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The Bolivia Immersion Project

During Halloween 2007 a group of twelve students and six teachers took part in the Omagh CBS Bolivia Immersion
Project. Of the twelve pupils this included two were from the Greencastle Parish, Brendan McKenna and Plunkett McCullagh. It was the first time any CBS school went to South America on an immersion project. The following accounts recollect various memories about his experiences.

 


I was privileged to be one of the twelve chosen to go, and I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my experiences with you.

There were many parts to the project; which lasted almost two weeks, however I would like to focus on the part which occurred in Cochambamba, in Bolivia.

Despite being told about the poverty before hand, I personally feel that nothing could prepare you for the poverty and inequality that you’re going to see out there.

During our time in Bolivia, each of us was sent out on two placements in two very differing environments. So basically, everyone had a different experience. I’ll tell you about some of the placements I was on during my time there, and hopefully it’ll give you an idea of what it was all about.

The first was in an orphanage with about 40 lads aged between 10 and 18; I was out with Mr Quinn, and Plunkett McCullagh. Now everyone over there speaks Spanish or Ketchowa which is the local dialect, there’s absolutely no English spoken by the natives. Anyway we helped these lads build kites out of newspapers and twigs, and we had dinner with them. Although there was the evident language barrier, when Plunkett and I combined whatever Spanish we could remember from our GCSE we were able to overcome this difficulty. After dinner we played football with the boys and then they had to go to the swimming pool, but we were advised not to go because the water wasn’t safe. All this was good fun for us but at the same time, I felt we were making a big difference for these lads because they didn’t have any relatives, or brothers or sisters to play with or keep them company. They had nobody giving them credit for anything they ever achieved. And the sad thing is, many of them were really talented, and their talents weren’t going to be recognised. Basically, they weren’t going to get the chance to reach their full potential. Some of them were really good artists, while others were really good footballers. Yet their talent was going to go to waste, because the facilities or the attention wasn’t there to develop the abilities these children had. This all boils down to inequality in the world. Ultimately these children weren’t really getting a chance in life to be something. As a result they eventually resort to crime and drugs. I learned that I should be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given in life and to make the most of them.

The other placement was in a school, called El Colegio de San Francisco. It was me, Miss Cafferkey, Ciaran Donaghey, and Connor McCann. I was appointed to a class of around 40 pupils, aged 6 - 10 for the day. The one thing I noticed was the favouritism, the children who showed potential were given some help but the ones who didn’t were left to do whatever they wanted at the back of the class. Also there was no structure to school, you could come for one of three 4 hour slots during the day, and at least half of the time was dominated by play. On the whole the education system was terrible. After school we walked with some of them on our way back to the brother’s house over there. One of them was a 6 year old girl, who was walking home on her own. For me it emphasised the lack of attention these children received. And it made me realise how much our company was valued by them. After this we went to the homework club and spent time helping the children with their homework. The aim of this club is to assist children who have no parents, or whose parents are off working when they come home from school, trying to generate the money to feed them. It was a great feeling, being able to spend time helping these children out.

Each night Saul (one of the Christian brothers out there) would take a group of lads out onto the streets to distribute jam rolls to the street children. Children from the ages of 9 or 10 were lying on street corners sniffing glue out of pots. A girl of fifteen was holding her baby in one arm and a pot of glue in the other. Everyone was desperate for the food. Seeing and hearing new stories each night from each boys experiences made us realise that we don’t appreciate the luxuries in our lives.

Through going to Bolivia, my eyes really became opened to the harsher side of humanity. If there was one thing I took from my experiences; it made me realise just how lucky we are here in the First World. It made me reassess my priorities in life; over there the children have nothing, almost everybody’s an orphan, almost everybody’s homeless, but the thing is, almost everyone’s happy.

On the whole I had a brilliant experience, though it was difficult at times. In the same way it’s difficult for me to explain exactly what it’s all about. I suppose everyone takes something different out of it, but if the chance to have this experience or something similar arises for you in the future, I would strongly encourage you all to have your eyes opened in the same way I had this Halloween.

 

Brendan McKenna
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The Immersion Project involves spending time with people from different cultures, learning about, but not imposing on their way of life. The Christian Brothers in Ireland have been organising Immersion Projects for several years now, travelling to many different corners of the globe.  In Latin America there are massive economic inequalities resulting in a large proportion of its population living in abject poverty. Bolivia currently stands as the poorest nation in South America, so when seeking to immerse ourselves in a culture contrasting to the affluent one in which we dwell, Bolivia was an obvious destination.

So on the 22nd of October 2007, six teachers and twelve students, myself included, set off from Omagh CBS not knowing what to expect.

Our first port of call was the Argentinean city, Buenos Aires. We visited the Christian Brothers School there, and to my surprise nothing seemed extraordinarily different from our school in Omagh. They wore uniform, had excellently equipped classrooms and a large sports fields. I think this visit was important for us -  to see the affluence in Buenos Aires compared to the poverty we would see in Bolivia.  It opened our eyes to the large inequalities that exist within South America.

We stayed in a hostel in Buenos Aires for one night, and the next day we flew out for the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where we would remain for the next six days. When flying into Cochabamba, we could see shanty towns stretching out for miles below us. Even from the air the poor, dilapidated condition of the housing was evident.

The streets of Cochabamba are a dangerous place. Unfortunately, because of poverty many children find themselves faced with the prospect of living on these streets. They are always searching for a better life. However, this search usually results in children being lured into prostitution or street gangs. When faced with disease, violence, hunger and intimidation daily life for these children becomes a real battle for survival.

Our mission in Cochabamba was to spend time with children that had been taken from the streets, and put into basic forms of care or education. We did this through participating in various placements at the institutions where children had been placed. What struck me most about the children I encountered was how happy they were. We were working with children of ages ranging from one to eighteen, and not once did I see tears. These children had nothing, but they know it doesn’t cost anything to smile. They smile readily and are very gracious. The gratitude they expressed when receiving things that many Irish children of their age would scoff at, was immensely rewarding. Although I found the poor standard of living in Cochabamba hard to digest, I was reassured by the good work being done by the adults in charge of running these institutions, many of whom do it on a voluntary basis. Hope is something Bolivians are definitely not without.
However, there needs to be political will to change these people’s lives, to tackle crime, improve health care and education and to lift these people out of poverty.     

The Christian Brothers are associated with and involved in many of the projects and institutions that we visited, and their compassion for the poor is similar to that displayed by Blessed Edmund Rice in Ireland many years ago. They have the foundations in place but there is still much work to be done.

My experience in Bolivia was humbling and eye opening, and one that will remain with me forever.

 

Plunkett McCullagh

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