Johanna and I are pretty spoiled here. We live in one of the nicest buildings in Itocta, we have all our basic needs taken care of by either the hogar, the religious community hosting us, or the SLM program. We´re not exactly roughing it and I can´t complain. Despite our own comfy position, we do see a lot of suffering around us which is hard process sometimes.
It´s easy to think of poverty as simply a lack of material goods, and of course this isn´t excluded from the poverty Bolivians experience. We pray novenas all the time, asking God to provide the money for this month's food for the hogar or for someone to be healed because we can´t afford their surgery or medicine. Our neighbors plow their fields in thin sandles because it´s all they have. It´s easy to look around our village and see a lot of things missing that are household staples in the US.
While the absence of "stuff" may make life more difficult, it doesn´t account for a lot of the suffering of the impoverished. Hunger and illness are difficult enough to bear, but we are also beginning to see how poverty affects basic psychological and social needs as well.
A few disordered examples:
Security and safety- Material need leads people to crime out of desperation. Several people we have caught trying to pickpocket ourselves or other people on the street have been mothers carrying babies. You can´t help but wonder if this is how they feed their children. Also, there are a lot of families, including young children, on the streets. We´re always safe in the hogar long before dark and I wonder what fear these parents have for their little ones on the city streets late at night. Crime is rampant, the dogs are everywhere, and the rats are huge and hungry. Even families living in homes have to worry about the adobe bricks (many people can´t afford real brick) crumbling in the rainy season.
Privacy- The people on the street really have no place private to go as they sell from their tents and carts all day long in the concha. People urinate and breastfeed pretty much anywhere. When they do come home, the houses are often way too small to give anyone much privacy. We see a lot of our neighbors scrubbing their shoulders clean outside under the spicket after a day in the fields, or children bathing in dirty ponds and irrigation channels outside the house. Life overflows from the cramped houses and I feel like I´m peaking in to windows as i walk the roads in Itocta.
Childhood and family- Work is scarce and there´s no actively observed minimum wage if you can find work in the first place. A recent news article on BBC reported that, despite child labor laws, a third of children and adolescents work to help feed their families. A twelve year old bagged my groceries the other day. A lot of our girls are here because their families can´t afford to feed them and had to choose between sending them here or sending them to work. Sometimes their parents left because they could only find work with family or factories or fields in other cities or countries. Poverty has completely torn apart their families because they have to choose between staying together and staying alive.
Respect- In bolivia, if someone treats you like crap but may potentially pay you, you better put up with it. People are forced to work in miserablt jobs with inconsistent pay because getting paid half of what you were promised for twice the hours you committed to is better than not getting paid at all. A lot of the girls talk about parents or siblings working for people who some weeks just outright didn´t pay them. There was nothing they could do about it because there was no other work to be found. The need and lack of education of the people makes them almost defenseless against political and judicial corruption as well.
It´s hard to reconcile the image of a loving and sheltering God who shepherds and provides for His people with the poverty around us. I´m glad that this is something I could struggle with here in Bolivia, surrounded by people whose faith shines despite the obstacles around them. I don´t know if I could do it if I wasn´t able to be here to see how these people make sense of their own suffering and spirituality.