Portrait of young girl

Portrait of a young Bolivian girl by Vic Briggs


About this image: I do not know the story of this child. Her portrait was mine to capture, yet beyond the smile of a Bolivian girl there is a narrative that ought to be told, for in many ways she will become a part of it. She is a part of it already.

I would like to think that she would go to school, that her childhood will be filled with dreams and that one day she will grow up to find those dreams fulfilled. Perhaps hers will be a successful career and a loving family. Or perhaps…

The truth is that wishful thinking oftentimes remains just that, and reality will have its say. For in Bolivia women are at a disadvantage when it comes to equity in all wakes of life. The rates of illiteracy are higher amongst women than men. There is a high degree of discrimination at an institutional level with women receiving both quantitatively and qualitatively worse education than their male counterparts. Where education fails, the opportunities of working your way out of poverty are few and far between.

While women have been increasingly active on the jobbing market, more than half of their number continue to be out of work and the majority of the work open to them is neither highly productive nor is it well paid. Low income amongst Bolivian women, particularly those of indigenous origin, is endemic.

So much for the dream of an illustrious career.

The traditional misogynistic culture that persists in this country subdues women to a life of dependency and subordination. The 1830s civil code of Bolivia that required women’s obedience to their husbands may have been overruled, but its ethos is very much alive. Women are expected to bear children and take care of their family, having almost exclusive responsibility for domestic work. Meanwhile, the maternal mortality rate in Bolivia is one of the highest in the world and in rural areas – particularly the altiplano where this girl resides – it is more than double that of cities.

She may get lucky, but that is another uncertainty awaiting her ahead.

Although the Bolivian constitution guarantees gender equality, effective equity is yet to be reached. Legal change is insufficient in and of itself. This is a battle for hearts and minds. It is a struggle for cultural change, which is far more difficult to accomplish.

I will continue to harbour hope and maybe – just maybe – this little girl will be part of that much needed change.

Daily Prompt: Young At Heart

My Hero | It will always be You

My grandfather and I.jpg

To be loved unconditionally. A gift that no one can ever take away from you.

For my grandfather

The man whom I called “little father” was taken from me just as I stepped from childhood into my teens. I miss him so. Yet his boundless, generous love is mine still, many years after I could sprint down the stairs to greet him at the end of a hard’s day work, to be enveloped in the warmth of his arms, my cheek grazed by the familiar stubble as I reached in for a kiss. His hands smelt of fresh-cut grass… the scent of the earth in his hair.

He taught me to delight in the simplest of pleasures: a loaf of bread fresh out the wood-burning bowls of a clay furnace, the feel of the grassland against my bare feet, the smell of mushrooms picked in the woodlands, the white froth atop the mug of milk that was mine every morning. Summers turned into autumns under the mellow sun of my childhood, winds caressed my hopeful imaginings, rains cooled my fears and everywhere was peace and contentment. 

I grew up at his side, a free wild thing with boyish ways, a pixy spirit. There were treasured mornings when he would bundle me up onto the back of his horse at dawn and we would take to the fields. 

I remember standing in the middle of a field peppered by the early buds of spring, breathing in deep the silence and making a wish that I would never forget that moment. Perhaps I intuited that memory is untrustworthy, that time can steal what it had once gifted freely. Perchance I foresaw a day in the far distant future – for the future is always at a distance to a child’s heart – when I would need to come back to that moment of stolen bliss.

Daily Prompt: Heroic


“Kill me then! I never asked to be born anyway!”


I am the girl who ought never been born.

Was I meant to know this, or did it slip up in anger? There was someone else loved for some twelve joyful weeks. Another body grasped at life, cells dividing, multiplying to bring forth the beat of another’s heart.

An elder brother or sister, I thought at first. But no… That could not be. My existence relied on their having perished. I was an interloper, colonising a womb still grieving for its loss, stepping over bloodied memories and anchoring myself into its wall when the coast got clear. It may have protested, but it did not manage to shift me. I wedged in; not a quitter me. A survivor.

I did not ask to be born.

How often did I feel it as a child; and thought of it more often still, though seldom speaking out. There were slipups however.


It was a sunbathed morning in June. The war was afoot. The White Queen marshalled her pawns in a straight line and then proceeded to inspect her cavalry. The knights’ armour gleamed as white as the coats of their steeds. In the distance, across the carpeted fur-land, the Black Queen was similarly occupied. The Kings took their siestas. They weren’t much good these kings: could hardly move for old age, and even when they did they were bound to get themselves into more trouble that was worth anyone’s while.

