Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April, 2009

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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Bolivia’s been in the news for many reasons in the last few weeks, and there’s a regular old pile of stories to be dissected and reposted: UN human rights reports, opening of relations with the USA, footballing triumph and oh my, assassination attempts! But I am afraid to say that all of this has been overshadowed by tremendous grief and shock at the death of Olivia Harris, who among many other things was my PhD supervisor. Writing this with a heavy heart, it feels that to follow this announcement with the customary sarcastic digestion of news is to trivialise it. I’ve also been reluctant to put it up here because frankly, that would mean admitting that she is dead, and that has been difficult. It’s illogical that someone so lively, warm and important should be suddenly gone. But she is.

Olivia’s influence in British anthropology and Latin American studies has been immense, but her contribution to thinking about Bolivia is perhaps even more significant. She carried out fieldwork in Ayllu Laymi, Norte de Potosi, and explored gender, landholding, cosmology and productivity. In the 1980s she published essays on gendered violence and reproduction that brought Andean realities into contact with feminist thought. Her background in philosophy and history gave her writing a framework of reference that made it pertinent and interesting far beyond anthropology, and she was also deeply interested in law and legal systems. Olivia’s influence, one suspects, was at the heart of many of the most interesting monographs to be written about the Andes and beyond in the last few years: Professor Les Back, for example, was one of her first supervisees.

I didn’t know it, but I was one of her last. I first met Olivia in 2003. I was a nervous recent graduate eager to carry on studying the politics and cultures of highland Bolivia, intimidated by the interview with Big Famous Name Olivia Harris. She put me at my ease immediately and we laughed and teased out research ideas. This unaffected warmth, generosity, patience and eagerness to muck in and discuss research questions continued to characterise every interaction we had, even at the nadir of sluggish PhD production, blockage, angst and frustration. Many times I went into meetings with Olivia embarrassed about a lack of progress or unsure of the value of my ideas, and I always – always came out reassured, buoyed, encouraged and inspired to continue writing. Just ten days before her death, it was announced that she was very unwell. I don’t think anyone could have expected her to leave us so abruptly. This is one of the moments of rupture she described as her latest research interest: traumatic, certainly and life-altering for many, not least her family. In addition to her personal kindness, compassion and charisma, there are a great many threads of investigation and thought left unwoven. The loss of all the possible projects, all the future books and seminars and collaborations, is difficult on an entirely different level than the personal pain of losing someone who was a parent figure, friend and mentor to so many. Olivia, thank you for the extraordinary gift of having had you in our lives. We will miss you searingly.

James Dunkerley, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London School of Advanced Study, wrote Olivia’s obituary for the Guardian. As one expects from James, it is academically robust in describing some of her key contributions, and tender in describing her life and how beloved she was by friends and colleagues. It follows below the cut, as does the text of a brief article from La Prensa including a note of mourning from her Bolivian colleagues. It is deeply sad that most of them will be unable to come to her funeral, but they have this to say:

‘Your friends, we who saw you arrive in the 70s for your fieldwork with the Laymis, we who shared with you your joys, slept, ate, cried and danced at your side, those who know of your commitment to our struggles, advances and retreats thank you deeply and wish you to know that we are with you, always’.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

SIX OOOOOOONE

Wow! Bolivia just played some stunning football and trounced the Argentinians. It really would take the hand of God to help you now, Dieguito! (There are Twitterers even now declaring, ‘I was here!’ from Hernando Siles. Historic, apparently).

Read Full Post »