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Life History: Filomon Rojas Rojas

My name is Filomon Rojas. I belong to the Quechua culture, so my mother tongue is Quechua, but I also speak Spanish, and a few words in English. My family consists of my parents, Indalecia and Pastor, who speak mostly Quechua but understand and speak a little Spanish, and my nine siblings, none of whom finished school. The first 12 years of my life, I lived in the tropics of Cochabamba, in the Chapare province of Bolivia. My father bought some farmland in 1982, where I lived with my three older brothers and sister. Every morning, my siblings went to work at the “Chaco,” or farm, while I stayed at home.

My life has changed, and I feel like a valued person. I can speak, ask questions, and ease the doubts of others, who, like I was in the past, are still afraid.

A Difficult Childhood

In 1988, when I was 6 years old we went fishing in a creek about three kilometers from my house with my 12-year-old cousin Cyril; on the way, we went into the jungle where we found many streams we had to cross. To do so, we walked over on trunks that were full of thorns. My “abarcas” (rustic sandals) were old and well-worn, and because of their state, I slid on a log before reaching the edge of a stream. The accident was unexpected, and unfortunately, it left me with a deep wound on my foot. In the community where we lived, there was no doctor, and we did not have money to go to the hospital. I remember that, for about a month, I could not walk or sleep because of the pain. After a month, the wound healed. When I was 7 years old, my older siblings enrolled me in school; a 500-meter walk from my house. I always had great motivation to learn, and the school gave me the opportunity to learn how to read and write. I also liked sports like soccer, but my classmates did not let me play on their teams because I was poor and have a mild physical disability. Personally, I didn’t pay much attention to situations like this; I just continued with other games.

Every day after school when I returned home, my job was to feed our eight hens. We ate some of the eggs the hens laid and sold the rest, which earned us just enough money to buy school supplies. I used to walk to school every day in my old sandals, because I had nothing else to put on my feet.
At 8 years old, I cooked dinner for my older siblings when they came home from  work each night.  They were not able to cook, and we had little money, so we always ate the same thing: cassava, rice and bananas. On weekends, to wash my clothes, I used to go to the river 300 meters from my house; there, I watched how people fished.

In one of the visits that my father made to us, he brought fishing hooks from the community of Sapilica, so occasionally I went fishing at the river, and caught one or two fish. The other kids used to look at me like I was someone strange because I did not talk, I did not look at anyone— I was at the river just to fish.

Crisis in Cochabamba

In 1997, when I was 15, a crisis started in Cochabamba surrounding the marketing of coca leaves, and strict controls were placed on their coca plantations. The producers of coca leaves had many challenges in marketing them. They had to travel long distances (more than 10 km) to the trade centers, carrying the product on their backs or on bicycles. Their farms, located in rugged and inaccessible places, lacked transportation. Because of this, the income from the production and sale of coca leaves was drastically reduced. My father decided to sell our farm so my older siblings and I had to leave. They went looking for work in the nearby city of Cochabamba. Elias, my oldest brother, couldn’t find a job that paid a living wage, so he decided to migrate to Argentina with some friends. He quickly became accustomed to living and working there, and after a short time, my sisters Hilary and Benedicta went to Argentina to live with him.

I returned to my home in Lobo Rancho. At first, it was hard to live with my younger brothers and sisters. There was Sabina, Noemy, Ebert, Wilson and Edith, with Jonah born in 1998, making a total of 10 siblings. At that time, nine people were living at home: my father, my mother, my six younger brothers and sisters, and me. My father had small plots of land on which to sow seeds. Crops were meager, and only grew once a year. To increase our harvest, we had to beg other families to earn “mink’a,” or the pay for a day’s worth of harvesting, by helping them with their harvest.

I was a scared teenager. I had not completed primary school. I did not have personal income, and I was totally dependent on my parents. I had to look after my younger siblings, and worked tending the family’s cattle. My younger siblings were studying in a small school located in Sapilica. They encouraged me to go to the school for adults. I wanted to study, but in the end, I became discouraged because the Adult Education Center was six kilometers away from my community, and I did not have a bike to get there. I also worried about my family’s lack of food, so I supported my mother by taking care of the animals. Each day, I took my family’s three cows out to graze. Each September,  grazing fields became scarce and the cattle became thin. Most livestock in the area were skinny. My neighbors took their cattle to the lagoon to eat a plant that grew there called “lima.” This was good fodder!

I began to imitate my neighbors. Around noon each day, I traveled to the lagoon, which was about 500 meters from my home, on the other side of a mountain. After a month, my three cows became accustomed to the daily walk. When I drove them near the pond, they went directly to eat lima. Soon, my father decided to buy two more bulls, meaning I had a total of five animals to take care of. In the years that followed, many people took their cattle to the lagoon during the dry season, which made fodder scarce. Some landowners who lived near the lagoon banned grazing in their fields, so we had to rent pieces of land to access the lagoon.

