A HNGR student in Bolivia reports on her work helping women restart their lives.
By Charissa Johnson, Guest Writer
In Aymara, the indigenous language of Bolivia’s Altiplano people, the word “suma” means good, beautiful thing. Since coming to Bolivia, my internship at Proyecto Suma has introduced me to an unexpected, hidden beauty I couldn’t see when I first arrived. From the busy market streets, to the struggle to stay warm on chilly nights, to the glorious Illimani mountain towering over the city, these everyday marvels reveal a complex city. I now understand why my organization calls itself “Proyecto Suma.” For 20 years, Proyecto Suma has worked with women in El Alto, the second largest city in Bolivia.
My first Tuesday in Bolivia I helped in a baking workshop as the teacher, Sara Mamani, led the women in making alfajores, a dessert similar to macaroons. She graduated from a baking class earlier this year and Proyecto Suma hired her to give baking classes to the newer women coming to our drop-in center, Casa Esperanza. Proyecto Suma fights sexual exploitation by helping women find practical ways to restart their lives. One way they do this is by maintaining a microloan program so that women like Sara Mamani can buy, for example, an oven and baking supplies to start a business. The organization also offers entrepreneurial workshops and financial education classes, accompanies women at doctor’s appointments and helps report cases of violence. These practical actions help women leave sex work and support their families in sustainable ways.
Every week, we visit women in the brothels of El Alto and La Paz and invite them to Casa Esperanza. As the men crowd around the little rooms where the women work, I introduce myself as Chari and ask them if they have heard of Proyecto Suma. Many of the women in El Alto know us, while women in La Paz, the Bolivian capital (where we also work), are often newer or migrate from other areas of Bolivia or South America as a result of systems of trafficking. I then invite the women to come to a business or baking workshop. A day of these conversations can be exhausting – these brothels are far from beautiful. But within these dark places, as I step over used condoms and breathe in the smell of urine, I have had unexpectedly beautiful conversations with women about their dreams, their families and their excitement about visiting us.
During one brothel visit, a woman recognized me as I began to introduce myself. “I came to the medical campaign last week at Casa Esperanza,” she said. When I recognized her, I spoke excitedly, “Rut! I remember you! It is so good to see you again. Are you going to be able to come this Tuesday to the workshop at Casa Esperanza?” She nodded, but I immediately noticed the tears in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Rut?” I asked.
“I hate that you are seeing me like this, here, in this place,” she responded. My eyes stung with my own tears as I saw her eyes fill.
“Please do not worry about that, Rut, it is just good to see you,” I said.
We prayed together and as I hugged her, I felt the shame and pain that she was feeling; shame that she assumed belonged to her as a sex worker, and pain that came from feeling trapped at her job. When does she get to experience beauty, I asked myself. When does she get to know justice?
In those moments of questioning, I often fall back on lessons I’ve learned at Wheaton. In a psychology class I took last fall, Professor Christin Fort encouraged us to reflect on the passibility, or sensitivity of Christ. This involves recognizing the emotions that Jesus felt—all of them, not just the pretty ones. This concept seemed so foreign to me last fall at Wheaton, but my brothel visits and work at Casa Esperanza have reminded me of the emotion that Christ felt on earth. Sometimes in the brothels I freeze, just wanting to cry or scream. This is not just or good—where is God in these places? But I am reminded that Jesus also cried and screamed; Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb, and screamed at evil spirits to leave (John 11:35; Mark 9:25).
So how did Jesus find beauty, and how can we find beauty? The Aymara culture has helped me find an answer.
The psychologist that I work with here highlights how the Aymara culture looks back into the past, as opposed to looking forward. After all, the past is known and the future is unknown. In my experience, American culture focuses on leaving the past behind and living in the moment, crafting big plans for the future. But, do we miss something by trying to forget the past? When I ask the women how they are in the present, they often bring up the past to describe the struggle of the now. One woman shared with me that she had been contained in a room for many years of her childhood without being able to leave. She felt that her childhood of being locked away for many years did not allow her to be free or happy in the moment, although she is no longer physically controlled by anyone. The Aymara people carry their stories with them. They are their past, because that is what they have known.
How can remembering the past help us see the beauty of the present? I have had the opportunity to speak with women who have advanced out of our programs and they speak of their pasts in a new light. I asked these women how they are able to thrive now. Their responses are still based in the past. “I have seen what God has taken me out of.” “I remember where I was and how much I have grown.” “I remember how my kids were and how much better they are now.” The changes in their lives allow them to continue to dream and heal. Their problems did not disappear, but their perspective on the past changed drastically.
At Casa Esperanza we do not hope for forgetfulness – our desire is for women to have hope for the future, because they will have developed new understandings of their worth, resilience and agency in their situations. We hope that through the struggle of the past they can grow to understand that they have always been valued and loved and have learned to be resilient. Through the past there can be healing, which is the beauty that I have seen all along.
Charissa Johnson is a senior psychology major, currently interning in El Alto, Bolivia with Wheaton College’s HNGR program. All names have been changed to protect confidentiality