‘Twas time to advance. The queens met on neutral ground – at Giantdoll-Hill – and deliberated which of their parties ought to make the first move. The custom, according to grandfather, was for the White to go first, but that struck the Black Queen as somewhat unfair. They appealed to my wisdom and experience. A new set, I suppose I did have a few years of know-how on them. After thoughtful consideration, I decided that the best way out of the conundrum would be to flip a coin. Let fate play her hand. I’d seen father do it. It looked like fun.

Problem was, I had no coin of my own, and mother had to be kept in the dark about my play. I’d been instructed to tidy up my room an age ago, and she would be none too pleased if she discovered that instead of a clean-up, I opted to add to the mess.

You should never-ever think about things you do not want to happen. No sooner did I think of her, that she presented herself on the doorstep: a giant urn, both hands implanted on broad hips, one flaming cheek skyward and another touching the parquetted floors of Lucifer’s homestead.

“I’ve had it with you. Look at this mess. Why can’t you just do as I say?”

She hurried forward and gathered the chess pieces in her lap.

Disgruntled, I plunked myself into the middle of the room, determined not to lift one finger in her aid. Mother looked worn. Something in my attitude irked her. I knew I ought to help her and that I’d pay for it later if I kept it up, but I was in a combative mood and beat the guilt-tripped reason into silence. At last, mother lost it.

“Selfish girl! You’ll do what I say or – I swear to God, just as I gave birth to you – I’ll kill you with my own two hands!”

“Kill me then! I never asked to be born anyway!”


I am the girl who lost her mother.

It took me years to find my way back to her. I blamed her for many things, bad things that happened to us. I blamed her too for failing to keep me in the dark about them. I didn’t want to grow up. Not then. Not that way.

She might’ve been a better daughter, that other girl who didn’t make it through.

It was easier to numb the pain, pretend it wasn’t there. I wanted to be free of it, even if she couldn’t be.



I lunge towards the wood panel at the water’s edge, eyes half closed. The tips of my fingers skid downwards off its slippery surface.

I am falling, falling in slow motion away from the light.

The waters have closed in above me. One moment longer and all the air will be expelled from the depths of my lungs. There is nothing to hold on to, nothing to grip. My mind is a blank. I can almost taste the salt of that dense grave at the back of my throat. Such peace…

And then sound breaks through.

As if in a dream, the muffled laughter of a child reaches down towards me. My body convulses. My limbs contort. In one final struggle I thrust towards the surface. It’s just there. Just above me. So close.

I grasp around for anything that might anchor me into life. At last my roving hand takes hold of something. Unsure of what it is, I grab at it. My fingers slip, yet now I know there is something to hold on to and I clutch at it again. A film obscures my vision. My eyes sting, but I keep them open. A ruthless hill shoves my shoulder aside, pushing me down. Water rushes into my mouth, down my throat and into my lungs. I want to scream, but cannot.

It is over. The light flickers for a moment and goes out.

Suddenly, a hand stretches down towards me and I can feel the strength of its fingers tightening around the scruff of my neck pulling, dragging, propelling my weakling of a body outward. The sun hits me full in the face. A rush of air pushes inwardly to replace the saltiness of the water within.

My body seems at first to draw back from the dazzle of it. Chocking, gasping for air, I hold onto the shoulders of my saviour. At last I can inhale freely. I let the sweetness of the air tickle my nostrils and take it in deeply, feeling my lungs expand gluttonous for life.

I breathe.


That evening the camp was buzzing with the story of the child who had almost drowned. Our head teacher gave a speech about the importance of safety on the lake. She tried to imprint on our minds how easily something like that can happen to any of us. She did not point in my direction or mention my name and I realised that no one knew that the child they were all talking about was me. How strange, I thought, that she should not know.


The man, to whom I owed my life, had chided me for getting into the lake. I had scared him half to death, he had said. I had nearly drowned his daughter too. What was I thinking? Pulling her by the foot like that?

I tried to tell him how sorry I was, that I did not realise I was dragging anyone down, that I had panicked and was just trying to reach the surface. The words came out senselessly, disconnected. I was too full of what had just happened to be able to order my thoughts. Or perhaps I was too empty, hollowed of words.

There was a wooden staircase dipping into the water at the end of a timber platform. It was there that he left me after making sure that I was out of danger, and returned to his own child. It was one of many such staircases surrounding the north bank of the lake. The stairs led to the platform and the platform extended to other flights of stairs that led to changing rooms and little cafes, cabins and games rooms. To a child it looked like a miniature wooden city swarming with life, so much of it green and brown, an outgrowth of the lake itself.

