Issue - October 2009

October 2009


In this fiftieth edition, we present Pinami Open Air Museum, researched by Dylan Rudloff & written by Justin Gouin; Petra Vissers' interview with Pirai Vaca; Justin Gouin tells us about Manuela Gandarillas and Tusoco Viajes; a tribute for Martha Estivariz by Ed Young, finally Luis Fernanado Terrazas tells us about Cochabamba's landscapes through Garcilaso de la Vega's more...

October 2009

Manuela E. Gandarillas:
Rehabilitating Bolivia’s Visually Impaired

Justin Gouin
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Vancouver - Canada

Despite possessing a constitution that asserts the inalienable rights of the physically and mentally disabled, Bolivia is far from being a society free of discrimination and prejudice against such individuals. Lacking an effective regulatory body to oversee institutions of care, and with serious deficiencies in its infrastructural capacities, Bolivia can oftentimes make life exceedingly difficult for its disabled population. These often overlooked obstacles and limitations place the disabled community in an extraordinarily vulnerable and precarious position, severely curtailing, for example, their already inadequate opportunities for employment and their access to public spaces. Buildings and transportation, for instance, are largely inaccessible. In a country of shortages, in which the needs of all its have-nots simply cannot afford to be addressed, the disabled are particularly imperiled. Attempting to fill the vacuum created by these entrenched inequalities are few key, mostly private, organizations that are determined to bridge these imbalances.

One such organization is Cochabamba’s own Manuela E. Gandarillas Center for the Rehabilitation of the Blind, an institute that has been devoted to caring for and educating Bolivia’s visually impaired for nearly fifty-seven years. Originally founded to support blind women, who were traditionally seen as unfortunate burdens and left uncared for by their families, the center now helps blind youth from all over Bolivia develop the skills necessary to reenter the regular school system and to reintegrate themselves into society as independents.

According to Nicomedes Flores Martínez, the Director of the center, “the main goal at Manuela Gandarillas is to provide the service of rehabilitation, social reinsertion, and workplace integration of blind people in Bolivia, aiming towards their independence regarding the decisions in their lives and their acceptance of their condition.” Indeed, this objective is achieved through a wide range of different lessons and activities that are instructed by eight different faculty members—four of whom are themselves blind. These classes range from instruction in personal care and musical theory to technical skills in textiles and mechanics. In addition to this type of tactile stimulation, students are taught to read and write using Braille so that they will be prepared for the curriculum at public schools.

The successes of the programs and the timeline for their completion vary with individual students. Those who were not born blind, and who therefore, in most cases, already had some knowledge of reading and writing, require less time at the center than those who have been visually impaired since birth. But in general, the program takes between one and two years to be fully effective. With students who are currently attending university in programs as demanding as physiotherapy and linguistics, the center evidently has positively affected the lives of a number of its pupils.

On September 14, alumni, staff, and family members gatheredto celebrate Cochabamba’s 199th anniversary. Studentsperformed music, recited poetry, danced to folk music, and atelocal cuisine. While it was a festive and lighthearted occasion,the celebration also clearly showcased the skills and talents thatstudents learn at the school and the ease with which they learnto adapt to their blindness. For example, one recently graduatedalumnus named Henry played the piano, sang beautifully, anddanced for the audience. In addition to his musical talents,Henry also plays a number of different sports and attendsschool at one of Cochabamba’s public institutions, takingdifficult classes such as Calculus in which he learns the theoryand does the calculations entirely in his head.

What is nearly as remarkable as the talents of these students, however, is that the center has managed to subsist for nearly six decades on its paltry and unpredictable budget. Receiving only a small stipend from the government to cover utilities, the organization relies almost entirely on private donations and the work of volunteers to keep its programs running. Equipment is scarce and budget allocation must be very precise to avoid shortages if donations in a given period are in short supply. Students are required to pay a tuition fee, but at 10 Bolivianos a month this is largely symbolic and is generally used to take the students on outings to the country once a month. With this dependency on community altruism, which can often prove to be inconsistent, the continuance of Manuela Gandarillas´s operations requires a great deal of ingenuity and creativity from the center’s administration.

Nicomedes succinctly expressed the philosophy that has developed over the years at Manuela Gandarillas, “while we are interested and willing to learn from the methods for teaching the blind in other parts of the world, our budget and the circumstances that are unique to Bolivia have required us to develop our own methods to guarantee our survival as an institution and the prosperity of our students in the context distinct to this country. We are proud of our work, and will continue to try and match our programs with the needs of blind Bolivians living in Bolivia.” In a country that is often the subject of volatile shifts in policy, Nicomedes’ words seems to express concisely the flexibility and resilience that Bolivia’s non-profit institutions are required to develop if they intend to guarantee their longevity.

While the successes of Manuela Gandarillas are indisputably laudable, it is impossible to ignore a number of looming threats that could jeopardize the center’s very existence. For one, the recent global recession has left the school with a perilously low number of donations this year, a fact that is particularly disconcerting given that their already sparse budget depends almost entirely on these contributions. If the school cannot ameliorate its budgetary crisis, one can only imagine what the implications will be for the students as money for necessities like food and the already low salaries of staff begins to run out. Although the school is adamant that its students learn the importance of self-sufficiency, and that they never expect charity, in times of need members of the community must look beyond their own relative misfortune: when it comes to blind children who are learning to fend for themselves, there is no place for parsimoniousness.

Another hazard the school must adapt to, although possibly less imminent in the short term, is the increasing reliance on technology in Bolivian society. As more technological aptitude becomes required in the labour market, there is a concern amongst the administration that students at the school will be left behind. Manuela Gandarillas’s attempts to remedy this situation, however, have proved unsuccessful, and the school is still desperately in need of equipment. The problem is, in truth, twofold. First, as mentioned, students are unable to learn skills that may be necessary in the future; and second, this technology would help alleviate the labour intensive task of creating Braille texts by hand or by typewriter, giving the school the hardware and software that would eventually enable them to use a Braille printer to create new, challenging, and complete texts. Having recently undertaken a campaign to procure old computers and not receiving a single one, the faculty is at a loss at how to solve this impending problem. What is frustrating for the staff is that this technological deficiency comes at a time when the discrepancies in the type of work available to graduates were slowly being bridged, meaning that the latent discrimination in an already oversupplied labour market may be re-articulated in a rapidly shifting economy.

All this being said, the center does its best, and in most cases succeeds, to overcome these obstacles. With the continuing generosity of the community and the ingenuity of its dedicated staff, it is likely that Manuela Gandarillas will be able to carry on with its work in coming years, overcoming obstacles in the same way that is has for the last fifty-seven years. The reason for the center´s tenacity in the face of constant adversity may best be articulated by the following message written on a small, handmde poster in one of the classrooms: “Being blind does not mean living in darkness.”

To read more on the center and its objectives, Nicomedes Flores maintains a blog about the school and blindness in Bolivia. It can be found at the following web-address: http://

Sustainable Tourism With Tusoco Viajes

With its official opening in August, 2009, Tusoco Viajes is the new commercial arm of Tusoco Red Boliviana de Turismo Solidario Comunitario, a local non-profit organization that for the last five years has been committed to establishing a standard for responsible tourism in Bolivia. Whereas Tusoco Red was previously a watchdog organization, scrutinizing travel companies in Bolivia and giving its approval to those it found to be in accordance with an established code of ethical tourism, Tusoco Viajes will operate as a travel agency that deals directly with clients, offering over twenty carefully planned eco-tours to destinations all over Bolivia.

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