Inge Bolin, Applied Anthropologist: Making a difference

February 4, 1997 - 4:00pm

"Ever since Margaret Mead brought anthropology into world notice," said Malaspina University-College's anthropology instructor Inge Bolin, "it has become acceptable for anthropologists to get involved with the cultures they work with in the field. My area of interest - applied anthropology - is simply putting theory into practice."

Bolin is no "armchair anthropologist."

She conducts her research first-hand by immersing herself in the culture of the people. To her the scientific term "objective distance" belongs in the past.

She believes in getting involved by working side by side on projects with indigenous populations and feels that anthropologists in the field can make a difference to the lives of the people being researched.

For 13 years Bolin has been researching and working with the "almost forgotten" villages in the high Andes of Peru. The people here live at an altitude of 5000 metres separated from mainstream Peruvian society. The living conditions in the sparse environments are among the simplest and most difficult on earth.

Most families survive by herding llama, alpaca and sheep. As they live above tree-level, the only reliable crop is potatoes. The people live in adobe huts without electricity or running water. There are no roads and the closest village can be 20 kilometres or more away.

These simple living conditions stand in stark contrast to the impressive knowledge the people have in the breeding and raising of animals and of their high-mountain ecology. Their artistic abilities are well represented in the quality and design of their weavings.

According to Bolin, the greater society looks on these people as simple mountain folk and while they are often illiterate, speaking only Quechua, the language of the Incas, she says they quickly assume responsibility for bettering their lives if they can get some technical knowledge and funding assistance.

"Once the villagers understand my role as an anthropologist, they are not afraid to ask for assistance in putting together developmental projects. They recognize that I have outside contacts with non-governmental organizations (NGO's), for example, that can assist with technical expertise and funding for their projects. I am able to help villages by organizing their proposals to meet the funding criteria of the various NGO's, and by presenting them to the agency most able to assist them," she said.

So far, Bolin has worked with villagers on small-scale development projects in irrigation, solar energy, medicine, drinking water, health clinics and schools. At any one time she has as many as 12 projects underway in the field; projects that make a difference to the lives of the people she is in contact with.

Bolin says, "It's hard not to be involved. How can a researcher come to a village to ask about rituals when its people are starving and not do something for them in exchange for information. Reciprocity - anthropological research in exchange for developmental assistance - has been a very important component of my work in the Peruvian Andes."

One of her projects is the "Yachaq - Medicina Andina, Nuticion y Ecologia," (The Applied Investigation in Andean Medicine, Nutrition, and Ecology 'Yachaq'), Cusco, Peru.

In 1992, Bolin founded this NGO with the objective of recovering and disseminating knowledge of traditional Andean medicine, nutrition and ecology. Funded by the Red Cross of Stuttgart, Germany, the members of the NGO published their first book: Yachasun: Experiencias en Medicina Tradicional Andina, Cusco, Peru (1995).

The Yachaq (meaning 'wise person') project allowed the people of the Cusco region to share knowledge of natural medicines obtained from herbs, plants and other flora, and to establish gardens in the villages to grow them. The project established a network of indigenous healers, nurses, physicians and biologists who share this information. The goal was to develop a system of traditional rural pharmacies to improve a disastrous health situation in the villages of Yanahuara, Cusipata, Chillihuani, Machu Picchu and other villages along the Vilcanota and Urubamba Valleys.

Bolin's other Peruvian projects include introducing solar cookers and water heaters to villages where it is environmentally unsound or impossible to use firewood for cooking fires; drinking water for the village of Chillihuani; first aid stations and supplies for clinics, and a hospital in Cusco.

She was instrumental in the development of small-scale industries for two "Clubes de Madres" (Mothers' Clubs) in the district of Cusipata; libraries for the communities of Yanahuara, Cusipata and Chillihuani and equipment and materials for the Leonbamba School in Urubamba Valley.

Recently Bolin assisted in organizing a conference on the importance of preserving biodiversity in Manu National Park in the Peruvian rainforest. Her earliest projects date back to 1984 when Bolin first arrived to undertake her doctoral studies "Organization of Irrigation" through the University of Alberta.

Bolin, who was born in Stuttgart, Germany, developed her love of foreign countries and cultures while working as a flight attendant for Lufthansa. Once she chose anthropology as her field of study, she completed her B.A. at the University of Calgary and her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Alberta.

Bolin tries to return to Peru each year for further projects and study and is keenly interested in introducing students to her work there in the field , or in the classroom in Nanaimo where she can relate her first-hand experiences from the field.

She speaks German, English, French, Spanish, Quecha and some Mandarin. She has field experience in Africa, Guatemala, Belize, West Sumatra, Singapore and the Amazon jungle.

"My projects in Peru taught me that it was absolutely necessary to put theory into practice in some instances. As a result of working towards a common goal with these wonderful people, I have learned so much more about them than was possible in any other way," Bolin said. "On top of that, they've become family. I now have 33 Peruvian godchildren."

Bolin is excited about Malaspina's new applied anthropology degree and says that Malaspina is one of the first post-secondary institutions in Canada to offer a program of this nature.

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