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01869 338890

Tom Kendall spends a year in La Paz, Bolivia

One year, two residential courses, several fundraising events and two flights later I find myself at an altitude of 3,600m.  I am looking down into the colossal, overwhelming bowl of chaos that is La Paz, Bolivia, our home for the next year.  It is 7 in the morning and a big orange sun is rising up behind the snow-capped mountain in the background. Pete, Ben and I are huddled together in the back of a taxi having been sent by Project Trust to spend the next twelve months working for the Rainbow Foundation.

It doesn't take long to realise that La Paz ("Peace" in English) is a misleading name for such a noisy city.  The sound of horns fills the air and the colourful history of loss, colonialism and dictatorships ensure that political tension is always high.  People are ready to take to the streets at a moment's notice to complain about the Government and often bring dynamite with them to get their points across. And yet when the people aren't marching through the streets, they dance through them.  Every year Bolivians of all shapes and sizes, creed and colour come together throughout the country in a series of colourful festivals to celebrate the sense of community. 

Tom Kendall and the boys soccer teamHaving arrived at the end of July I was placed in the street workers project, part of the casa de paso ("drop in centre") complex.  This multipurpose building acts as the hub of the Foundation and is home to the workers' project, the street project (for people living on the streets) and a range of other services including a canteen, a doctor's and dentist's surgery, a nursery for toddlers and a carpentry workshop.  About 300 children and young adults of ages 3 to 23 pass through its doors every day.

As I suppose is only natural coming from England, I had very little previous experience of shoeshine boys.  In La Paz they are a striking part of the city's identity.  They are not just boys: girls, boys, men and women of all ages take to the streets to shine shoes.  Even though the wages are better than many of the other options, being a lustrabota (literally "boot shiner") is widely seen as something to be ashamed of.  In order to hide from classmates, neighbours and society in general, balaclavas have become part of the uniform.  This leads to an unfortunate common perception, even among tourists, that they are all "as bad as one another". As the days went by I would start to remember names, based on the colour of their balaclava and whatever clothes they had been wearing the day before.  It wasn't always a reliable method, especially when I realised that they were swapping jumpers.

In February my English colleague Ben turned his attention to a photography Tom Kendall and the boys take a break from the cityproject which he had planned before leaving England.  His idea was to hand out disposable cameras to his population of lustrabotas and ask them to take photos related to three different themes of family, community and the street.  The work culminated in an exhibition entitled "Desechable?" ("Disposable?") held throughout April in an established gallery in the city centre. 

We then started a hip hop project. Throughout April and May, with the help of Darius, a friend from a local radio station and Esdenka, a rap artist, we ran weekly workshops focusing on song writing and performance.  The boys chose from a collection of backing tracks and came up with moving lyrics relating to their personal experiences.  By the end of June, the five persevering artists had managed to come up with the resulting album, entitled "The Voice of the Young Workers" expressing their opinions on diverse topics such as the dangers of drug abuse and the importance of family values.  I was really excited after my return to England to find out from Magno, one of the boys, that everything was going well and that he had already managed to sell 34 of his 35 copies.  I was particularly moved that he wanted to keep the last one for himself.

Tom Kendall's placement was arranged with Project Trust