Britta Hansen, originally from St. Anthony Park, has spent the past year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, near the eastern edge of the Andes Mountains, training villagers in apiculture. Family and friends in Minnesota have directly supported Hansen’s efforts by contributing funds to launch a beekeeping business in the village of Paredones.
Hansen said she wants people who read the Bugle to know about her work because she sees herself as their representative in Bolivia. “I hope people believe we’re doing something important.”
The Peace Corps, an agency of the federal government, has been in operation since 1961. Its roots go back to President Kennedy, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and the notion that a national program of service abroad would contribute to world peace and friendship. Hansen is one of 8,000 U.S. citizens currently volunteering around the world.
As an agricultural volunteer, Hansen’s main goal is to promote better family nutrition and to create sustainable incomes for families in a country well known for both its natural beauty and its poverty. According to Hansen, the beekeeping project makes a lot of sense because Bolivians have a history of gathering honey. The goal is to transform that rustic tradition into a more sustainable and technical practice of beekeeping.
Hansen believes there is a good opportunity for villagers to become economically independent by selling products made from honey and beeswax, such as lip balm and honey-sweetened granola, through local markets. The nearby town of Samaipata, on the edge of Amboro National Park, the largest national park in the country and a destination for many “eco-tourists,” offers one such market opportunity.
Although beekeeping is traditionally men’s work, Hansen has found herself working with the village women. “As a woman,” she said, “it’s hard for me to work with men, look them in the eye, laugh at their jokes — it means you’re going to get married.”
So the students who attend her weekly classes are mostly young women with children; they have little formal education beyond fourth grade. It can be a challenge teaching people who “have learned things in a way that is so different,” said Hansen. Still, she enjoys and admires the students, observing that “many of the things they know are so amazing.”
Hansen lives with a local family in a compound where she has a one-room pueblo house. The running water is outside, electricity is sporadic and she washes all her clothes by hand. The Peace Corps is also involved with improving sanitary conditions in the area where, among 150 people, only a third have toilets.
Hansen has made many good friends in the village despite cultural differences. She’s aware that she is seen as “doomed,” an old maid at age 25. The villagers consider her careless about her health because she goes outside in the rain — albeit in a rain jacket.
“We find each other humorous,” she said.
During a brief visit home in August, Hansen reported that the beekeeping project is going well. After the villagers who participate in the program put up 30 percent of the funds, Hansen led a fundraising campaign and collected $4000 to purchase bee boxes, bee-keeping suits and harvesting and processing equipment. She used the Peace Corps Partnership Program to raise the money, mainly through online donations from friends and family.
The Partnership Program applies 100 percent of tax-deductible donations toward a specific project, such as Hansen’s beekeeping project in Paredones. Other projects include drinking water and sanitation, information and communication technology, and HIV/AIDS prevention and education.
Hansen reports to donors and partners in her project in Bolivia by sending letters and photos, and she has maintained a blog that chronicles her volunteer work: http://global-eyes.blogspot.com.
Hansen compares volunteering with the Peace Corps to the Internet. Both open up a world of possibilities, connecting “everyone to everything.”
She said, “When you volunteer, it’s a way of saying to the country, to the world, the cosmos: We’re all working for the same things; we all want the same things.”
I originally interviewed Britta Hansen in August. Shortly before going to press with this article, it was reported that because of civil unrest in Bolivia, all Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the country. In an e-mail she wrote, “We are all safe and sound, a little sad, and worried about our communities and friends that couldn’t get out. And we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. A lot of work and projects have been left behind — belongings and friends that we may never see again.”