Once upon a time (four years ago, to be exact), a quartet of young women sat down in a coffee shop to discuss gender politics in Bolivia.
One of them was named Susana Valda (Susi for short), and today she is the manager of The Beehive--a combined hostel and community centre located in Sucre, Bolivia’s quiet capital.
The Beehive is the fruit of that conversation four years ago. Started by the quartet of women, it uses money made by the hostel side of its business to fund projects supporting women across Sucre.
I sat down with Susi on a crushed leather sofa in the hostel's dinky reception area, to ask about The Beehive's history. ‘We never thought it would come true,’ she told me, of the dream to build the hostel.
It's a dream that wouldn't have existed at all if it hadn't been for one tourist, trying to learn Spanish.
The Beehive was the brainchild of Amanda Pojanamat, a traveller from California. The daughter of Thai parents, Amanda came to Bolivia to learn Spanish--and while there, she was moved to do something to improve conditions for Bolivian women.
Susi was a teacher at the time, at Amanda’s Spanish school. Together with two friends, they hatched The Beehive Project. Starting a philanthropic project in Bolivia is no mean feat--the country isn't exactly set up to encourage third sector activity.
‘The government has no money,’ Susi told me, brushing back dark hair with a rueful smile. ‘And if they have, they are using it for other things.’
Susi comes across as a quietly stylish woman, with a thoughtful demeanour but a ready smile. Sitting on a sofa in beige boots and a sleek bomber jacket, she looked a world away from the ladies in flannel caps and bowler hats selling potatoes in Bolivia's bustling markets.
'Women here need to work, be in the house, cook, clean, look after the kids, be a nurse...' Susi said, with a sigh. Women in Bolivia face serious hardships; the country has a disproportionately high illiteracy rate among women, and more than half of reported assaults come under the heading of domestic violence. The 2009 election saw an increase in female representation in Bolivian Parliament--but even so, Bolivian women only occupy 28% of Parliamentary positions.
‘Our first idea was a Foundation,’ Susi explained, of the Beehive initiative, ‘but the question was how we would get money, so we decided to start the hostel instead.’
Securing a hostel building wasn’t easy. The Beehive is currently based in an old colonial house, with white walls and a sunny courtyard (Sucre, otherwise known as the White City, is positively bursting with white walls and sunny courtyards). The hostel originally started out on another property, but when their contract ran out, Susi and co. were forced to move
They spent the next twenty-four months refitting their current building to make it livable, putting in everything from new flooring to electric sockets.
It’s work that’s still going on. ‘Two years,’ Susi said wryly, ‘and we’re still fixing things.’
Still, The Beehive is one of Sucre’s top-rated hostels on Hostelworld.com, and the place is home to a constantly refreshing roster of quirky, friendly travellers. It isn’t unusual for backpackers to stay at the Beehive for days or even weeks longer than planned, volunteering to help the Beehive and its project out.
They could always use the extra hands.
‘It’s crazy hard,’ Suzi said, of The Beehive’s work.
The Beehive strives to support Bolivian women in two ways. Firstly it works together with other organisations in Sucre to provide support, legal aid and advice to local women, especially those trying to run their own businesses in the city market.
Secondly, in collaboration with a charity called Foundation Dos Mases, The Beehive runs a language school for Sucre's children. This is to help open the children’s minds to different cultures, and fight Bolivia’s toxic Machismo environment--winning hearts from an early age.
‘It’s not about being feminist,’ Susi said, when I asked her if that was how she saw The Beehive’s mission. ‘It’s about women having their own rights in jobs, in family, in society... human rights, to be able to say what you think. Sometimes women can’t do that.’
‘I feel it is getting better,’ Susi added, about the status of women in Bolivia. ‘But as a little, little thing.’
‘I was very surprised when the kids ask for more lessons every day,’ Susi added, remembering her own time in school--being forced to learn English, and hating it. But The Beehive’s English lessons have proven a hit. Additionally, The Beehive also provides cheap Spanish lessons to passing backpackers, to help bring Bolivians and foreigners closer together.
I asked Susi about the future of The Beehive, and she sounded optimistic. ‘I’d like to see what else we can do,’ she said. ‘Maybe a foundation, or a centre in another place.’ Susi is the last of the four founding members still working at The Beehive, but her co-founder Amanda will be returning to Bolivia in a year, with plans to expand The Beehive's efforts to include improving the standard of healthcare in Sucre.
Expanding will be serious a challenge for The Beehive, which has to scrap for all the funds it can get--but with support from travellers and locals alike, it's one that Susi thinks they can meet.
‘All my life I was working in an office,’ she told me wryly, gesturing at The Beehive’s small lobby, and the prim colonial courtyard outside. ‘I never thought I’d be working in a building like this.’
It started as four women in a coffee shop.
It’s amazing how far one conversation can go.
> You can find out more about The Beehive and its mission here.
> Relaxed, walkably small and positively European in its architecture, Sucre is a definite contrast to the Gothic nightmare of La Paz. It's a great place to spend a few nights winding down.
>That said, Bolivia is still Bolivia, so Sucre is currently in the grip of anti-government protests; firecrackers sound off in the streets, as protesters wave placards at the local police and demand lower taxes. When I got here, there was a small but colourful street-fiesta going on; the dancers segued into protesters without pause.
Bolivians just like their streets lively, I guess.