Following Olivia Harris‘s shockingly sudden death, Xavier Albó has written movingly of his friend and colleague with a fluency and a beauty which it is an honour to translate. This article was originally published in La Razon. The original, Spanish version of the text follows underneath a cut.
Memories of Olivia Harris
by Xavier Albó
Many public events of these days have merited our reflection. But my mind and heart are now on a subject much more personal and human: the rapid and unexpected death of Olivia Harris. It arrives shortly after the death, this time after a long illness, of another good friend and colleague about whom many have written recently, Jose Luis Roca, both brought down amid us by cancer. Here I will not focus on Olivia’s fecund and well-cared-for academic production, but on the human and personal dimension of Olivia.
I met Olivia at the start of the 70s, when she stayed several times in my house in La Paz. She was a young English girl, lively and jovial, who possessed a great touch with people. Together, we travelled around the altiplano of Jesus and San Andres de Machaca, and together we worked on one of her first local pieces, on miners and peasants.
Olivia belonged to a well-connected British family, associated with the upper levels of the Anglican church and even linked to the Crown. But she immersed herself fully over many years in a completely different world, in the community of Muruq’u Marka, a day’s travel away from the paved road in the south of the Mining District of Catavi, in the far south of Ayllu Laymi, near the conflictive dividing line with Ayllus Jukumani and Qaqachaka. Upon presenting her credentials in the Direccion Nacional de Cultura in La Paz they told her she should study Quechua. She did. But when she arrived, she discovered that the people were Aymara, although many knew Quechua as a second language.
The comunity members thought highly of her because she shared all their lives with them: worked in the fields, herded llamas, danced in fiestas, ate and slept whatever and wherever. They admired her audacity to go on foot anywhere, to cross rivers in rainy season. She ran around all those stretches of land mostly on foot, sometimes even on a large motorbike which a teacher lent her. Over six months she accompanied the llama caravans to the Mizque valleys. Jaime Bartolli, at that time of Uncia parish, reminds me of a detail which is her all over: at the most unexpected hour and day, she appeared around there with her poncho – and her violin!
What might have brought her to so much adventure? Excited by the talks of John Murra, the great innovator of Andean studies, she was a pioneer in transcending the Peruvian perspective which was at that time so dominant, and completing it with the novel and complex cultural expressions of Northern Potosí. In those years, many local collaborators helped her, particularly Eusebio Inca Vilka and his wife Lidia.
Some ayllus further on, en San Marcos Vallada de Macha, Tristan Platt, another Briton, followed a complementary path. Further north, the French historians Therese Bouysse and Thierry Saignes (dec. 1992) added data and historical depth. Further south, Veronica Cereceda gave an aesthetic touch, with her unique sensitivity. From this emerged a whole team, soon accompanied by a troupe of researchers, as many Bolivian and Andean as from other countries, who have renovated our understanding and commitment to the Andean peoples of Bolivia, Peru, the north of CHile and of Argentina.
The human warmth of her first years were repeated in all the years which have come since until the very day of her death, accompanied by Harry, her dear husband and Marina, her so longed-for and beloved Anglo-Bolivian daughter.
Not many years after her time in Muruq’u Marka, her principal collaborator and co-researcher Eusebio Inka died prematurely at 35 years olf, from a lack of medical attention in a Potosí hospital, from an easily curable disease. This greatly hurt and worried Olivia as much for his wife Lidia as for himself and his children. Little would I have thought that, with the passing o the years and despite the impeccable care of the British medical system, death the thief would assault her in a similarly brutal manner.
Now she has met up again with Eusebio in that other spring of life, that which none of us comprehend but we know of and accept. The Laymis themselves taught her to accept with hope the mystery which, sooner or later, all of us walk through. Olivia, you continue very alive and present in our memories and all of the work which you have left us.
Xavier Albo is a linguist, anthropologist and Jesuit priest.