There were several swimming pools at the edge of those platforms too, dotted around, usually near the stairs that plunged into the lake. The pools catered for beginners, those who could not swim well or were too young to be trusted to the vastness of the lake without supervision. They had gated walls, a few inches above the surface of the water, and wooden bottoms that sloped so that the furthest end was at least five foot deep. I was one of those beginners that could not swim at all.

The water was pleasant and warm. I looked about me at my schoolmates. Some of them had been swimming for years and you could see it in their eager faces that they craved to be out of bounds. During that first day however none of us were allowed to venture beyond the swimming pool.

We flapped about under the watchful eyes of the teachers. Later they would evaluate our skill level and determine which of our number were good enough to be allowed in the lake. Three of the boys raced each other from one end of the pool to the other. I admired their agility and quickness and tried to imitate the movement of their arms and legs, battering the water with all the strength I could muster. At times it worked and my body was propelled forwards. At other times it didn’t. One of the teachers gave me a few pointers. Relax, she said. It’s important to find a rhythm that does not tire you out. Think of a slow song and carve the water to its beat.

The saltiness of the water helped me float so that in a matter of hours I could swim nonstop to the end of the pool where the water was too deep for my feet to reach the bottom. I would swim to the water’s edge and when the wooden pole was within an arm’s length I would raise my hands up and hold on to it.

Once I had rested for a little while, I fixed both of my feet onto it and propelled my body into the opposite direction, my arms working in synchrony to get me to the other end. After a few laps I no longer needed to rest when I reached the deep end. I could just turn around and swim back. It was such joy, whittling a pathway through the water: forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.

By the end of the third morning I could do ten laps uninterrupted. The three boys had been allowed into the lake and they came back to join us for lunch, pink and happy, smug at having reached the red-white buoys just visible in the distance. We surrounded them in an instant, asking questions, listening to their every word. The redhead had won the race, but the others were basking in the glory of the pursuit. It had been a close one. They declared that they would have a re-race after lunch.

It is difficult to say what had determined me to follow them. I had loved the tale of the chase. The thrill of it! The very thought of it made my heartbeat quicken. Maybe it was the competitive demon in me. Perhaps I craved the recognition of my peers and a slice of their admiration. It may have been nothing more than a rash decision.

There was a time when I did not question why and whether I should or should not do something; I just did it. One thing was clear: I yearned to have my own stories of bravery to share, to prove that a girl could outswim the best of boys.

We leaped into the water one after another and off we whirled, like a pod of baby seals, towards the opposite shore. I didn’t have the strength or experience to stay ahead of the pack, but I was wilful enough to keep up with them. After a short while we reached the white-red buoys that marked the middle of the lake. We had been told in no uncertain terms that we are never to swim beyond them, so after a short break we turned around and swam back. If the first half of the expedition had been marked by the exhilaration of the hunt, nothing could be further from my mind on the return length.

I could not point a finger at the culprit, yet one thing was certain: someone had changed the lake. There was an unexpected solidity to its surface. It made me think of molten lead. Each breaststroke made me wince. I tried to adjust my breathing, but to no avail. It grew heavier under the strain of the exercise. As I soldiered on, the lake came alight. Its midday gleam blinded me so that I could no longer keep my eyes open. I had to go on regardless. I had no choice. Every now and then I would open my eyes to make sure that I continued on course and check how much further before I reached the timber pole that would allow me to rest awhile. At the last check my heart skipped a beat. Relief was within reach, only two or three paces away.

One. Two. Three. Eyes half-closed I dove towards it, and…


I watched my rescuer swim away, but could not yet muster the strength to move from the spot where he had left me. I sat on the step for a moment breathing in and out. My body was shaking slightly, but the enormity of it all had not registered just yet.

My mind processed every moment as if they were entirely separate from one another. That was the moment to sit and breathe. The next was the moment to go and get a cup of warm cocoa. As I got up on to my feet and turned to leave I bumped into my head teacher. She had come over to see whether I was alright and whether I needed any help. “That’s alright, thank you,” came the mumbled reply and then I passed by her quickly towards the changing rooms.

I did not fancy another scolding just yet. She could not have known that the shrivelled, bluish thing before her was one of her wards. I had not been more than a minute or two out of the water at that point.

Thinking back on it that evening, I remembered how altered I had looked, how little like myself had been the image I spied in the restroom mirror afterwards.

It had been a lucky escape. Had she recognised me, I would have been banned from joining my classmates the following day. Of course, this would not have been the half of it. My parents would have grounded me for life directly on my return home.

