Who I am
Hi! My name is Louise. I am studying social and cultural anthropology at the KU Leuven. As an intern for Eclosio NGO I spent about 2 months, from mid-September to mid-November in rural Bolivia, in the department of La Paz where I worked on an agroecology project with small cocoa producers. More specifically, I conducted research on the social aspects, with a focus set on the daily life of ‘cacaoleteros’ (cocoa producers in Spanish).
Ready, Set & Go
It has been a dream of mine to travel to Latin America for the past ten years. This is one of the reasons why I started learning Spanish when I was eighteen. For my studies in anthropology I was asked to conduct ethnographic research for about 6 weeks during summertime. This is when I told myself: “This is it! I’m going to Latin America.” My thesis focuses on agroecology and ecology, and aims to study what these concepts mean on a global and a local level and how they interrelate. On this purpose, I started sending e-mails to organizations working on these subjects in Latin America. I’m not going to lie. My inquiries mostly came up negative. But, quite unexpectedly, Eclosio e-mailed me with a proposition for one of their projects in Bolivia. When I was asked if I was interested in this offer, of course my answer was “Yes, I am!”
When the earth chocs
You can easily imagine. It is not all glitter and gold. Spending time in a place where there is no certainty of electricity, where people sometimes still live in wooden houses with no running water, it really gets to you. You experience culture chocs both when you are there during your internship and when you get back home. It is the kind of experience that will change you. Profoundly!
I especially remember the day that I spent with an older couple, Isabel and Gabriël. To paint a picture: their house was made of wood; there was no running water; no electricity and no gas to cook. Preparing food was a difficult task, since this was only possible with a wood fire.
I just felt my white privilege spilling all over the place. Me, in my pretty t-shirt with my fancy smartphone. At the end of the day though, I had a conversation with my host mother. She explained to me that this family was actually doing quite fine, with a prime ground for cocoa trees that allowed them to have a substantial production with more than enough money to take care of themselves. They were not poor people, she stated. The main issue was the fact that they had nine children, which, of course, substantially increased their living costs.
I hope that this example shows that culture chocs really exist. They will happen to you. However I should emphasize not to go over them too quickly. On the contrary, you should ask questions, try to understand what poverty really means to people you are working/living with. It will shift your point of view. I cannot change my ‘whiteness’ and everything that goes with it. I can however make sure I do not judge anyone unfairly. Stepping out of my own framework is essential in that process.
Long live the internship: many advantages
I mean there are so many advantages in doing an internship. For sure you learn to stand on your own two feet and to cope with stressful situations. You can also learn or improve a language and develop your social skills… and so much more.
I obviously learned all of the above and lots of other things. But what I am most grateful for, is learning that despite being half across the world and sometimes feeling all alone, I really had a support system. It couldn’t take me through every stressful or difficult situation, but it was there, rooting for me. It had cost me a lot to leave my safe nest behind. But it allowed me to learn a lot about myself in a very short time.
Some (good) advise
Know what you are getting yourself into and know very well you do not know the first thing about what you are getting yourself into…
Honestly this applies to everything. When you leave for an internship somewhere, wherever that place is, try to prepare yourself as good as you possibly can. Read up on the country’s history, people, economic successes, the political system,…. Absolutely avoid arriving somewhere as a tourist. You are not a tourist! You are an intern with the will to learn and contribute. The contributing part is a lot easier if you know at least the basics about the country and the people who are hosting you.
But, despite of how much you read or prepared, you are never an insider. They are. And it is your job to learn from them. Never assume you know more or better. If you listen to them, you might be surprised sometimes what they teach you. And how one situation can be interpreted in totally different ways. You will learn that there is really more than one world to see out there.
I left running away from my home a little bit. I thought three months away from my family and my familiar environment would be a welcome break. I know I’m not the only one who leaves for this reason. But, as I said previously, you learn a lot about yourself and the world in a very short period of time. We, humans, are social beings, we need people around us to help us cope with changes. My final advise would be: make sure you can lean on your support system when you need to. For instance, I created a Whatsapp group called ‘Louise in Bolivia’. I regularly published little posts about how I was doing. It wasn’t about what I told them. It was about the answers I would get. Making them a part of my day, sharing a moment with the people that I loved really mattered.
Louise V. étudiante à la KUL.