An update about my life in Bolivia

I haven’t felt inclined to write much about myself lately, partially because nothing which I have been doing lately has been very newsworthy. Still, I realize that what has become so humdrum for me may still be interesting to people who think fondly (or not so fondly) of me. So I dedicate myself for the next hour to chronicling the events of the past week in hopes that others may enjoy reading about my travails of living in the Andes.

For the last 4 months, I have been working as Community Lead of ProcessMaker, a web-based, AJAX application for business process management (BPM) and workflow management. Anyone who knows me might be shocked to hear that Amos the leftist Anti-Capitalist is working to create such a crass, money-grubbing piece of software. The vicissitudes of life can bring us to strange turns and certainly my work at ProcessMaker is certainly one of them. There are several unique reasons which I took the job. I’m famously disdainful of money-making in all its forms, but at the end of the day I happen to live in an unsound world which demands that some quantity of filthy lucre be obtained in order to merely subsist. Short of overthrowing the current socio-economic order (which raises all sorts of niggling ethical questions), the only practical option is to find some semi-ethical means of employment which minimizes the exploitation of our fellow humanity and Mother Earth. In Bolivia, there isn’t employment available for a person of my peculiar talents. There are plenty of things which need to be done in Bolivia, the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti. I look around and see so many fascinating projects to work on, but I’ve already dedicated my life to one project, Runasimipi.org, so I really don’t have the energy or the passion to take on another. No, what I needed was part-time employment to give me enough of those strange slips of paper which can be exchanged for my daily bread to sustain my on-going struggle for Runasimipi.org.

I didn’t want to teach English–the language of domination–to Bolivians or work in a bar serving drinks to gringos or any of the other limited possibilities. I might have found work in one of the do-good NGOs, but it would have occupied all of my time and left little scope for advancing Runasimipi.org. My work as Community Lead fit exactly that bill. It is FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software), which means that I won’t be unethically depriving anyone of their digital rights; and it engages my geeky fascination with computers which is always a plus. I want to work in a free software company, and I consider myself an activist for free software, there aren’t many option in Bolivia. Aside from a consulting company which several of my friends in the free software community formed, Colosa is the only company in Bolivia which is producing a commercially-viable FLOSS application. More importantly, the company was so desperate to find someone who could conduct online training sessions in English that they were willing to tolerate my strange demands. Namely, that I was only willing to work part time and my first priority was Runasimipi.

In an abstract way, I know that I am helping to promote the pursuance of the capitalist system which I despise by helping to make business processes more efficient, but I have managed to rationalize my participation in the system to some degree. First of all, ProcessMaker is software which helps to manage the workflow and coordinate communications in any complex organization–it just so happens that capitalist corporations happen to be one of those organizations which use it. At the same time that I am helping capitalist corporations become more rapacious in their pursuit of unethical ends, I’m also helping universities and governments become more efficient and reduce their costs, so they can better serve the public. ProcessMaker is currently used by the Peruvian government and UMSA, the national university in La Paz and a whole host of US universities. While I’m not happy to be working on software which is used by Toyota to help ravish the planet with its gas-guzzling vehicles, most of the businesses using ProcessMaker are small-to-medium sized. While I do believe that the self-interest of trying to maximize personal profits without regard for the larger collective is inherently unethical, my main objection is not with Smithian-style capitalism where many small businesses compete on a level playing field. Rather, my principal beef lies with modern-day capitalism as promoted by megalithic transnational corporations which undermine democracies, distort fair competition and promote neoliberal policies. Furthermore, by helping businesses become more efficient in their operations, I’m helping to promote the use of *free software*. In other words, I may be helping businesses to exploit others, but at least it is being done in a way which promotes the digital rights of others and undermines the pernicious ideology of intellectual property which privatizes knowledge.

Thus, on an abstract level I see some benefit to what I am doing, even if I’m not entirely convinced that the good balances out the bad. At least, the software which I am helping to promote is slightly greener than that competition. Although I generally am skeptical about the environment benefits of cloud computing, I am reasonably convinced that ProcessMaker is better than its competitors in terms of the energy consumed and greenhouse gases produced because it centralizes processing on a server and requires only a modern web browser to use it. Now I could wax long about the folly of most propaganda about “green” computing and the way the industry distorts the issue, but so how I just got finagled into generating the same oily propaganda for ProcessMaker. My boss asked me to write about how ProcessMaker is the “greenest BMP solution”.

