Basking in Bolivia
November 25, 2008
By Chantelle Lusebrink
Issaquah man longs to return to South American country after Peace Corps mission is cut short
Daniel Burnett arrived home in Issaquah in August planning to take a short break from his service in the Peace Corps.
But political destabilization in Bolivia forced many U.S. citizens and the U.S. Embassy to leave the country, a place Burnett called home for nearly two years.
“I would have packed up everything, especially my photos and my instruments, and took them with me, but I was supposed to go back,” he said.
A strange beginning
Burnett arrived in the small town of Quillacas in Oruro, about 400 miles from Le Paz, the country’s capital, in August 2006, after joining the Peace Corps as a way to use his Spanish degree.
He had graduated that spring with bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and music, and a minor in philosophy, from Wheaton College in Chicago.
“I have a curiosity to get to know the rest of the world. Plus, I was a college kid without any money and I had a desire to help people,” he said.
“This was the logical conclusion to his Latino studies emphasis,” said Don Burnett, Daniel’s father and pastor at Evergreen Community Church in Maple Hills. “It was a chance to become 100 percent proficient with the language, but also a chance to expand the Christian service side of himself.”
Daniel Burnett arrived to find the town in the throes of celebration.
“The square was full of people dancing and dressed in their traditional get-up,” he said. “There were bands playing and I was shaking hands with everyone. Some were more sober than others. The mayor wasn’t.”
The town of 400 permanent residents had more than 2,000 people celebrating its fall fiesta. Many had come for the occasion from larger cities where they hold permanent jobs.
After days of celebration, Burnett said he realized preparations for his arrival — housing, work and contacts — hadn’t been made.
“You’re completely on your own,” he said. “The people down there didn’t even know what was up.”
Getting to work
He made the most of his first few weeks, trying to talk to people and waiting for a family to give him shelter so he could begin his work.
“We basically do a diagnosis of what is the biggest need or what support they need and what type of funding is required,” he said.
The Guarachi family took him in and he was able to build his first project — a functioning, sanitary bathroom for the family.
He then helped to create fresh water wells and helped start other village sanitation projects.
“The biggest need is sanitation,” he said. “There is none. People go to the edge of town and that’s it. The illnesses they have are contributed mostly to the lack of sanitation, and most infant deaths are a result of diarrhea.”
He helped promote use of a newly built health clinic, which people were wary of; went to local schools promoting the English language; edited a magazine, which educated people about the area; and helped his host family by helping raise then slaughter llamas for food or cooking for family functions.
“He applied his faith and learning in a concrete setting,” Don Burnett said. “He really ended up doing much more than creating bathrooms and digging wells. He did a lot of community building through music, education and journalism.”
But while he was in the mountains conducting his work, the lowland regions of the country were becoming more restless as the government tried to nationalize privately owned resources, he said.
“It is a volatile country, but he was held together by the safety net of people that knew him and his work,” he said. “When we visited him, they had adopted him as a part of their community.”
Developing understanding, friendships
Though the work was important, friendships and people Daniel Burnett met gave his work meaning.
“I’ve never seen kinder people,” he said. “When you made an effort, they’d make an effort. But if you were withdrawn, you’d let the language barriers become a big problem.”
He said he spent much of his time visiting and speaking with people about cultural perceptions, current events and politics.
“They are real curious about politics and they want to know about Bin Laden, what was in our news and about President Bush, too,” he said. “They have an image of all our military power, our wars and our aggression. I wanted to show them something else, another side of America.”
He said his work determined how people perceived him.
“It’s about going beyond politics, making that human connection,” he said. “What we are doing speaks louder then our politics. The fact that we are there, helping them and with them, gives them a different understanding.”
He said he misses his discussions, the family he had become part of and his favorite meals.
“There’s nothing like fresh roasted llama in the field,” he said.
A new future
Since returning home, Burnett has been busy filling out job applications and interviewing.
“I’m trying to get hired with a company, save money and then I’m looking to go to graduate school,” he said.
If he had returned to Bolivia, he had planned to start a grant-writing process to secure funding for greenhouse gardens, to help residents grow crops and better understand nutrition and health.
He said he still hopes to return someday.
“I’d love to get involved with a business that imports and exports machinery from the U.S. to there,” he said. “Long term, it could mean a big improvement in their standard of living.”
Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org.