is he learning in prison, or what on earth has his father done? He told me it was a joke, but still, it's not something that an average ten year old would say. I would hope not anyway! 

Anyway, his tooth was about to fall out that night, so the next day when I saw him, I made a point of remembering and asking him if it had fallen out. (Yes, it had!) Since around this time, one of the other members of staff and myself, have begun to see big changes in him. I don't know what triggered it, but it is so great to see. He always says hello to me when he arrives at lunch time, he will ask me politely if I can help with his homework, he gets on with it by himself, and wishes me well before he leaves at the end of the day. I was playing with bottle tops and a little piece of paper with him the other day, where we took it in turns to guess which bottle top the paper was under; something silly perhaps, but he really seemed to appreciate the time I was taking to play, and when it was time to stop and listen, he did so immediately. 

I'm beginning to build a rapport with many of the students, and over the next few weeks, I will begin trying to talk with them in a little bit more depth. They are great kids, trapped in a very disfunctional society where, despite the law stating certain things, not all of the laws are being carried out, and no one seems to be doing or saying anything about it. One example of this is the law that was put in place a couple of years ago which states that children are only allowed to live in prison up to the age of six. Well, I just told you a little bit about the boy who is ten and still resides in prison....

As well as prison children, I have also become very interested in the large amount of glue sniffers in the society, and the sad reality of street children and orphanages. But they are worth another blog! So watch this space!

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