Although I might have trouble sleeping at night as I ponder the ethical implications of my job, on a personal level the job is actually quite rewarding, because basically I help people solve their little technical problems. I explain in the forum and wiki how to stick in a magical snippet of PHP or JavaScript to make their process work. I get to figure out interesting solutions to problems that people post. Helping people who are inevitably grateful because you answered their question for free is quite rewarding. Of course there are all types who post, some quite clueless, others utterly unable to express themselves in either English or Spanish, and a few whose technical genius astounds me. It is the latter group who helps me to find all sort of interesting bugs and pester the developers to fix them. Frankly, it is the sort of job that only a geek can love, but I am geeky enough to be thrilled to be constantly learning new tricks with PHP, JavaScript, MySQL, SOAP and WSDL.

The downside to working at ProcessMaker is that fact that I’m horribly exploited. In a three-day online training session with 14 clients in September, I earned more money for the company than I will be paid in the next 3 years. After years of observing the exploitation of the 3rd World, I have now become one of the exploited. I wish that I could say that there is something romantic about being exploited in this fashion, but “solidarity with the poor” as the liberation theologists would term it hardly feels very liberating for my soul at this point.

The one nice part about being paid a pittance is that it gives me the courage to not worry about loosing my job. This last Tuesday I informed my boss that I was going to the National Congress for Free Software in Cochabamba the next day, and he had better approve it because I was going whether he liked it or not. He made a joke of it, but I sort of suspect that I get special allowances because it is nearly impossible to find a gringo who can speak English without an accent to international clients in the middle of Bolivia. It is a odd bird indeed who willing sets up his nest in Bolivia, so special allowances have to be made. Even the overbearing owner of the company treats me with kid-gloves compared to the Bolivian employees, because he knows that rare birds of my variety don’t often happen to alight in places like La Paz.

Thus, it was that I found myself in Cochabamba, Bolivia last Wednesday, groggy from a night in the bus, but excited to be in one of my favorite cities in Latin America, were the clime is sunny and temperate and the people speak an enchanting dialect. Their Quechua rolls from their lips in lovely G sounds, replacing the harsher Qs and Ks of other dialects. Unlike Potosí and especially Sucre, where Quechua is pronounced in hushed, almost shamed tones, the market women and even some politicians are proud to speak the tongue of the Incas. Of course, it is “corrupt” and peppered with Spanish, but I find it refreshing to be in a place where I can grasp a smattering of what is rebounding around me in the market, unlike in La Paz where the Aymara dialect leaves me totally nonplussed and feeling excluded. Quechua is simply a more inviting language, even when I only grasp modicum of what is being bandied about.

I found the first hotel room which looked cheap enough to fit in my miserly budget, but modern enough to sport an electrical outlet in the room. This may not sound very demanding, but I had to tromp to 4 different hotels lugging my beefy backpack before I found one that met my specifications, and even then I was grumbling about having to pay 40B ($5.75) a night. Back in 2001 when I first backpacked through Bolivia, I often found lodging for 15B ($2.50) a night, but inflation and my more exalted standards no longer permit such bargains.

I had hoped to catch a little shuteye before my talk which was scheduled for 9am, but I ended up wasting several hours fiddling with my WiMax receptor, trying to download the latest version of TuxMath and TuxType—two educational games to teach kids mathematics and typing, respectively. Unfortunately, these games sport a Space Cadet theme, which is utterly at odds with indigenous Andean cultures. We managed to translate the interface in Aymara and Cuzcan Quechua, but the graphics and background scenes serve as a constant source of dislocation for Andean youth, teaching them that their local culture is outmoded and outdated and something to be abandoned. It is a constant subliminal message hammered home by Western media, and very pernicious in its effects.

One of the goals of Runasimipi.org is to transform modern technology from a force which marginalizes local languages and cultures to a force which promotes them, so that indigenous youth can associate their cultural heritage as a source of pride and identity rather than a source of shame to be hidden. Everywhere modern Western media and technology serves up the same messages that dominant Western languages and culture are the source of advancement and progress, whereas anything local and indigenous is a path to backwardness, poverty and marginalization. This dominant paradigm is being to change in some sectors, as is evidenced by the rise of the indigenous social movements and election of Evo Morales, but the overwhelming trend is for Western cultural assimilation. The 2001 census found that while 76% of the elderly over the age of 65 speak an indigenous language in Bolivia, only 30% of the youth between the ages of 5 and 9 speak one. The cultural loss is incalculable and it is rooted in the negative perceptions toward indigenous languages. One way to change these perceptions is to reposition indigenous languages in peoples minds as makers of the future and progress, rather than atavism and backwardness. The computer as the symbol par excellence of modernity can play a powerful role in shaping people’s perceptions, especially those of Andean youth who flock to cybercafes as a source of entertainment.

