Saturday, September 6, 2014

Country Profiles: Bolivia

I'm finally getting back to writing profiles on the countries where Compassion works! Here's the newest installment!

The flag of Bolivia. According to some sources, the red represents Bolivia's brave soldiers, the yellow stands for the country's mineral deposits, and the green for fertility. The coat of arms also includes an Andean condor. 

The Land:

Bolivia is a land-locked country in the "heart" of South America. It's almost the same size as Egypt, or three times the state of Montana! There are five distinct types of geographical areas in Bolivia- Altiplano to the west, which is high, cold, and bordered by mountains; Las Yungas, a region of valleys; the central highlands, where much of the country's agricultural efforts are located; a subtropical plain called Gran Chaco, which is shared with Argentina and Paraguay; and the tropical, forested lowlands called the llanos. This area is particularly good for cattle ranching, as there are many grasslands and the climate is more suitable for livestock than the higher elevations. About half of Bolivia is covered with forests. One of the most well known geographical features of Bolivia are the Andes mountains, which run throughout the country from north to south. They rise to over 21,1000 feet above sea level, and everything above 16,000 feet is covered with snow. The country is also home to Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable body of water in the world- meaning, it's at a very high elevation (12,500 feet above sea level) and you can still paddle a boat around in there. Bolivia has two main seasons: summer runs from November to April, and is considered the rainy season. Winter is from June to September.


Bolivia is home to almost 11 million people. More than half of them are of indigenous ancestry. The largest groups of people with indigenous heritage are the Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní, Mojeño, Chimane, and other smaller groups. About 30% of the population are criollo, who are of mixed indigenous and European heritage. Quechua Indians live throughout the country, but the highest numbers are near Cochabamba and Sucre. The Aymara Indians mostly live in the Altiplano. The largest cities are La Paz and Santa Cruz, with about a million inhabitants each.


There are 37 official languages in Bolivia! The most common languages are Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. Spanish is used by government officials, in the schools, in business, and is the native language of over half the population. Most Bolivians speak at least some Quechua. Indigenous groups each have their own languages, but the most common ones often have many Spanish words mixed in.


There is no official state religion in Bolivia. The vast majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. There are also some indigenous belief systems, and the Protestant minority are active throughout the country. Bolivians living in the Altiplano region often mix their Aymaran and Quechuan traditions with Catholic beliefs. For example, practicing Catholics revere Pachamama, or the goddess Mother Earth, and they toast to her and bless things in her name. People may also offer blessings of material possessions or events in the names of Pachamama and Achachila, a god of the mountains. Some Bolivians honor Catholic traditions, such as Carnaval, by praying to these gods and Mary and other saints at the same time.

The People:

Unfortunately, there is a cultural divide between the upper classes in Bolivia and the indigenous groups. Sometimes indigenous people adopt Spanish names and change their traditional way of dress in order to assimilate to society and be more accepted. There are political movements driven by indigenous groups looking to ensure that benefits of the government are available to all people without requiring them to abandon their heritage and cultural traditions. 

Bolivians dress differently depending on where they live and their social class. Usually, urban Bolivians wear Western-style clothing. Wearing clean shoes is very important to Bolivians. Many women living in the Altiplano region wear a pollera, which is a full, colorful skirt with several embroidered underskirts. Rural women wear a pollera with a manta, or shawl. They also often wear their hair in braids under bowler derby hats, bonnets, or stovepipe-style hats, depending on their region. Some indigenous people make their clothing out of wool. These clothes are often red, black, and off-white. Native men may wear shin-length pants and a shirt wit ha thick belt. They often wear ponchos and hats, as well. 

Sometimes, Bolivians use body language rather than verbal language to communicate. For example, to beckon a child, one would wave your fingers with the palm down. If you extend your raised hand, palm outward and fingers extended, and twist it quickly from side to side, you are saying "no" or "there isn't any"- this gesture may be used by bus drivers to say that there isn't any more room in their vehicle. Avoiding eye contact when speaking to people indicates suspicion and lack of trust. When greeting someone in Bolivia, offering your hand for a handshake is expected. If your hand is wet or dirty, you may extend your arm or elbow instead. Bolivians enjoy visiting each other, whether the visit was arranged in advance or not. Urban visitors usually bring a small gift for their host, such as flowers. Hosts might also give gifts to their visitors, but the visitor should not open the gift during the visit. If you compliment your host on a meal while you are eating, expect a second helping! If you are feeling full, it is best to wait until after a meal to offer your compliments. 


