Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Lindsay Emi. Lindsay is a writer and student from Los Angeles, California. She is eighteen years old and a volunteer from Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program in Bolivia. She will spend six months in Cochabamba volunteering with Mano a Mano, and then attend Princeton beginning in the fall of 2017, where she hopes to study English and creative writing.

This is Lindsay’s 9th (and final) post; below are her previous posts:

  1. Mano a Mano’s Second Large-Scale Distribution Event in October: Ceremony and More Behind-the-Scenes
  2. My First Week at the CEA – Lindsay Emi
  3. An In-Depth Look at CEA’s On-Site Agricultural Training Workshops
  4. November 28-December 4: Two Kinds of Visits to the CEA
  5. When the Rain Won’t Come: Farmers Receive Agricultural Training and Workshops in Omereque
  6. February 13-19, 2017: Departures at the CEA
  7. Visit to Tapacarí: Greenhouses & Workshops to Improve Nutrition (March 7-8, 2017)
  8. “Beyond Sustainability” Travel to Omereque

Last Days at Mano a Mano Internacional

Lindsay Emi

As April finishes up, my time at Mano a Mano is rapidly coming to a close too. The weather here in Cochabamba is getting a little cooler, and after seeing harvests of corn, potatoes, apples, squash, alfalfa, and many other vegetables in the greenhouses, I’m watching a new cycle of growth begin at the Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA).

My last day at work—April 28—is in just a couple of days. In May, I’ll be traveling more through Bolivia with my group before returning to the states, and in the fall, I’ll officially start my freshman year at Princeton as an alumna of 2016-2017 Bridge Year Bolivia.

I did a variety of work over my time at Mano a Mano. A lot of my day-to-day work was the kind of unglamorous behind-the-scenes work that I expected to do—half-days at the CEA with no workshops or school visits, just me and a couple of co-workers or volunteers, or small side projects at the office when I didn’t have an article to write. But there were days of traveling too, to Omereque, Pasorapa, Tapacari, Wirkini, countless more communities. I had time to chat with school children and farmers and try to answer their questions, both at the CEA and in communities, and I attended probably over a dozen workshops. I saw large donations, ceremonies, and dedications of projects, held in the very communities and towns that our projects had served. And I had this personal project of my own—this small series of articles, written from my own experiences with Mano a Mano.

Lindsay Emi (top left) with Mano a Mano's "Beyond Sustainability" travel group in Omereque, Bolivia, March 2017.
Lindsay Emi (top left) with Mano a Mano’s “Beyond Sustainability” travel group in Omereque, Bolivia, March 2017.

To be honest, I had fun with all of my work, no matter what it was—even at the CEA on days with no special events, I took time every day to chat with my bosses or fellow volunteers, and I learned a lot about agriculture, gardening, and sustainability in an incredibly beautiful place. And of course getting to travel with my co-workers was always enjoyable. I’m sure I enjoyed this year so much in large part because of the staff—my coworkers and bosses at Mano a Mano Internacional—who, from the beginning, welcomed me as part of the team, were always endlessly patient with me and my Spanish, and took time to teach me, befriend me, find work for me, and give me honest and constructive feedback. I will never forget all the times they encouraged me to feel as though I was really a part of the Mano a Mano Internacional staff or thanked me sincerely for the work I was doing, no matter how menial it could sometimes seem, because, they told me, everything I did at Mano a Mano, whether I was helping to maintain the CEA or writing these blog posts, was impactful and important–to them, to the organization, to the people we served.

Environmental workshop in Huertas, Omereque, Bolivia on December 21, 2016.

But what was truly especially rewarding were those moments of speaking with Mano a Mano’s beneficiaries, and really struggling and learning and pushing myself to understand and communicate small parts of their stories and lives through my writing, through these articles. I loved seeing people come through the CEA, a space I am so proud of and honored to have helped maintain. The workshops and tours really impressed and inspired all the visitors I met; farmers talked enthusiastically about the most useful things they learned, whether it was composting or interplanting, or marveled at how productive and healthy our crops were. The children told me about how they wanted to start gardens at their houses. As the months went on, I began to understand more, literally but also culturally, I became more knowledgeable about the CEA and our work and the vocabulary I could use to describe it, and I grew as a volunteer, as a student of complex, difficult issues like development and sustainable aid, and as a writer, story-teller, and communicator.

Students from Cochabamba visiting the Center for Ecological Agriculture.
Students from Cochabamba visiting the Center for Ecological Agriculture.

There were a lot of reasons I came to Bolivia, but of all of them, maybe the biggest was that I was interested in learning narratives of culture and people. I hoped to find and maybe better understand cross-sections of stories, culture, art, and lived experiences. And I wanted to learn more about story-telling—how I could use my knowledge and my privilege to serve others. Mano a Mano gave me that opportunity to see communities first-hand, meet their residents, hear their stories, and share my experiences in these communities and with these people. This was my first time writing this particular kind of piece, and there were so many challenges and lessons in my own little project. I know that I, an eighteen year-old American, see the life of Bolivian very differently than how he understands his own life, and every story I relay is through my own perspective.

Photos from Lindsay’s Time in Bolivia

But among the difficulty of learning effective service work, the chance to see and understand sustainable service work done successfully—to see the emotions, gratitude, and kindness of the people Mano a Mano had worked with—was inspiring. One of my very favorite memories will probably be the trip to Tapacari. The scenery was really quintessentially, stereotypically Bolivian. We were at 14,000 feet altitude, the air was freezing and the sky was so bright, and from so high up, I could see all kinds of communities, houses, fields, livestock, and yellow-roofed Mano a Mano greenhouses throughout the mountains and in the valleys below. It was one of my last trips with Mano a Mano. I had to take surveys with the farmers for impact assessment. It was something I never thought I’d be doing or even be capable of doing. I spoke with the farmers about their families, their agriculture, their diets and nutrition, their ideas about the city versus their own community, their hopes for improving their lives and their children’s lives.

Mano a Mano greenhouses (yellow-topped buildings) now dot the landscape in Tapacari.
Mano a Mano greenhouses (yellow-topped buildings) now dot the landscape in Tapacari.

The fact that they treated me with such respect and patience (and sometimes humor) as I fumbled through that survey, that they shared their lives with me honestly, was so humbling and something I won’t forget. And those farmers—and every person I worked with through Mano a Mano—exuded gratitude for Mano a Mano, its staff and workers, its support, and the finished project, built and completed collaboratively. I saw atajados, bridges, health clinics, roads, greenhouses, reservoirs, schools, and much, much more. These projects have changed thousands of lives and inspired so much hope.

I will always be grateful that Mano a Mano has given me the chance to be a part of their work too. It has been an honor and a blessing, and one of the most humbling and meaningful experiences I’ve had. I hope to come back and revisit Cochabamba and Mano a Mano Internacional one day, and I would encourage anyone involved with Mano a Mano who has the means to do so should come and see first-hand the powerful impact of the work that happens in the US and here in Bolivia. The kindness of all the people whom I’ve worked with here—from the staff to the international volunteers and to, of course, the Bolivians and beneficiaries I’ve met in communities, workshops, and the CEA—has moved me and inspired me to continue to learn as best I can about the many complexities and intersections of development, poverty, and story-telling, and to continue to serve my own community and the international community at large.

Lindsay with the mayor of Omereque, Hector Arce, receiving an acknowledgement letter from the community during a trip in March 2017.
Lindsay with the mayor of Omereque, Hector Arce, receiving an acknowledgement letter from the community during a trip in March 2017.