When people ask me why I have dedicated my life to promoting free software (notice that I did not use that bastard term “open source”), I tell them that I believe that technology should adapt to humanity, rather than forcing humanity to adapt to it. Free software allows us the possibility of taking the best technology which the world can create collaboratively and adapt it through transculturation to the local culture and language. It empowers people to participate in both a global and local processes to harness their creative energies in the creation of something entirely new and beautiful. I am humbled to be a facilitator of this fusion of the “glocal”, helping to guide Quechua and Aymara translators in their quest to adapt computing technology into their cultural idiom. It is not a process without tensions, contradictions, and frequent setbacks, but it is inspiring work nonetheless, even in its challenges.

In a way, my job is less to explain the technical details, but rather to be the evangelist who spreads the message of what can be done. I feel whole inadequate for the role that I have been thrust into, since I can’t give an inspiration speech to save my life in English, much less in stuttering Spanish. But, I must have convinced Irma Alvarez Ccoscco, because she not only contacted me from hundreds of miles away after finding the Runasimipi.org web site, but then ended up dating me. I won’t go into the details of our relationship which suffice it to say is very complicated, but I do believe that I helped to inspire Irma to transculturalize TuxType and TuxMath into an Andean version of the Software. The last time Irma visited me, she took the educational games and transformed all the graphics into symbolism based in the Andes. Tux, which is the penguin mascot of Linux and the star of TuxType and TuxMath was transformed into an adorable condor. Under Irma’s skillful hand, his space console became a nest. The comets with numbers and letters falling from the sky to destroy futuristic cities, now land on adobe huts and the scenes from outer space have become scenes from the Andes. Even the fishes which Tux waddles to gobble, have become chunks of carrion which the condor flaps to snatch. Of course all the letters embedded in the meat form words in Quechua and Aymara, rather than Spanish and English. We still haven’t replaced the music, but hopefully our condor will some day be dancing to the pentavocal rhythms of chirangos and zampoñas rather than synthesized electronic music on a Western octavocal scale.

I wanted to show off Irma’s artwork and her Quechua translations, but sadly, I couldn’t manage to recompile TuxType and TuxMath in time for my presentation at the Congress. Still, I managed to work myself into a fuss trying to shove the graphics into the code for the new version. In the end, the blasted mess wouldn’t compile. Murphy’s Law seems to hold true that technology never works when it is most necessary for it to work.

Sadly, the organizers of the congress did an extremely poor job of organizing the event, so that a measly 45 people registered and even fewer bothered to attend. At 9 in the morning, I stood alone at the podium ponder rows of empty seats. The organizers told me to wait a while. Around 10am, a few intrepid souls wandered in, and I decided to begin. In bits and drabs, others joined, until we had nearly a dozen listening to me harp about the wonders of software in Quechua and Aymara. The audience was few, but I could tell that they were interested from the questions raised. An elderly gentleman corrected my Quechua. A Uruguayan with a shaved head and a flowing white beard interjected frequently to proved details about how people in Kerala, India were tackling the same linguistic issues as we face in the Andes.

I mentioned in my talk that we would like to start a campaign to distribute thousands of CDs and posters to promote the use of software in Quechua and Aymara in cybercafes, schools and public institutions. I talked dreamily about how wonderful it would be to map out each major Bolivian city and to organize volunteers to carry the CDs and posters to every cybercafe and school in each neighborhood. I’ve been talking about the idea for over 2 years, but nobody has offered to help finance it. After the talk, however, Jared wandered over in his reticent way and casually mentioned that his company OpenIT.com would be willing to foot the bill for the CDs and posters. I was rather startled to say the least and not really certain that he meant it, but he kept broaching the topic for the rest of the Congress, and insisted on accompanying me when I went to talk to some Quechuists in Cochabamba. Jared is a genius at creating slick brochures and CDs and has been doing it for years to help promote free software in Bolivia, so his help will be a godsend. Just as importantly, he and the other people who founded OpenIT seem to regard their company as a font to fund worthy projects promoting free software and seem to have a remarkable talent for lining up other companies to open their pocketbooks as well. Needless to say I’m almost giddy at the prospect of what we can do with a little financial backing.

The next morning was my talk about how free software and free hardware can help reduce the growing environment impact of the ICT sector. As with the previous day, I started with a mere audience of two souls, but it grew to nearly 15 by the time I ended. I trotted out a plethora of damning statistics about the toxicity of computers and their horrendous use of energy and natural resources. Then, I detailed how the industry uses greenwash to hoodwink the public, and deny the fact that their production of greenhouse gases is set to grow from 2% to 5% of the global total in the next dozen years. I end the talk by talking about all the ways to extend the life of existing hardware and consume less whenever possible. It’s a rather depressing talk for people who adore technology and itch to constantly acquire the newest and shiniest doohickey churned out by the industry, but I was pleasantly surprised when 4 people asked for a copy of my presentation. Most people seem to enter a state of denial when they hear my talk so the positive reaction was pleasantly encouraging. I wonder if it is even worth the trouble talking about this particular issue, since I bear little hope of making any impact, but it is gratifying when people appear to be listening.

The more free software events that I go to, the less interested I have become in listening to the talks themselves, and the more interested I become in talking to the people who show up. Frankly, I learn little from listening to Latinos droning on in Spanish, and I’m better off learning the same information from websites in English. Still the personal contact with other people who share the same technical passion is thrilling, even if I find their social vision for the technology to be limiting. Still, Bolivians have so much more vision that most North Americans, who can’t seem to see anything in “open source” beyond either a way to save money or a way to play with cool toys. Latin Americans in general understand the promise of technological independence and freedom which free software offers in a way that most North Americans simply can’t grasp, aside from a few radicals at the Free Software Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their ilk. Bolivians are much more socially minded in how they organize, so it seems to come naturally to them that free software should function as a social movement, whereas North Americans despite all their many advantages simply fail on this front.

Free software meetings in Bolivia aren’t just about figuring out how to pressure the government to use free software, they are also great occasions to get together and partake of the best culinary delights of the region, which in the case of Cochabamba are heaped plates of fried potatoes, stewed beef and almost everything else imaginable piled on top. To season this masterpiece, called pique de lo macho (the spice of the male), Bolivians are wont to slash a cup of Pilsner beer with salsa and salt on top and then dig in with bread to soak up the sauce as they gorge on the rest. Partaking of pique de lo macho is a hedonistic experience to say the least and is best done with a large crowd. Despite my general disdain for beef, tripe and other unnameable animal parts, I thoroughly enjoyed the repast several times. The only drawback is that it wasn’t accompanied by chicha, the corn beer for which Cochabamba is rightly famous. Increasingly it is getting harder and harder to find chicha in the city itself, as the city officials have sought to ban its consumption in what I consider a throughly racist policy.

I throughly enjoyed the first 3 days of the congress from Wednesday to Friday, but I had less time to partake in the social activities on Saturday. I had been trying to schedule a meeting with Silvana Herrera, a transplanted Guaraní studying Computer Science in Cochabamba all week. In the end, we finally managed to meet on Saturday. At first she was rather luke-warm about helping me. I could see that she was plagued be many of the pernicious attitudes. She asked “Who will use the software anyway? Nobody but people in the countryside speak Guaraní and they don’t have computers. Maybe it makes sense in La Paz and Cochabamba where there are many Aymara and Quechua speakers, but not for Guaraní.” Those were fighting words for me and I responded with passion, arguing that that was a defeatist attitude and attitudes are changing rapidly. Nobody imagined that bilingual education would even be an official policy of the government 25 years ago, and look what is happening today. I argued that it is fully possible that every computer in the Andes will have Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní running on it in a decades time, but people have to be willing to dream in this possibility to make it a reality. I’m not sure if I fully convinced her, but Silvana let me convince her to help out. At first she was only willing to agree to contact her mother and aunt and use their influence to secure a Guarani dictionary so we could put it online. Then I started showing her how easy it was to translate TuxType and TuxMath. Being a computer nerd, I could see her eyes start to glow as we started changing words and sticking in Guarani in place of Spanish. You can tell when someone loves a language and feels isolated from his/her community and it showed in Silvana’s eyes. She hadn’t been back to her community in almost a year, but she delighted in figuring out how to set the different levels of TuxType in Guaraní, and correcting my feeble attempts pronouncing the nasal ñ and i in Guaraní. By the time we parted, she was confident that she could get at least those two simple educational games translated with a little consultation from her relatives.