Family life is very important to Bolivians. On average, middle- and upper-class families usually have 1-2 children. Rural families have many children, but the infant mortality rate is rather high. Children in Bolivian families are well-disciplined and have many family responsibilities. The oldest daughter in a family is often called mamita (little mom) and are looked upon as second mothers to their younger siblings. Boys begin to help their fathers with farming as young as age 8, and are generally able to be self-sufficient by the time they're teenagers. Girls grow up learning to raise children and do domestic tasks like cooking and washing clothes. Children are taught that education is important, but among poor families, literacy rates are very low.


Typical rural homes are made from local materials like adobe bricks, wooden boards, rocks and mud. The floor and walls are usually dirt, and roofs are often made of straw and wood. Families often sleep on the floor, using dried sheepskin and woven blankets for bedding. If a family owns a bed, they may all sleep in it. Families usually have free-standing kitchens, open on the sides and covered by a straw roof. Most rural homes have electricity, but the majority do not have indoor plumbing. Bolivians conserve water by using the same water for washing, watering plants, cooking, and laundry. In some communities, modern construction is becoming more common. Homes are being built with cement-covered walls, corrugated metal roofs, and tiled floors. Urban homes are likely to have running water, but many lack heating and air conditioning. Often, these homes are built with large windows or skylights to help warm the homes.

Because the children grow up quickly, learning the responsibilities of running a home and tending the fields, Bolivians often marry and start having children young. The average marrying age for a rural couple may be between 16 and 17. Friendship comes before dating for young Bolivian couples. In urban areas, dating starts around age 13. Teenagers who are dating like to take long walks around their town, whether as individual couples or as large groups. Some marriages are arranged in rural parts of Bolivia. These marriages are between their own children and the children of their friends, and the goal is to strengthen ties between friendly families. Couples usually wait until they have some financial security or own property to get married. Because weddings are expensive, rural families often choose common-law marriages rather than traditional marriages. Bolivians wear their wedding rings on their right hands, rather than the left. For a marriage to be legal, a civil ceremony must be performed. Most couples also have a religious ceremony, and that is often followed by a dance and reception. One fun wedding tradition for some Bolivians is to bring presents to the wedding reception. While the bride and groom are dancing, friends and family get close and pin money to their clothes. The day after the wedding, the couple opens the gifts. If the total of the gifts is an odd number, the person counting the gifts has to buy a gift for the couple that has not yet been given. Sometimes, friends and family may even take out a loan to buy gifts for newlyweds!

A mass wedding of over 300 couples in Bolivia


Common staples of the Bolivian diet include potatoes, rice, fruits, and soups. Quinoa is grown in Bolivia and is used in many dishes. Starchy foods vary by region in the country. In the lowlands, yucca is most popular. Corn is prevalent in the valleys. Potatoes are eaten every day in the Altiplano. Bolivia has hundreds of varieties of potatoes, and they are eaten many different ways! Chuños are freeze dried and used in soups or side dishes after being dehydrated. Many Bolivian dishes are seasoned with a spicy salsa called llajua. Chicken is the most common meat. Southern Bolivians eat a lot of beef, and they enjoy having barbecues. A common Bolivian breakfast includes coffee or tea, bread, and sometimes cheese. In rural areas, a hot drink called api is sometimes served with breakfast. It's made of corn spiced with sugar and cinnamon. Lunch is the main meal and usually includes soup and a main dish. Bolivian families prefer to eat their meals together. They usually have one large and two small meals every day. Rural families might eat four small meals. Everyone, including guests, is expected to clear their plates. By not eating all the food on your plate, you are essentially telling the cook that the food was not good. People eat meat with utensils rather than your hands. Diners are expected to stay at the table until everyone is finished eating.

Api is a drink made from purple corn! 