The thought made me laugh out loud. Having been threatened with death so often for minor misdemeanours in the past, perhaps it was unsurprising that avoiding punishment seemed like something worth worrying about.

So it was decided. The identity of the near-drowned child would remain forever a secret.


The Price of Tyranny

When my brother was born, my father insisted that we move to the countryside so that his parents could help mother out. It had seemed like a perfectly good plan. My grandparents’ village was a mere half hour’s train journey from the city so he could easily commute. Country air would suit the children. That had been the idea I imagine.

It was a blue October morning. My little brother was asleep in the cot and I was left in charge of him whilst mother was away. She had only gone to the big house across the courtyard to do the laundry and ironing. Mother could only do this when grandmother was at work at the hospital, otherwise she had to account for all the water and electricity deemed squandered in the process. She was forever complaining about grandmother, who could be a mean and heartless lady when it suited her. And when mother was around, it suited her often.

There is only for that long that a four-year old can be trusted to watch a sleeping baby. After a few minutes, bored by my brother’s seeming contentment, I emptied out my box of toys on the floor and began to marshal them into straight lines. There were a dozen or so of them altogether. I had miniature horses and other farmyard animals, a baby doll with drawn-on brown hair and no clothes whatsoever, and Cipollino. The little rubber onion-man was my toy of the moment.

It is a well-known fact that no sooner are toys allowed out of the box that they get themselves into no little amount of trouble. My toys were no exception. They got together, fell apart, quarrelled and fought, chased one another around the room and messed up mother’s books no matter how much I tried to reason with them. In the end, I had no other choice but to separate the good from the naughty and punish the culprits appropriately. Justice must be seen to be done or else toys will never behave themselves as they ought. So it chanced that Cipollino, the naughtiest of them all, had to be sent away to the blackest and darkest of prisons to ponder on what he had done and feel the consequences of his actions. The prison, aka the old hearth oven, was then locked until such a time when I could be persuaded to pardon my mischievous charge.

Soon a court was assembled so that each toy could bear witness and bring evidence of Cipollino’s guilt or innocence. I listened patiently as one and then another told their version of the story. Once or twice, I couldn’t help supressing a yawn. The morning had been glum and I was content to stay indoors, but the warmth of the day was upon me and I soon grew tired of my play and wanted to go out. Thinking little of lengthening poor Cipollino’s imprisonment, I took one last look at my little brother, who continued to sleep undisturbed by the cavalcade of toys around him, and left the house.

How long I was gone I do not know. When at last I returned from my meanderings, disaster had struck. A thick cloud of smoke was coming out of the window. I screamed out for help and then entered the house. I could see nothing for the blackness of the smoke. I hurried to the cot to take my baby brother out. Smoke. Smoke. There was no getting away from it. The cot was too deep and I could not reach for him without climbing into it. I tried to assail its railings, but fell back to the floor coughing. I had to get back out for some air and call for help again.

I saw mother and uncle running from the house towards me. At last! I sprinted back inside and struggled to drag the cradle towards the door. A moment later uncle was at my side. He took my baby brother out of the cot and shouted for me to follow. Once outside he handed us both to mother and then went back in.

“What happened? What have you done?!” my mother asked of me.

“Nothing. I was playing. I was playing and then I went out. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what happened!”

I tried to think back at every little thing that I had done that day. I had not played with matches. Mother had forbidden it. I knew it was bad so I did not do it.

“I did not play with fire, mummy. I did not play with fire” I sobbed into her skirt whilst she examined my brother, checked his breathing, made sure that he was unharmed.

I could hear the crackle of wood and glass as windows and doors were opened wide and fixed to stay so. After a little while uncle came out of the house holding the remains of melted rubber in his towel-gloved hand. I looked from my uncle’s hand to my mother and back. I gasped. I knew exactly what had filled the room with smoke, what had very nearly killed my little brother. It was me after all. There lay in uncle’s hand, barely recognisable, the faceless, burnt down body of my favourite toy.

“I found this in the oven,” he showed it to my mother, “This is where the smoke is coming from. You must have forgotten to check it before you lit the hearth.”

“But I never keep anything in that oven!” exclaimed mother appalled. “I had only lit the fire a quarter of an hour ago. I was going to boil some…” she stopped mid-sentence. I did not dare look up at her.

Mother did not punish me. We all make mistakes, she said. She ought to have checked the oven. It was not my fault. My brother lived to breathe another day. Yet, as over the years his health deteriorated and one bout of pneumonia followed another, I could not help believing that it was my fault. It had been my carelessness that had done this to him.

One act of tyranny – the punishment of a blameless onion-boy – had sealed my brother’s fate.