Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Reality of Inclusion

As we journeyed from the airport to the resplendent city of La Paz that was to become my home, other than feelings of nausea and severe breathlessness, I revelled in the rugged beauty of the streets we drove through and its alluring backdrop of mountains. I rejoiced at the billboards of President Evo Morales, a man who stands for the rights of minorities, and I delighted at the country’s unique history of slavery, colonisation, revolution and triumph; stories etched in the faces of its diverse people; indigenous, mestizo, white and black. To add to my excitement, I was to spend three months working on a project named Volunteering and Participation for Inclusion, in a country that seemingly celebrated cultural, social and racial diversity. To put it candidly, everything was right up my street!

However, I soon came to realise that my idealised expectations were just that, idealised visions I had conjured up from selective internet research I had done prior to my arrival. As I entered minibuses, bought snacks from kiosks, trailed up the numerous hills, and attempted to settle into this new culture, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of exclusion. Heads turning, men gazing, Cholita’s whispering, fingers pointing and murmured comments. I began to notice that the looks from the locals were being held for a little longer than the permitted 2 second glance you usually give a person. The stares varied from startled looks of surprise, to incredulous disbelief, to more innocent curiosity. Some shielded these expressions and some did not, but in their expressions was the question, ‘What are you?’

Bolivia is a country with a sizeable black population, yet disturbingly I was still an oddity. As a ‘minority’ in Europe, I have been subject to unpleasant looks before, because of my ‘minority’ skin colour; so my offense on this occasion was held on behalf of the thousands of  Afro Bolivians who I assumed were also met with such looks, in their homeland of Bolivia, by fellow Bolivians.

Further research and observations made it clear that I didn’t just have something odd on my face that people were too frightened to tell me about, but that in contrast to my initial conceptions, Bolivia too has contentious race relations. From packets of ‘Conguitos’ chocolates adorned with prejudicial images of black men with

spears and grass skirts, to the Tundiqui dance in Carnaval de Oruro in which the dancers had their faces covered in blackface. Blackface is an utterly racist and insensitive reminder of the oppression black people in the United States faced at the hands of white Americans and has spread to other parts of the world with less racist connotation, however can still evoke the same emotions in most people. From what I observed, the depictions of black people were favourable; to say at least.

Nonetheless, I reminded myself of my reality as a black person in Britain, a nation with an even larger black population. Yet a similar reaction is garnered from my presence in some parts of the country, where presumably black people are these mystic creatures that often feature in televised football matches, or as I was recently informed, had jumped off the slave ships and remained in the UK!

I have grown up in the relatively diverse city of London, amongst people of all races and backgrounds, so entering a programme with a lack of diversity amongst the UK volunteers was a test in itself. At first, from some of the British volunteers, I also felt a significant otherness highlighted by awkward questions, 

inappropriate comments and racially charged oversights that constantly sought to remind me, that amongst a group that were supposed to represent British youth, I was the only non-white person.  Such a distinction certainly should not matter, however the various exclusionary behaviours forced me to realise, that it certainly does. The manifestation of discrimination may have changed, but the language and feelings conjured, had not.

Despite the mesmerized stares, the unsolicited questions, and the frequent and unwarranted hair touching, I began to realise that these actions were hardly ever hostile, merely out of curiosity, but nonetheless discomforting. ‘I go to Mexico and they’re staring at me. It’s not hostile at all, but it just makes you know you stick out, kind of like they like you but you’re still King Kong’ this quote from Americanah by Chimamandah, resonated so deeply with my experience in Bolivia.

It was clear that none of my fellow volunteers were experiencing the level of intrigue that I received. On a bus with a blonde haired volunteer; a curious gentlemen asked me what country I was from without batting an eyelid to ask the other volunteer the same question, when evidently we were both speaking to one another in the same language.

