National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 17, 2003

A school for life in Bolivia


There is a rural area in the Yungas region of northeastern Bolivia so poor that six out of 10 children die of preventable or treatable causes like malnutrition and pneumonia. A statistic like that -- 60 percent -- evokes a shudder from a mother like me.

“If you ask a woman how many children she has, she’ll name all the children she’s had even if they’re not all alive. She might name 12, but six are living,” explains Becky Monnens, who recently returned to the United States from a three-year volunteer stint in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia. The political science major at South Dakota State University intended to spend a semester there studying Spanish, but stayed at the invitation of Sr. Damon Nolan, a Missionary Franciscan sister from New York. In Carmen Pampa, Nolan runs a successful four-year college, Unidad Academica Campesina, a branch of the Catholic University of Bolivia.

But this college is no ivory tower: The community’s need is far more tangible than theoretical. Ten years ago community elders saw that young people had nowhere to go and no local job market after graduating from high school. Their vision and the tenacious advocacy and fundraising of Nolan, who had previously run the public high school in Carmen Pampa, won the institutional support and affiliation of South Dakota State University in Brookings and the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. Simply stated, college supporters believe that education must not only lead to literacy but also to meaningful work and a livable wage. The programs are so successful that last spring the United Nations Sub-Committee for the Eradication of Poverty named Unidad Academica Campesina as one of the top seven antipoverty programs worldwide.

Monnens found the indigenous Aymara and Quechua students and their families generous, spiritual and eager to learn, but she won’t romanticize their lives. “The reality,” she said, “is very harsh.” She explained some local history that puts the current situation in context.

For 600 years, since the earliest colonial times, local Aymara and Quechua campesinos -- farm workers -- were indentured servants to the area’s landowners. Education for these laborers was prohibited. Finally, in 1953, land reform policies divided up haciendas among landowners and laborers. While most landowners have fled the region or the country, said Monnens, the children of former slaves still struggle to feed their families from crops grown on their small, scattered plots of land, with an annual household income of about $200. The cash crops are unreliable: Coffee prices have tanked; citrus is temperamental and labor intensive; coca -- the source of cocaine, easy to grow in poor soil and sell to a stable market -- is illegal. Animals and people live in close proximity. There is no plumbing or electricity in rural households, so hygiene is poor by our standards. Roads are being improved, but still terrible during the rainy season. Alcoholism is a problem.

For the slaves’ grandchildren, however, hope is blossoming, thanks to the college, which offers four-year degrees in public health nursing, sustainable agriculture, veterinary science and animal husbandry, and primary education. It has grown from 53 students in 1993 to an enrollment of 507 last year -- many of whom walk up to 10 hours from their home villages through rugged mountain trails to Carmen Pampa each semester.

Monnens, raised on a ranch in western South Dakota, is now pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit management at the College of St. Catherine. After three years of the simple Franciscan life, surrounded by incredible poverty and generosity, she admits she struggles with “reentry” issues such as finding English words for things and trying to comprehend why there are 34 kinds of toothpaste in the supermarket. However, she’s crystal clear on why Unidad Academica Campesina-Carmen Pampa is so important.

“The students have an opportunity that nobody in their community has ever had,” Monnens said. UAC students are earning degrees allowing them to make a difference and a living in their communities. They’re learning how to raise hogs in conditions that are sanitary for hogs and humans. The university runs a meat packing plant that provides jobs and a market for livestock. They’re forming an organic coffee cooperative and developing markets in Bolivia and abroad. Nursing students are learning on the job by doing home health visits in local communities or researching traditional medicines. Graduates to date have all found work in the area or are pursuing further education.

Bolivian Bishop Juan Vargas, an Aymara native, is to travel in the United States this month to accept an award from the Bolivian ambassador to the United States and to meet with supporters and donors in Washington and Minneapolis, where the school’s fundraising arm, the Carmen Pampa Fund, is headquartered. The college budget is $500,000 a year, funded by individuals, foundations and grants. College officials hope to continue to build new living quarters and classrooms to accommodate the 125 applicants who were turned away last year for lack of space.

“There is no other place in Bolivia where [local students] can get an education suited to their reality,” Monnens said. “Lack of money isn’t the root cause of poverty. It’s a lack of options. If you educate a person, you give them more options.”

Take a moment some time between Monday, Oct. 13, el día de la raza, and Friday, Oct. 17, the United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, to consider how centuries of poverty and oppression still play out with mothers and fathers mourning their dead children. Celebrate the mobilization of wealth, ideas and people that has created this small college in rural Bolivia helping build stronger families and farms. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call this place the cream of the crop.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003

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