Later that evening I went to talk to Angel Herbas, an elderly Quechua suffering from Alzheimers. In his heyday, Don Angel had been a stalwart of the local Quechua Academy and a passionate advocate of the language for which he had produced a mammoth dictionary, but his disease had withered his mental capacities in recent years. I called his daughter Flora who seemed very reluctant to even talk to me. She was busy and only agreed to let me come and visit her father on a Saturday night after she got off work. At 6:15 pm, I called Flora as agreed, but she brusquely told me to call back half an hour later. When I called later, I received no answer. I had almost given up hope when I called a third and fourth time, but Flora finally picked up and told me to go to a certain corner where she would meet me. Fearful of the reception, I took a taxi to the corner and waited to no avail. After repeated attempts at calling her, Flora answered my call and told me she was running late. We finally met and Flora took me to see her father. Seeing the man’s obvious state of poverty, I felt really bad asking him for permission to put his dictionary online and distribute in thousands of CDs for free. I could offer him nothing in exchange for his jewel of a dictionary, but Don Angel seemed to perk up at the prospect of talking to a gringo interested in Quechua. He offered me chicha and repeatedly threw Quechua phrases into the conversation, seeming to take great delight in my feeble attempts to respond. I honestly couldn’t grasp most of it, but he seemed to take great relish in teaching me new phrases. You can tell when someone loves to teach and Don Angel clearly missed teaching Quechua.

When I hauled out my laptop to show him the six Quechua dictionaries we had digitalized and published online, he was obviously at a loss as to how to manipulate a computer. He had obviously never touched one in his life and didn’t even know the meaning of the word “cybercafe”, which in Bolivia are found in nearly every urban neighborhood nowadays. He clearly didn’t grasp what I was asking when I sought his permission to put his dictionary online in the internet. Still he seemed enchanted when I gave him a CD which had the six Quechua dictionaries which Runasimipi had digitalized. He was amazed when I told him that that little oblate of plastic could hold hundreds of books. He repeatedly expressed that he didn’t know anything about such things as he peered at my laptop screen. He never touched the laptop even once, content to let me open and close the various dictionaries and flip the pages. He spent long minutes examining several pages of each dictionary, commenting on the spelling of the different dictionaries and noting several of the definitions which differed from how he translated the dictionaries. When I showed him the Quechua dictionary from the Cuzco Academy, he repeatedly asked me who had created it and asked me who I knew from Cuzco. He could never seem to remember my answer and the conversation kept returning to that question. I could tell that his mind was wondering and despaired of making my intents clear to him. I probably asked him 3 times whether he would like me to put his dictionary in the internet, and he never responded directly to the question.

I had given up any hope after two hours, but I decided that passing the evening with such a delightful man was hardly a waste. I was delighted when he rose to defend Jesus Lara, one of the greatest writers Bolivia had ever produced and a passionate advocate of Quechua. He asked me why the Ministry of Education was using Lara’s Quechua dictionary and I responded tentatively that his Quechua alphabet was considered out of date, but I really didn’t know why. Don Angel glared fiercely and said, “I know why! It’s because Lara was a Communist. From my point of view, Jesús Lara produced the best Quechua dictionary ever written.” Don Angel’s passionate defense of Lara and his sympathy for his Leftist politics made me instantly like the old man, but mostly I felt a profound respect for someone who was willing to openly admit that another author who had only preceded him by a quarter century was his better. Most authors of dictionaries in Quechua and Aymara are quick to cut down other authors and point out why their work is the better.

Despite my respect for Don Angel, I felt an utter sense of my own helplessness trying to explain to him what Runasimipi was doing. Words like “CD”, “software”, “internet” and “cibercafe” clearly meant nothing to him. In the end, I decided to try to give it once last desperate shot and then call it a night. I talked about how we could put his dictionary in the hand of every youth in Cochabamba if it was installed in the “houses of computers” (i.e. cybercafes) which can now be found in every urban neighborhood. I talked about how little it cost to create one of those “little pieces of plastic”, pointing to the CD which I had given him and how we could burn ten thousand of them for the cost of printing 50 of his dictionaries in paper. I talked about how important is was that the youth be able to use his dictionary because they were forgetting the language and needed access to dictionaries. I’m still not sure if he fully understood what I was talking about, but when I pointed to my cell phone and told him that every youth in a decade or two would be walking around with a mini-computer with a screen like the cell phone and his dictionary could be available on the screen, I think I finally connected. Don Angel told me in a firm voice that he authorized me to put his dictionary on the computer. I then called for his daughter who had at this point gone to bed, and I explained to both of them what had been agreed. Flora didn’t seem to object in the least or even raise many questions. I wanted to make it very clear that I couldn’t offer them any money, but also that nobody would sell the dictionary, nor make a dime off it.

In the end, I left the house in a slight daze, still dazzled at my luck. I wanted to call Irma and tell her about what we had just achieved, but of course I couldn’t at that late hour. So finally I flagged a taxi and headed back to the bus terminal where I took the next bus back to La Paz.

Hope you enjoyed reading about a snippet of my life,
Amos

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