During the dry season, the lima growing around the lagoon could be harvested for three consecutive days, and then took three weeks to grow back. Due to this shortage, we had to go at dusk or dawn to access lima reserves from the deepest part of the lagoon. This was very difficult, as it was very cold. We balanced on a “raft” made of three or four logs tied together with string, Legend had it that some local drunk drowned when trying to row on one of these rafts, as they were hard to steer and keep balanced.

Many times, I had to take the cattle very early in the morning to eat lima near the lake in the space we rented. My animals’ hair was falling out, and they were thin; they ate well, but looked battered. I remember butchering one after it died — it had lice on its skin and intestinal worms, making us wonder how to keep our animals from getting parasites or what treatments to give them if they did. We thought the rest of our animals were in danger of dying. In our community, no one knew how to treat the animals with medicine. In the village, there were three individuals who knew how to treat these diseases. We did not know them personally, we had only heard about their expertise. We were told that many people requested their services, but it was difficult for us to pay the cost of deworming our animals; only those who had money could hire them for help.

One day, my mother decided to “cure” our livestock, starting with two small animals that were skinny and full of parasites. She prepared a sprayer with the same insecticide used to “cure” the potato crop. After “fumigating”  them that afternoon, early the next day the two animals were found dead.

Personal Sacrifices a Way of Life

My family situation was very difficult, and personal sacrifices were a way of life. The crops yielded little, and I kept tending livestock. People looked for ways to earn more money. Some of them spent all their time fishing in the lake with fishing poles, and I watched them selling fish to families in the community. I liked eating fish and enjoyed watching them all fishing. Every time I went to the lagoon to get lima, I saw men fishing, and it seemed easy. I asked my father to borrow some fishing rods. He got two fishing rods and I went with him to fish; the first few times, we only caught a little to eat. We saw other people from a different community selling fish at $0.37 a kilo. When we caught fish weighing more than one kilo, we could sell it. Sometime later, the price of fish rose to $0.73 a kilo, but by then my father was not going fishing with me. Although I spent most of my time taking care of the animals and crops to support my parents, my personal income depended on how much fish I could catch at the lagoon. By the time I was 18, I had saved enough of the money I earned from selling fish and bought a bicycle. I was tired of working in agriculture. It was very hard.

I saw how my neighbors’ children, who were my age, were already going to school. Their parents said things like “My son is a student.” It was things like this that caused me to start to think about studying. Making this decision was very difficult for me— I thought I wouldn’t be able to study. One day, I heard an announcement on the radio about a school for adults. I asked my father to look into getting me enrolled, but he was not interested. He always kept his money for himself. He spent a lot of his time at a “chicherías,” or the public bar, He had addictions that he could not control, spending his money on cigars and coca leaves instead of sharing it with our family.

Finally, in 2003, I visited the adult school out of curiosity and enrolled with only my birth certificate. I paid the equivalent of $7.30 month in school tuition. I had to start from 1st grade because I had no record of previous studies. Since I was young, I did not spend much time taking care of our animals; I was almost independent with my daily income of roughly $0.73. Since that income came from fishing, I began to worry when I noticed that many people had started fishing regularly. It was easy to earn money that way, so the fish population began to decline in the lagoon. I had to save my earnings for expenses like school supplies and monthly tuition. I attended school only three days a week.

Several times in 2006, I saw a woman named Maria del Carmen on the road when walking or biking from place to place. She always greeted me, but I was afraid to talk to her, because she looked like a foreigner with glasses, so I took a different path to avoid meeting her.

A Meeting that Changed Filomon’s Life

That year, Outreach International’s Nicaraguan arm, Alcance International [AB], was giving hairdressing courses, and the youth of the community had invited me to be part of it. Our instructor was named Maria del Carmen, the woman I had worked so hard to avoid. Before starting class, I worried about things like, “It will be difficult to learn,” “ It is only for smart people,” “ I will not be able to perform with one arm, “ and so on. My younger sister and brother, Edith and Wilson, encouraged me to study, telling me, “You only need to observe.” The first time I attended, I was afraid to take part in the exercises; I was afraid to go through with the first lesson. Professor Maria del Carmen used to visit us at home to reinforce the lesson from the previous class. Once, I knew she was due to visit my house, so I escaped with my cows to the lake before she arrived. Once there, I thought, “She will not come to the lake,” but she found me. I could not escape from her!
Eventually, I became less afraid. Also, I worried that if I missed any more classes, the teacher would come looking for me again at my house. This pushed me to attend all classes, though I still did so with some trepidation. In each class, I prayed silently to understand the lessons, and in this way, overcame that fear and cowardice I was accustomed to.

