-by Emilia Hall-
T’ikay: in Quechua, meaning to flourish, to bloom.
And this is exactly what Pintar en Bolivia’s Project T’ikay aims to do. Working in a local centre that houses children who have suffered from severe and traumatic burns, the project encourages the emotional capacity and growth of the patients we work with through art therapy.
Marieke and Silvie are both art therapy students from Holland, interning with Pintar en Bolivia for six months. Art therapy is a non-verbal form of therapy that has proved to be extremely beneficial in Bolivia, and conducive to the country’s current climate regarding the issue of mental health, and the taboo that surrounds it.
“In Bolivia, it is not so common and accepted to talk about your emotions”, explains Silvie. “The children we work with are not accustomed to verbally communicating their thoughts and feelings – however, we have found they are actually very artistic, and are able communicate through the exercises we suggest in the therapy sessions”.
Alongside Lisan (the director of the NGO), Marieke and Silvie provide both individual and group weekly art therapy sessions. On Mondays, for example, they run a group session with five girls, which lasts around an hour and a half.
“This group session is more low-threshold, more focused on activation and support”, says Marieke. “While the individual sessions focus more deeply on personal struggles and past trauma, the group session concentrates on self-esteem, and encourages the girls to support each other”.
Collaboration and group support are two things that are imperative for the patients here. The centre, which houses fifteen children, is independent from the state, and therefore has little to no funding. After 6pm every day, a woman takes care of cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. During the afternoon, after school finishes, there is a doctor, a visiting physiotherapist, and a secretary. The centre is essential for the children, as not only a provider of medical care for their burn wounds, but a place to live, sleep and eat.
“The children don’t have nearly as much attention as they would in more medically developed countries, such as the ones in Europe,” says Marieke. And attention is something that the kids desperately need. “There is one particular girl I work with – she is a bit of a black sheep of the house, and therefore suffers somewhat from loneliness. Whenever I come to see her, she is so excited, so over the moon, and hugs me very tightly. On the one hand, it is nice she is getting such a positive experience from Project T’ikay…but on the other, it is heart-breaking to see the attention and love she so obviously craves. And this is similar for all the kids”.
Many of the children live far away from their families, and come from poor backgrounds; a few come from Potosí, the poorest city in Bolivia, which is around eight to ten hours away. Accidents resulting in severe burns are a huge problem in Bolivia – and much of it comes down to education. The accidents the children suffer are mostly incidents that are entirely preventable, and stems from the fact that they, as well as their parents, are not warned or aware of the dangers of fire and gas. Many children are left unsupervised all day while parents leave the village to go and work. Meanwhile, they play alongside gasoline on the street, around fires, around stoves…children as young as six or seven are left to cook meals for themselves and their younger siblings…open flames are left burning next to hay beds. In fact, there is also a startling and shockingly high record of “revenge attacks”, where fire and gas are used as a way to “punish” someone who the attacker deems deserving of such a heinous crime.
Alongside the physical effects of these burns, the children suffer greatly from emotional trauma, and many have personal problems within their families. Pintar en Bolivia works with these children, helping them gain a sense of closure and acceptance of who they are; it is a long road for them to understand that their burns, although a part of them, do not define who they are. Art therapy is something new here in Bolivia, and it has been heartening to see the positive effects the sessions have.
However, while the introduction of this relatively new form of therapy has been extremely beneficial, the future of the project is somewhat murky. “I’d like to be positive, but I am concerned about the future of the centre”, says Silvie. “The centre only has one doctor, who is over seventy years old now…it will be difficult to try and find another one who can help, as there is not much state support for institutions like this in Bolivia. The kids also desperately need a psychologist…the first step is talking about their accidents, and I believe we will struggle to achieve everything we want out of art therapy if the children do not also learn to verbally communicate their thoughts, feelings and emotions”. Marieke agrees that the standard offered to the children is lacking. “On a positive note, I think Lisan has really helped develop the psychological support in the centre. But after my experiences of working in healthcare in Holland, it makes me sad that a similar standard of support is not available for them.”
Despite setbacks and future uncertainty, Pintar en Bolivia and Project T’ikay continue to work with our centre, and offer therapy to the children it houses. Marieke believes that progress, although gradual, has been something very positive. “I am really proud of what we do and I am really happy we can help, and that it’s good for them that help is there. In the art therapy, they seem very ready for the help – they need a listening ear from the outside, who is not in their lives every day. One girl in particular wrote in her evaluation form that the therapy was helping her grow in self-belief and confidence, and wrote that she was far less shy in school now. I find this very touching”. Silvie agrees. “I’m already proud that these kids open up just a little bit – it’s been a hard process as they’re not used to opening up or talking, and so seeing even a small opening in a piece of art is already amazing”.
We hope to keep on offering a safe space for the children at Project T’ikay. The children we work with continue to amaze us with their strength and resilience every day…and we will continue to be there and offer our support for as long as they want and need it.