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July 9, 2001

Life lessons learned in Bolivia

Lauren Cogswell, formerly assistant University chaplain, has moved to Charlottesville, Va., where she will serve as associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church.


Bolivia is a country unknown to most Americans. Located in the middle of South America, it is blessed with the diverse geography of the snow-capped Andes Mountains and the lush green of the tropics.

High in the steep hillsides of the altiplano of this beautiful country, at 15,000 feet above sea level, is the town of Ambana. This is where 12 Emory students, faculty and staff (including myself) spent the last two weeks of May on a Journey of Reconciliation, one of four journeys sponsored by the dean of the Chapel and Religious Life. Our group came to Ambana to learn about reconciliation, to support the work of justice and the movement of hope being led by Andean Rural Health Care (ARHC).

ARHC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing preventive and curative health care to the underserved in Bolivia, Haiti and the Lower Rio Grande Valley area of Texas/Mexico. Its vision is to provide both health care and education for the poorest and most marginalized people in the community.

Even before our journey, Emory had been connected to ARHC’s work. The organization receives a great deal of support from the United Methodist Church, and its current executive director, David Shanklin, is an adjunct instructor at the Rollins School of Public Health. Our journey to Bolivia was a natural progression of this long-term relationship and is a perfect fit for a University that has such strong health programs and a commitment to reconciliation.

Our task for the week was to take down an existing building and prepare the foundation for a new building. The new facility will house a large conference room to educate and provide living space for the health workers who serve this rural community.

Our greater goals for the journey were to immerse students and staff in the work of reconciliation, to learn about the lives of Bolivians, and to open our lives to the possibilities of hope and healing that come from engagement in the work of justice and peace in our world.

The poverty in Bolivia is heartbreaking, though not so different than that in our own community. As in Atlanta and elsewhere in the United States, there is a tremendous gap between the Bolivian rich and the poor—even between the surviving poor and the truly destitute.

All around us were adobe houses with thatched roofs, brimming with barefoot children dressed in tattered clothes that barely covered their swollen bellies. This poverty was in stark contrast to some of the mansions we would later see during our tour of the capital city of La Paz.

In Ambana, malnutrition and a lack of safe drinking water are greater problems than hunger, but there is hunger all the same. There is an abundance of potatoes and corn but very little market for them, so there are no resources to buy other vegetables, fruit or meat. When children are hungry, they cannot learn. When children are poor, they must leave school at age 7 to work the fields with their families, and even then, they are still hungry.

Each day several members of our team accompanied doctors and health workers as they made their daily visits into the community. As we walked down winding dirt paths, the doctors stopped and talked with each person we passed; they knew the names and the ages of the children.

These doctors’ vision of health is not one of consumption of services, but of relationship and community. In these communities, the doctors took time to share sandwiches with families, to talk about farming, to play with the children. The doctors and health workers in Ambana have chosen to use their education to serve the most marginalized people in their country. Through relationships of trust and an ongoing commitment to the community they go far beyond being doctors. They are healers.

On one of our home visits, I accompanied two doctors to a school several miles down the mountain from the health clinic. We came to give the children flouride treatments and to talk to them about cleaning their teeth. One by one the children rinsed their mouths and gladly sat down with the doctor to receive their flouride treatment. After they saw the doctors, the children taught us Bolivian games, which we all played in the school yard.

On the way back from the school, we stopped and talked with one of the school children’s families. The doctors asked about their farming and the health of their family. They gave us a Bolivian vegetable to taste and several sweet potatoes to take to the clinic with us. As we continued on our journey, we stopped to share sandwiches with a woman and her young son. She had never come to the clinic so the doctors stopped to share some hospitality in hopes they could build a relationship of trust.

Just like this one, the rest of our days were filled with simple tasks of medicine, but we could see the healing taking place.

At the end of the week, several students shared renewed visions of their lifework and new visions about their education. After these two weeks, they wanted to use their education to provide health care for the poor, to teach children, to empower the poor in their own community. They too realized that their own freedom would be found in using their education to bring liberation for others. They were choosing to be healers.

My hope is that Emory will continue this good work with ARHC of providing opportunities (like the Journeys of Reconciliation) that give students and faculty the chance to live out the essence of our education.

For more information on Andean Rural Health Care, visit

For more information on the Journeys of Reconciliation, contact Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, at 404-727-6225.


Back to Emory Report July 9, 2001