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Bolivia Immersion Project
Plunkett McCullagh
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.