For a while my feelings were those of anger and resentment, resentment that after years of struggle, and hopes that my merit and intelligence would determine my treatment, the way that I looked had essentially become my barrier. The same way a feminist will champion the right of a woman to dress however she pleases without harassment, I felt myself having to internally champion the right to bare my genetic makeup without stares and whispers.

However, as I immersed myself more into Bolivian culture, understanding the country’s history and its social norms, my tolerance too improved.  I was deeply inspired by the project work and the specific groups we engaged with. Working in the Volunteering for Participation and Inclusion project, I was able to get an insight into the world of children with cancer and people with Intellectual Disabilities (Buddies) who similarly face a daily fight for equality, inclusiveness and acceptance.

As Patrick (one of the Buddies) vehemently declared the phrase ‘Todos Somos Una Familia Inclusiva’ at our awareness raising event in Universidad Central, it clicked that the answer to ignorance isn’t bitterness, instead I must encourage a state of change and unity and help others in their understanding.
In our weekly workshops with the Buddies, when faced with the question ‘What struggles have you faced?’ the Buddies found it difficult to point out any specific examples, happily insisting they have had little, to no difficulties. Whether this reveals a reality of a readily inclusive Bolivian society I find doubtful, instead what it does show is the ‘shake off the haters’ mentality of the Buddies. Don’t be fooled however, this is not naivety, they are aware of their differences but prefer to focus on the positive.  While a question of their challenges wields little response, a question as to their achievements and prospects was more prolific. All of the Buddies wished to work with people in similar positions to themselves, to help dismantle the inequalities that exist towards all excluded groups, but also to educate society and let the world know they are entirely capable human beings! The Buddies have taught me to favour education over confrontation, to share experiences rather than condemn actions and to feed ignorance with understanding, as opposed to bitterness.

I am a black woman, I have golden brown skin and soft, curly hair, I have plump lips and my mum’s nose, but that only defines my physical appearance. If you are curious, try not to stare, instead ask me about my culture and my history, question me about my goals and my achievements, treat me like you would any other human being, but recognise my differences and respect them. This statement is one that can be used interchangeably for anyone who differs largely from the norm – whether that be the child cartwheeling in the traffic for money, the woman silently suffering from domestic abuse, the child with cancer whose parents struggle to pay for treatment, the indigenous person from El Alto who is frowned at for using the Teleferico into the city, or the Afro Bolivian man not recognised in the census. It’s not an excuse to treat someone unfairly because you are not used to them. Ultimately we are all human and beyond the exterior lies deeper and more fulfilling aspects
Despite my initial feelings of otherness, I have come to appreciate that my experience has more to do with intrigue than ignorance. Young people and cholitas alike have exclaimed ‘Me gusta tu cabello’ with a benign fascination that I can only find endearing. I have attended events held in honour of Black History Month and filled to the brim with joyful Bolivians. 

And I’ve been welcomed openly by the Afro Bolivian community and all the Paceños/as working in the Servicio Internacional Britanico office. I now greet all stares with a smile and can honestly say I felt true inclusion when my host sister showed me her brown skinned doll, donning a very similar curly afro hairdo to mine. I must admit I was pretty chuffed that she had a Barbie that looked like me; a definite highlight of my inclusion experience.

Kesiena Yembra 


  1. 👏👏👏👏👏 this is a fabulous write up my Darling Kes! Well done and I am Glad you left a Mark in Bolivia. I shall pass this on too all my Contacts😘😘😘😘😘 xx Aunty Abimbola.

  2. Awesome read... Keep up the good work. Kudos!

  3. Good job my darling Kess. I am very proud of you. You are in my daily prayers. May the lord protect and guide you through all your challenges. The sky is your limit. Grandma Obozuwa.

  4. Great read!! I never thought Bolivia was like this! Very interesting!! Good job darling! Rebecca Obozuwa

  5. Very well done gorgeous! Beautiful piece put together. Proud of you😘

  6. Thank you all for your wonderful comments and encouraging words! It all means so much so me. Privy to all the advice I will start a personal blog very soon. Thanks for all the love xx Kesiena