El Cristo de la Concordia stares down at me as I walk the few blocks between the office and the bus stop. At just over thirty-three meters tall, it is the second largest statue of its kind in the world, larger even than the famous Cristo in Rio de Janeiro. The outstretched arms loom over the city of Cochabamba and seem to be visible from almost any location. Over the last two weeks it has become a habit to look up towards the Cristo on my way home. It seems emblematic of my time here.
I discovered MAP Bolivia after receiving a report, published around six years ago, detailing MAP’s success in training and supporting community health workers in the department of Cochabamba. The professor who shared the report with me thought that I might find it interesting that they used the same methodology I used in my work in rural areas in Mexico. She was right. After a few e-mail exchanges, I was hooked.
In addition to the community health worker training program, MAP Bolivia has education, community-based rehabilitation, family health promotion, and child sexual abuse prevention programs. The main offices are located in a town outside of Cochabamba. From the windows of the office building you can just see the snow–brushed mountains which wrap around the city.
So—back to the Cristo de la Concordia. I see two important pillars to the work here. One is the belief that health is beyond pathology and intricately linked to family structure, community relationships, education and social inclusion. Initially the diversity of programs at MAP seemed overwhelming, but conversations with program coordinators and the directors of MAP Bolivia themselves revealed how linked they all are in the context of community health. The combined efforts of different programs support the community as a whole instead of focusing on one issue or even one group.
The second pillar is undoubtedly faith. Prior to MAP, I had never worked at a faith-based organization. Yet I recognize that a large percentage of international aid and global public health work is performed under the umbrella of religious or faith-based institutions. I saw this as an opportunity to see this kind of organization at work. Every Monday morning at MAP, representatives from the different programs come together at the main offices to spend a few hours in song, prayer, reflection and planning. The time is always set aside and the atmosphere is open and relaxed. Those attending sit in a circle and share their thoughts on the activities of the past week, on the work in general, and sometimes on experiences not directly related to the work but somehow of importance or relevance for reflection. The weekly space creates a sense of community within the organization but also provides an opportunity for members to discuss, to debate, and to re-clarify the mission and vision behind their work.
In Latin America, where religious imagery, beliefs and institutions permeate all aspects of social and political life and play a complex role, such reflection is critical. Still today, religious sects divide and conquer in many rural communities, often creating conflict between families and neighbors. When organizations like MAP arrive, they are asked to identify themselves with a particular church. If they do, such an affiliation usually means that one segment of the population will refuse to participate in programs. Weekly discussions help MAP staff to consider and discuss how best to approach the issue of religious affiliation without denying that the organization is fundamentally based in Christian principles. The situation is not unlike what I witnessed in Mexico during my four years working there, but it continues to be an important reminder of how careful international aid workers, including public health professionals, must be in order to effectively create change.
Below are some pictures of Cochabamba:
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.