I believe it was at this time real change started a in my life; I wasn’t afraid anymore and I started participating in all the classes. That same year, I was also completing my studies in the school for adults, and had more time to take hairdresser lessons. Motivation to learn hairdressing came because I wanted to cut my brother and sister’s hair, and maybe my neighbors’ hair later. No one in the community knew how to cut hair. They had to go to the main town of Vacas where a haircut cost the equivalent of $0.73.

By this time, I started thinking about some of the concerns my community had. During the rainy season, the river runs through our town could not be crossed because the water was too high. Some people placed logs across the river in order to reach the main road and travel to the market in Punata or go to the larger town of Vacas. It was very difficult for children to cross those trunks, and they could not go to school until the water went down. In Lobo Rancho, neighbors began meeting with the intention of doing something to solve this problem, and I came to join them, as the problem affected me, too. All participants pitched in and brought four eucalyptus trees. Initially, we put the trunks over the river so that people, and perhaps a small vehicle, could cross. Later, people who drove trucks to haul supplies or goods were motivated to widen the bridge to more than six trunks, so that a truck could drive over it.

Meanwhile, I was very worried about my animals, as they all had worms and parasites.  Our sheep and cows died when they were only two months old because of parasites— we could not do anything to help them. Deworming our animals was too expensive, and I realized the poorest of the people must be in the same situation with their own animals. In the municipality of Vacas, made of 74 communities, there were only three trained vaccinators who could deworm. Unfortunately, some communities were very remote and lacked access to animal care, if they could afford it in the first place. It was then I became motivated to take a course on vaccinating animals.

With the support of AB and workshops from other institutions, I learned how to deworm my own animals, those of my neighbors, and those of people who have little money. The town council of Vacas and other institutions that support increased animal care have taken me into account as a promoter of animal health. Since 2010, the cost of deworming has decreased sharply. Vaccinating a sheep costs less than $0.29, and a bull less than $1.46; now that the price has dropped to something more affordable, many more people are encouraged to deworm their animals.

In 2010, AB selected me from the young group of hairdressers to train as a facilitator to work with the people in my community. As a young hairdresser, I was very interested in helping the poorest people with my work.

I feel like a plant moved from dry land to good soil.

When I came to train and work as a facilitator, I learned to develop modules to learn the process of PHDP (Participatory Human Development Process, Alcance International’s proprietary, systematic approach to solving poverty). My practical training began in Lobo Rancho, aiming to form a group focused on the problems of the people. Each day, I developed modules and visited people at their homes. There, I applied some procedural steps. I learned to work with the office computer, printer, and digital camera. I got better at speaking Spanish with others. For me, Alcance Bolivia has been a great school, because I learned many things there. Once, I drew a map of the Lobo Rancho community to help myself and others get a better idea of how many people lived there and for identifying the location of houses, trees, roads, and basic services like electricity and potable water. Most local families had similar concerns affecting their lives.

One community problem was the lack of clean water. People had to drink dirty water from their wells. They said they could not deepen them much because the walls were crumbling. With this concern, people began analyzing what they could do to have clean water. From this, I learned to manufacture rings for wells, in order to reinforce their walls. I also learned to make hand pumps that would ensure clean water from the well. I have worked for AB since 2010, and am currently a facilitator of four communities: Villa Evita, Rodeo A, Candelaria, and Juntutuyo. I have a salary and health insurance. With my own money, I could travel to Argentina to visit my brothers. I am a lucky man. I feel useful because I can help poor people who are afraid to talk about their problems, who remind me what I was like in the past.

Now I calmly remember how my parents did not appreciate having a child like me, who was fearful and disabled. They believed that I could not finish school, that I could do nothing. But now my father, and especially my mother, are each proud to have a son like me. I graduated high school,and am also a hand pump technician, hairdresser, vaccinator, and more. What I did not learn in my first twenty years of life, I assimilated in less than 10 years. I am now 33 years old.

My life has changed, and I feel like a valued person. I can speak, ask questions, and ease the doubts of others, who, like I was in the past, are still afraid.

I feel like a plant moved from dry land to good soil.

Now, as a young man, I have my own income that comes from vaccinating animals and cutting hair. What’s more, I can help my family.

Overcoming all the difficulties, I managed to lose the shame and fear, and I have learned to be more courageous and responsible in everything I do. The commitment I made to myself to graduate from high school and feel capable despite my limitations has helped me to believe in myself. I have taken advantage of the opportunities I have been given by people and institutions, which inspire goodwill and hope.

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