Lay missioner Jeff Sved tells a story of purchasing food for the prison kitchen in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
“Cabeza de baca…”
“Wait a second! You want me to buy cow heads?”
The head delegate of one of the prisons here was actually asking us to go out and buy cow heads. I guess when you’re cooking soup for more than 400 inmates you want to get cheaper meats to add to the flavor.
Each prison works a little differently, but in general there are a couple of provided meals each week — two or three depending on the prison. The meals tend to be small and cheap, but at minimum it is enough to sustain life to some extent. Many inmates have family members who live close by and bring food in for them on a daily basis, others earn enough working within the prison to pay for a meal each day, but many others depend on the few weekly meals along with their 30 bolivianos a month ($1/week, which also must cover their rent and medical costs) to feed themselves.
I can’t imagine how humbling it must be for these inmates who are almost completely dependent on others for their food. Because of the lack of other options and the subsequent dependence, the delegates try their best to make the weekly meals as filling as possible for their fellow inmates. And so it was for one of these meals that I received this unique request.
I’ve had many interesting purchasing experiences in the Cancha, but so far it had been mainly machines and materials that I had never heard of before. This was something completely different. But with a quickly drawn map from one of the other delegates I headed out with one another volunteer to find the matadera (slaughterhouse) in search of cow heads.
When we got in the trufi and checked to make sure the driver was going past the matadera, he had a good chuckle at our expense. Unfortunately the matadera had already sold all their cabezas to various carnecerias in the city, so off we went into the heart of the Cancha in search of the next best price.
I generally take pride in knowing my way around the labyrinth that is the Cancha, and navigate the negotiations over fruits, veggies, and most everything else with relative ease compared to my usual struggles with the language. That pride in my Cancha competency disappeared quite quickly.
Having to stop every turn and ask someone where we could find cow heads was very humbling, and a good reminder that it takes time to become independent in a new place. I had thought the task was a pretty simple one, but at every turn things got a bit harder until we finally found a tienda that had a few cabezas left. Little did we know that there are a variety of cuts.
Not only did we need to ask more times than I can remember where we could buy cow heads, we had to learn how to buy them. And since we were quickly losing any ground in negotiations we went off to another area of the Cancha to ask one of my vendor friends to explain everything to us.
Humility finds us in the strangest places and through the strangest ways. But at this point I shouldn’t be surprised; humility is one of the most consistent lessons in mission life. I’m constantly reminded that I need to ask others for help, even for what seems like a simple task.
And with humility comes the blessing of the ability to laugh at yourself. With everyone else who was in the Cancha that day, we definitely had a good laugh at the ridiculous image of two foreigners carrying bags of cow heads back to the prison.