Editors note: Grace Jones wrote the following report detailing her experience with our counterpart organization Mano a Mano Internacional in Cochabamba, Bolivia from June 6-August 6 2023. At the bottom there will be links to some of Grace’s newsletters and updates during her time. Thank you Grace! Mano a Mano is always interested in working with volunteers like Grace that will be spending some time in Bolivia; feel free to contact us. (As a general rule, we are looking for volunteers that will be in Bolivia for multiple months, are independent and have their accommodations mostly figured out, and speak at least some Spanish.)
As a member of the Ingram Scholars Program at Vanderbilt University, a program devoted to cultivating individuals with a lifelong dedication to service, I had the opportunity to work with Mano a Mano International for nine weeks in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I learned about this organization through an alumnus of the program, Kyle Schwartz, who worked with Mano a Mano six years ago for his project. From January to June 2023, I worked on researching and preparing myself as best as possible to enter this different culture, community, and context before seeking to carry out a capacity-building project for Mano a Mano International.
I had the most incredible time working with Mano a Mano from the devoted staff to the mission-driven work. There were four components that truly stood out to me about Mano a Mano. Firstly, Mano a Mano is built on the foundation of being community-driven. Every project that Mano a Mano starts begins at the request of the community itself. This became especially evident as community leaders and representatives so often were at the Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA) or Mano a Mano staff members traveling to communities to be in open dialogue regarding their partnership. It became more and more clear how vital it was for Mano a Mano to incorporate the community’s voice and how highly this perspective is regarded.
After they set out specific roles for the community partners, it became all the more apparent Mano a Mano’s focus on sustainability – not just environmental sustainability but in project sustainability. Every project was clearly developed to be community-sustained, meaning that the community members themselves were the ones sustaining the project, not having to rely on Mano a Mano and its interventions. For example, I accompanied two Mano a Mano staff members when they traveled to Sacabamba to discuss a potential collaboration with a boarding school there. Through these discussions, it was evident how Mano a Mano prioritized the sustainability of the project even before starting the project from who would take care of the greenhouses to the amount of time that various materials would last after construction.
Thirdly, Mano a Mano’s emphasis on capacity building shone through. From agricultural workshops to medical supply donations, each project that Mano a Mano does focuses on expanding the capacity of those involved. This empowerment equips them to apply these skills or services moving forward rather than relying on an exterior organization. Through a recent workshop evaluation that I was able to do with Mano a Mano staff, these workshops were shown to be incredibly effective in increasing participants’ capabilities to implement sustainable agricultural practices and share about them back in their communities after attending Mano a Mano’s five-part workshop series.
The last component that strongly stood out to me was the communities Mano a Mano is reaching the unreached. During one of the workshops in which a community traveled to the CEA, community members shared with us over lunch how they had to travel over four hours that morning to arrive at the CEA as there were no other nonprofits or NGOs nearer to them where they could access this information. Mano a Mano is truly meeting the needs of communities who face no other alternatives. Though there have been significant strides in reducing stunting rates over the past 10 years, halving them from 33% to 16% over the past 10 years, stunting rates remain up to 23.7% in rural areas (“Plurinational State of Bolivia Country Strategic Plan (2023–2027).” World Food Programme, Nov. 2022). This disparity between rural and urban areas directly informs Mano a Mano’s work, making these partnerships all the more imperative.
I learned so much from my time with Mano a Mano in Bolivia, and though I am still reflecting on the sheer extent of the lessons I have taken away, there are several that stick out to me. Firstly, is the difference between an individualist and achievement-focused mindset compared to a community-based focus. One of the reasons Mano a Mano International is so effective is because of the collaboration between staff members, volunteers, and community stakeholders. By integrating everyone’s unique skills towards a collective goal, Mano a Mano shifts their focus from distinguishing individual “achievements” and instead becomes so much more powerful in striding towards community-centered impact.
Secondly, is the power of resources. Observing the impact firsthand that Mano a Mano can make with a given quantity of money due to their intentionality revealed to me how far resources can go when applied in the right context. Considering the medical supply distribution, medical supplies deemed purposeless and heading towards landfills are now being distributed to medical centers across Bolivia, fulfilling the pressing need for increased accessibility to these materials. Returning to the US with this mindset shift, I have realized the sheer number of opportunities for better utilizing resources, particularly in the impact that each dollar can have in rural Bolivian contexts.
Thirdly, was seeing theory in action. Within my university’s program, we devote a significant amount of time to analyzing theoretical frameworks for effective service, emphasizing characteristics like developing partnerships with communities, valuing the community’s voice, expanding capacity, prioritizing sustainability, and understanding the culture and context in which one is working. I have never seen an organization so effectively exemplify these characteristics before coming to Mano a Mano. While I had heard Mano a Mano preach these guiding principles, rather than discovering gaps between theoretical and tangible frameworks in person, I observed how deeply integrated these are in guiding Mano a Mano’s actions on a day-to-day basis.
Lastly and most broadly, my perspective on life broadened so significantly during my time in Bolivia. I have found a newfound gratitude for all that I am blessed to have access to on a daily basis. From clean water to paved roads to accessible food sources, these seemingly simple things have taken on a new meaning with the knowledge of community members who struggle to access them. Witnessing the positivity and devotion of community members in the midst of lacking access to basic necessities has transformed my perspective and instilled in me a sense of profound gratitude. For example, during my first three days in Bolivia, I traveled with three Mano a Mano staff members to an isolated rural town called Arampampa about 4 hours from Cochabamba. Despite having access to no entertainment, no stores, and no internet among many other inaccessible opportunities, these students acted as any others at a schoolwide celebration demonstrating their gratitude to Mano a Mano, playing with Rubik’s cubes and messing around with each other. These connections with community members solidified to me both the severity of rural poverty in Bolivia in addition to the resiliency and character of the communities facing these circumstances.
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to work with Mano a Mano and for the incredible team who went so above and beyond for me. Having recently returned to the US, I long to get back to the community and mission-driven work of Mano a Mano across Bolivia. I look forward to continuing to see the transformative work and hope to soon have the opportunity to return to Cochabamba, a place that now feels like home. I could not have asked for nor imagined a more life-changing nine weeks.
More From Grace (and Fellow Volunteer Lasse) During Their Time With Mano a Mano
- Health & Agriculture Workshops at Mano a Mano Internacional – August 2023
- Containers From Minnesota Arrive in Bolivia
- Students, Sheep, & Supplies – How Mano a Mano is Developing the Next Generation
- Donating Medical Supplies and Equipment to Municipality of Vacas in Cochabamba
- Local Students Tour the Center for Ecological Agriculture in Cochabamba
- Hosting our 6th Physical Therapy Workshop for 25 Bolivian Medical Professionals – June 30,2023
- New Baby Llama Born at the Mano a Mano CEA in Cochabamba
- Recent Weekend Health Clinic in San Lorenzo, Bolivia