Futbol is the national sport. Children will use almost anything for a ball, including rocks and crumpled paper. Volleyball, basketball, and indoor soccer are also fairly popular. Leisure activities include watching television in urban areas. Bolivians also enjoy visiting with friends and attending festivals. The center of town, or the plaza, is considered the main spot for recreation. Some cities have arcades with electronic games. Home internet service is terribly expensive throughout the country, so internet cafes are popular in urban areas. There is a cafe every block in downtown areas of cities! Movie theaters are also popular in bigger cities like Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and La Paz. During vacation times, many Bolivians travel to holy places or visit relatives in other parts of the country. 

Many of Bolivia's cultural traditions have roots in ancient, pre-Inca civilizations. Bolivian textiles have changed very little from these ancient roots, and they use the same dyes and patterns that have been used for centuries. Since colonial times, silver and gold have been used to adorn architecture, jewelry, and other beautiful objects. Basket weaving and wood carving are also popular in some rural regions. Music is very important to Bolivian culture. There are three types of Bolivian music: the fast, happy rhythms in the east; slow, melancholic rhythms from the Andes, and happy, romantic rhythms from the central valleys. Many people are able to recognize music as being Bolivian by the instruments: panpipes (zampoña), vertical flutes, percussion instruments, and the charango, which is like a guitar made from an armadillo shell. 


Most Bolivian holidays have fixed dates, but are often moved to the day closest to the weekend. The three most important holidays are Independence Day, Carnaval, and Holy Week before Easter. Bolivians also celebrate New Year's Day, Sea Day (Dia del Mar, in March), Father's Day, Labor Day, Mother's Day, All Saint's Day and Christmas. On Christmas Eve, some children place old shoes in the windows for Papa Noel to take in exchange for gifts. Children also receive gifts on Three Kings Day in January.

A Carnaval celebration in Bolivia


Sanitation facilities in Bolivia are poor, which leads to contaminated water. Water issues lead to cholera, hepatitis, yellow fever, malaria, and other serious conditions. Tap water must be boiled before using, but wood and gasoline are scarce and expensive. Many rural areas have neither running water nor electricity. Local nurses and doctors have been working to train community healthcare workers in basic skills. This leads to increased health awareness and more help to assist the rural population. Infant mortality is high, and only about half the population has adequate access to medical care. Traditional medicine is still used in many rural regions.


Schooling is compulsory for Bolivian children aged 5 to 18. There are four educational levels: kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, and higher education. School conditions are poor. Most schools are public, but wealthy families may send their children to parochial or private schools. Less than half of all Bolivian children complete secondary education. Bolivian families are responsible for buying their own univorms and school supplies. Recent educational reform requires that schools teach both Spanish and indigenous languages. Illiteracy is declining, but it is still a major problem for the country due to strikes, long distances to travel to school, and familial responsibilities. Technology is rarely used in Bolivian classrooms, and teachers use traditional methods with blackboards and workbooks. The workbooks are expected to be kept clean and updated. If a student passes all the exams and knows the subject very well, he may fail the year if he doesn't turn in an updated workbook. Students in their final year of secondary school might attend classes at the same time as serving in the military. Entrance exams are required at Bolivia's university. There is a public university in every Bolivian state. Higher education usually lasts 5 years. Postgraduate courses are available, but most students do not pursue them.

Bible Verse: 

"Taita Diosca cai pachapi causajcunata yallitaj c'uyashpami, Paipaj shujlla Churita curca. Pipish Paita crijca ama chingarichun, ashtahuanpish huiñai causaita charichunmi Paita curca." Juan 3:16 (Quechua, via Bible Gateway)

From Compassion's website: 

"Compassion's work in Bolivia began in 1975. Currently, more than 66,500 children participate in more than 200 child development centers. Compassion partners with churches to help them provide Bolivian children with the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all God has created them to be."

There are many children in Bolivia who are waiting for sponsors! Here are just a few. 

David is 1 year old and his birthday is April 8. 

Eddyt is 7 years old and her birthday is April 6.

Heber is 18 years old and his birthday is January 15. He is giving a thumbs up! 

1 comment:

  1. These are so fun. I especially enjoy learning the cultural info. Bolivia is such a dear place in my heart. I hope to take Eric back someday!


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