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The Bolivian Way


Editor’s Note: In Bolivia, missioner Tom Little oversees and works in a meat packing plant on the campus of Carmen Pampa University. In this post, he shares how he’s had to adapt to a very different understanding of time and deadlines than what he was used to in the US.

My main job at the UAC is to manage the embutidora (meat packing plant). Some of my responsibilities include managing the student’s work schedules and making sure that products get made and delivered on time.

This time sensitive aspect of my job is not particularly fun or easy because of the uncertainty related to it. It is made even more difficult by what I consider “The Bolivian Way.”

The Bolivian Way is how things get done here. It doesn’t matter how much planning is done or what is agreed upon beforehand- the project always gets started at the last minute. No matter how many times a person says they will be somewhere at a certain time, they will be late (if they show up at all.)

When a deadline is looming this can make life even more stressful than it already is.

In this culture, time is thought of in a different way than in North America. From what I have learned, the relationship with time comes with the fact that vital services cannot be relied on. Therefore, maintaining a schedule is nearly impossible, especially in rural areas like Carmen Pampa.

In most day-to-day activities my stress and frustration with the Bolivian way is chalked up to a cultural difference and I go with the flow.

This flexibility is not so easy when I am dealing with products that have limited shelf lives and even tighter deadlines (it is not uncommon to have a product asked for and/or due within 12 hours of when it will be served to the students).

Even with all of the frustrations associated with this way of doing things there is also a great sense of beauty that took me quite a while to see.

I have seen that when your back is up against the wall and all of the planning is thrown out the window, people start showing up to lend a hand. No one takes on too much of the burden of getting things done; everyone just does what they can.

After a flurry of activity, the task is complete and everyone goes back to whatever they were doing before. Everyone seems to expect and understand this process without needing to talk about it.

Sometimes when this happens I am in awe of the communal nature of how things get done here. I am able to see the larger picture and how people truly care for each other and are willing to put others first. Other times, I am still consumed by my North Americaness and can’t understand why it had to come to this last minute scramble.

In situations where I see the former perspective, it shows how far I have come during my time on mission. In the latter perspective of frustration, it is a reminder of how far I still have to go to understand the people that I walk with on this journey.

Reflection Questions: Have you ever experienced a time when initial frustration turned to gratitude? What did that experience show you?

From Southern California, Tom graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, with a degree in crop science. He feels a deep connection to food and plans to work on agricultural development and food security while on mission. Tom served at Carmen Pampa University in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia.