Issue - April 2009



April 2009

Editorial

In this issue, Dylan Rudloff researches the importance and benefits of English language; Christina Moore brings us a story of struggle and conquest; New Experiences Away from Home from Miguel Angel Ajhuacho from San Simon University; Nail designs are the new art in the streets of Cochabamba; at the end of this edition is Walter Sanchez with Religious passages in the city.read more...

April 2009

Working through the darkness

Christina Moore hears the story of one man who refused to be held back by his inability to see.

Christina Moore,
Projects Abroad Volunteer
London - United Kingdom



According to figures provided by the Instituto Boliviano de la Ceguera (IBC), in 2001 there were more than twenty five thousand people in Bolivia with visual disability, and recent IBC figures show that barely 0.05% of Bolivians who are blind are currently in employment. This would not come as a surprise to many people, who have low expectations of the blind, commonly reasoning, “They cannot see, so how can they do?” Thirty year-old Andres Papardo, whose sight gradually diminished until he lost his vision completely five years ago, does not agree. For the last three years he has been supporting his young family by working as a nighttime switchboard operator at Radio Taxi Cristal.

At first Andres was lacking in self-assurance, and confesses, “I could not do it because I did not know the streets, but little by little I learnt and after two months I had assimilated everything, and I became accustomed to it; now the work is more or less easy.” Marie, Andres’s supervisor, admits she had doubts when she first took him on, but now she has confidence in his ability and his relationship with the drivers, explaining, “Each operator has their own style of working, and Andre has his. The drivers understand him and get on well with him.” She adds, “Initially they helped him a lot and worked together, but very quickly he no longer needed help and was able to work alone.” One of the drivers, Freddy, who works a lot with Andre, confirms this and points out that any mistakes that may occur, are just as likely to happen with any operator on duty. “In fact,” he adds, “Andres probably makes even less mistakes than others, perhaps because he collaborates so well with the drivers, and maybe they help him a bit more on account of his disability.” Marie expresses quite well the sentiments of many people when asked why it could be that blind people may not commonly find employment, in the simple statement: “Because they cannot see.” Freddy quickly elaborated, “In Bolivia people might discriminate against blind people and think they are unable to do things, so many blind people do not work. But in the case of Andres, he has shown that they can do it. And this is important.” Similarly, Raul Veliz from the IBC says that for blind people seeking to work, “The possibilities are minimal, although there exists a legal precedent that should open up opportunities, it is still difficult to do away with discrimination and prejudices.”

Andres secured his employment with Radio Taxi Cristal through the support of his ex-teacher at the Manuela Gandarillas institute for the blind, Freddy Mita (not to be confused with Freddy the driver). In the year 2000, Freddy, who still collaborates closely with the institute, started to approach various radio taxi companies to ask if they had any vacancies for his ex-students at the institute. Initially he was met with incredulity, “How would it be possible for a blind person to work?” Through Freddy’s persistence he managed to obtain a trial for just one of the students, who himself took some persuasion due to a total lack of confidence. Finally Freddy’s stubbornness triumphed: the young man passed his test-run with flying colours, and was taken on as a paid employee immediately. Freddy then repeated the process with the rest of the group. He recalls how initially they were so nervous they would “pick up and put down the telephone in one movement, saying ‘I cannot do it!’ but they learnt quickly, nd soon they were answering two phones at once, at the same time as making notes in Braille.” They studied hard to learn locations and directions, and at the same time Freddy taught them how to work out the cardinal points based on, for example, the temperature of a wall or particular side of a tree, depending on the angle of the sun.

Andres`s wife is also blind and out of his four-year old and six-month old children, one is already blind and the other will lose his sight gradually like his dad. For Andres, being able to work and support his family has been both a weight off his mind and has also helped him to regain self-esteem. Losing his sight at the relatively late age of twenty-five gave his confidence a sharp knock; he had to slowly re-learn to take his first steps, and he recalls the torment of his first trip to the shops alone since becoming blind. He imagines a future that will continue on this path, “I will learn more, work more, earn more; life is expensive so I have to keep working.” Andres feels more secure about his future and his abilities now, but it was not an easy achievement, and many blind people face such continuous obstacles that they are unable to obtain qualifications, and later, good jobs.

There is only one free school for the blind in Cochabamba, and consequently many blind children, if they go to school at all, will go to a standard school. After attending classes that are image-rich and aimed at sighted children, no one blames them if they do badly, and it frequently occurs that teachers pass them out of sympathy. Andres’s old teacher Freddy is insistent that all children should go to school and should get good grades because they are actually learning, rather than through charity. As a result he often accompanies children to school and ‘translates’ the lessons into concepts that someone without vision could understand, using imagination and props that are in short, inspired. The problem is, he explains, that the blind “have their rights, but there is no obligation to make sure that their rights are actually being fulfilled.” This is one of the main reasons, according to Freddy, that it is not unusual to see blind people on the streets begging for alms. There are exceptions, and Freddy knows a few young blind people who are doing well at university, but on the whole this is rare as there are not funds and resources available to support them.

At the Manuela Gandarillas institute, the children are encouraged to compete actively in sport, dancing, poetry recitals and to take pride in their appearance, helping them to grow into self-assured adults who will hopefully find some way to further develop the skills they obtained at the institute. At first the children are often self-conscious, but with some cajoling they take part in whichever activity - and love it. One favourite sport of the youths at the institute is ‘Goadboll’, a game similar to football but in which the ball is thrown. Their positions are indicated through raised markings on the court, and the whereabouts of the ball can be located by its rattle. Sometimes there are minor accidents, but it is all part of the fun, and has not stopped them from achieving national championship level, and playing in Cochabamba’s stadium in the premiership last year. This year there is a possibility that they will be playing in the South American championship.

Andres’s ex teacher Freddy also recounted another of his success stories in which he took a brilliant young blind drummer to an audition for a band. The band members were dubious when they realized the candidate could not see, but amazed when they saw and heard him play, and accepted him into the band without hesitation. He is still in the band and making a good living from it. There are many others who are equally talented musicians, but are already struggling to support themselves and often a family of their own, and therefore cannot afford the instruments to practice with. One example is Andres Papardo. As much as he assures me (and his boss seated beside us) that he likes his job at Radio Taxi Cristal, in an ideal world he would be a musician. However, although he is a skilled bass guitarist, and a member of a band, he explains that due to a lack of “musical resources” they are unable to practice, making a future down that path little more than a dream.

Freddy Mita is keen to explore the possibilities of enabling blind people to earn and support themselves, as well as to develop the skills and interests they have. He explains that currently although there are lots of things they have the aptitude to do, the problem is that many people in Bolivia doubt their capabilities. Even when this is not the case, the resources to support them and help push them into employment are simply not available. He is hoping to spread the concept of the blind working and earning throughout Bolivia, and the whole of South America, where he believes it is currently a disappointingly infrequent phenomenon. If only more people could have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Andres, who was happy to be able to tell me, “I am independent and working - I don’t have to depend on anyone.”

Street art...

Do you need a confidence boost, have the hands of a workman, or have a special occasion coming up, but only have 5 Bs and not many more minutes to spare? Do not panic, you can choose from reams of exotic designs priced between five and seven Bolivianos, and a host of nail artists in none other than Punata street, La Cancha market. I did exactly that and a week later the novelty has not worn off and neither have the designs; I still keep catching myself gazing at the pretty flowers and butterflies that adorn my nails.

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