Four months ago, I began working for Mano a Mano International and since have considered myself a very fortunate member of a dedicated and progressive team of Mano a Mano staff supported by a substantial number of enthusiastic volunteers and donors. Shortly after I began, I was informed that I would have the most fortunate opportunity of regularly traveling to Bolivia to see our projects in action, to connect with the Bolivians on staff at our four Mano a Mano counterpart organizations, and lead groups of visitors to experience what is the intricate web of Mano a Mano. I have a great deal of experience interning for nonprofits of various sizes ranging from Amnesty International in Chicago to a tiny organization based in Denver with no paid staff supporting victims of Polio and AIDS in Vietnam. And then of course, there was Peace Corps in Panama which gave me a foundation for empathizing with the conditions and culture of a rural, agriculture-based Latin American community.
Already, after four months of working in the MN office, I have been overwhelmingly impressed by the frugality, effectiveness, sustainability, and passion of Mano a Mano. I never imagined I would find such a valuable nonprofit immediately upon completing graduate school in nonprofit administration and international development. As I gained understanding of Mano a Mano in these last four months I have felt exceedingly privileged to be part of this operation.
However, I had no idea how incredible this organization was until my trip to Bolivia.
I had the great fortune of being accompanied by the co-founder of Mano a Mano International, Segundo Velasquez, along with our esteemed volunteers and donors, Richard and Susan Eyre, and their family and friends. Richard and Susan are Bolivian experts owing to Richard’s Peace Corps experience in Bolivia and their involvement with Heifer International in Bolivia. Their family and friends, like them, were gracious, adaptable, and attentive to all aspects of how Mano a Mano functions. These qualities were increasingly heartwarming and helpful (for I was also learning) as I traveled alongside them. The trip was jam-packed with visits to rural communities to see water projects of all sorts, roads, clinics, schools, airstrips, two incredible project inauguration ceremonies, and meetings with mayors and community leaders to talk about their community’s needs. We were taken to each office of the four separate Mano a Mano organizations for presentations on how each of the four Bolivian nonprofits contributes to the one Mano a Mano mission.
One common theme across the Mano a Mano organizations was that every single project completed by Mano a Mano is still thriving and connected to the organization, such as the clinics which still receive medical supplies donations from the United States operations. However, each project is financially independent from Mano a Mano thanks to government and community funding. The Bolivians on staff at each organization work around the clock owing to long commutes of up to 19 hours and are fervent believers in our shared mission. All staff wished for more funds to respond quicker to the extensive backlog of dozens and sometimes hundreds of solicitation requests at each Mano a Mano organization. Each request is completed in full by community leaders who worked tirelessly to harness short and long term financial support from their municipality and labor and resources from their communities. But, what inspired me more than the amount of work still to be done was the incredible big picture of the achievements already made and the sense of unity and affection felt across cultures and classes upon visiting communities where Mano a Mano is working.
As many of Mano a Mano’s trip participants have experienced, we would leave Cochabamba early and drive half the day around winding cliffs to stumble upon a remote community usually surviving on a strictly subsistence level (if even that). We would stop to talk with community workers and to see projects in various phases of completion. The rural Bolivians I met never expressed any desperation or indigence and they often showered us in food, drink, and appreciation. They showed pride in their work and their union with Mano a Mano, never thanking us for money or materials but always for our collaboration and our expertise. They truly see Mano a Mano as a grasping hand helping to climb one step rather than a handout or seamless contribution.
Despite their integrity, there was a serious thread of injustice woven through the rural communities. Year after year, they talk about how they have less rain than the year before. Fewer of their precious cattle will make it through the dry season and they are losing their children to the city. We all know the potential of devastation and mass poverty from rapid urban migration. Unlike my experience in rural communities in Panama, rural Bolivians don’t have hammocks and I think I know why. They work tirelessly every day and all day. In the Andes, the children bare the marks of hard labor with open wounds on their beautiful faces from cold and wind burns.
But, despite this injustice – which they are very well aware of, they never asked for anything other than the partnership of Mano a Mano. The engineers working for Mano a Mano were loved dearly by the community and considered a consistent leader. They are the ones who invented these projects based on thorough studies of the climate, culture, and soil. The engineers call these projects their children because they have invested so much time and skill and because they become profoundly connected with the community. They spend days away from their families to supervise the construction and implementation. It’s nothing short of the highest honor to know that I am a little piece of this empowering development work done by the engineers and the communities.
I was already proud to call myself a member of Mano a Mano before I travelled to Bolivia. Now, I feel like rural Bolivians and the Bolivians on staff at Mano a Mano have grasped my hand to lift me just one step closer to truly understanding humanity and the power of teamwork.
Dana Dallavalle is Mano a Mano US’s Office Manager. You can find her contact information here.