John Meredith

(Bolivia, 1989)

Twenty years ago I had the amazing good fortune to be among the first Crossroaders placed in Bolivia. I can confess now that my first reaction included a tinge of disappointment: I'd been hoping to be placed in the South Pacific, where I vaguely envisioned myself contributing to post-colonial social justice movements, and campaigning against French and American nuclear testing. How my revolutionary talents might be applied in Bolivia, I couldn't imagine: I knew nothing about the country. But then, as my CCI experience would slowly teach me, I knew less than I thought I did about a lot of things.

In the months before my placement I studied feverishly, and soon had built myself the x-ray lenses that would enable me to experience Bolivia in all its bleak authenticity: that is, in the context of Spanish colonialism, American empire, and corporate globalization. And indeed, experience would validate all of these at a certain level. My placement was in the historic mining city of Potosí, and there were times when I could believe that the grand arc of history passed within arm's reach: times when (thanks to the kindness of others) I got to consort with miners' union leaders, or partake in the ritual sacrifice of a llama deep within a mine, or stand (drunk) with my comrades and riotously curse the American soldiers as they passed in the civic parade.

Many of these memories are still vivid and fond, but as time passes I find that they move me less than another set. Political sensibilities that felt crucial at the time (and that I drilled into my friends and family at endless post-placement slide shows), now seem a little dated and even juvenile. What has not faded, and probably grows stronger, is the sense of human connection. When I think of Bolivia now, it is not only of the life-long friends I made there (like Jose Luis Pereira and his family), but also of the countless mini-lessons in humanity that were part of a daily walk or bus trip: the manly purpose in the face of the eight year-old boy who boards the bus with a bundle of dynamite, on an innocent errand to help his father at the family mine site; the unself-conscious dignity of tired workers who give up their seats for others less able. As my own son turns fourteen, I can't help thinking of the peasant farmer I met in the dust-blown hospital compound at Uyuni - a place more like the moon than any other I hope to see - and his apparent optimism as he gently cleansed the sores that covered his teenage boy - sores caused by nothing more than skin mites - and lack of clean water, adequate clothing, bedding, and nutrition.

What I am slowly learning, and that CCI so graciously teaches, is that the challenges of 'development' are indeed global and complex, but they are not theoretical, abstract, or foreign. The challenges are human, and they lie within and connect every one of us.

John Meredith has maintained his interest in South America, returning to Bolivia a number of times since his placement. He has worked on development projects in India, Jordan, and Southern Africa.

 

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