La Casa de los Ningunos (The Nobodies’ House) is tucked away at the top of a flight of 39 steps on a steep cobbled street in the heart of the world’s highest capital: La Paz, Bolivia. The project brings together the dreams of a group of young people in an experimental community.
The name Los Ningunos comes from the poem Los Nadies by Eduardo Galeano – Los Ningunos are the have-nots, those seen as ‘nobodies’ by society at large. This community is re-imagining economic and social relations to help build a world where the ‘nobodies’ are no longer marginalized.
So many of our relationships are driven by money, devoid of generosity or love – shopping in huge supermarkets with automated checkouts, working at jobs we don’t love nor believe in, eating our meals surrounded by strangers as we rush to the next task. These dynamics are part of our daily lives, but are caused by how our society is structured. The Casa is a glimpse into a different vision and approach – one that puts people and happiness first, seeks to live more in balance with the earth, and to address the root causes of the climate crisis.
Three people permanently live in the house right now, and there are many more people who consider themselves part of the community and regularly work in the house. Quoted here are Ángela, Ariel (known as Apniuq), Fabrizio, Gadir, and Yumey, educated urban activists in their late twenties and early thirties who have all worked in fields related to environmental and social justice.
The experiment of the Casa offers us three fundamental lessons on how to build people-driven alternatives to a money-driven society: the power of food, the subversiveness of community, and what a local economy looks like when profit isn’t the main driver.
The Power of Food
It’s Thursday morning in the Casa de los Ningunos, and the community is exploring its full potential to reach out to their neighbors. Everyone is gearing up for the weekly Comida Consciente (Conscious Food) lunch – a locally-sourced, natural, vegetarian meal prepared for up to 80 people.
A team of Comida Consciente chefs occupy the large, well-equipped kitchen all morning; you can hear the music and laughter coming from the open windows. Members of the community prepare tables and chairs for the guests in the Casa’s ample indoor shared space and out in the garden.
A recent lunch featured a ‘conscious’ version of fast food – vegetarian, homemade burgers and oven-baked fries. Another meal was cooked in a solar oven. Many dishes feature sabores ancestrales – ancestral flavors – Bolivian traditional foods that have been losing ground to fried chicken and rice, such as quinoa, cassava, corn, fava beans, and plantain.
They also serve ‘forgotten fruits’ such as uchuva (cape gooseberry or goldenberry), pomegranates, guava, and pacay (ice-cream bean). Fruits or grains are made into natural drinks, sweetened with chancaca, raw unrefined cane sugar.
At the Casa, the Comida Consciente lunches open up discussion amongst attendees about how to make healthy and environmentally wise food choices and how our food choices are part of the causes and consequences of the climate crisis.
And the issue is not just about how we consume food but also about completing the circle by taking back power over producing our own food. The Casa has its own vegetable garden and holds weekly community work sessions called Manos a la Tierra (Hands to the Earth). Yumey leads this activity, and for her it is a powerful way to create a deep awareness of where our food really comes from: “When you do this work, only then do you value producers, people in the countryside, who live from this. We pay so little for something that takes so much work…For me, working with the land is a way of healing, to raise people’s awareness. They understand much better where food comes from.”
From the first lunch three years ago attended by only a few people to today’s long queue every Thursday, the power of food to reach out to people is evident, as Apniuq notes, “It’s the issue of food, because all of us eat. You can use food as a tool to spread ideas. Eating is a basic need of the human being.” And the idea of Comida Consciente has spread – there are now weekly lunches in other Bolivian cities.
The Subversiveness of Community
The people who come to Comida Consciente might otherwise grab a bite in a restaurant where they don’t know where the food comes from, don’t know any of the people who cooked the meal, and don’t know anyone else they’re eating with. In contrast, the communal lunch and the many other events at the Casa are about connecting people, about sharing, and about making lifestyle choices that take other people into account.
Activities in the Casa range from workshops around sustainability, documentary screenings, activist meetings, barter and exchange markets, a gratiferia (a ‘free market’ – bring what you want, take what you want), local food markets, theatre rehearsal, and yoga and dance classes. These events draw in diverse attendees for diverse purposes, but a common thread between them all is the welcome people receive in the Casa, a welcome to be part of the community.
Every week many young people come to the Casa, some are travelers passing through, some are regular helpers. But they all support the Casa with their work, drawn by the magnetism of community – they feel connection with others, a sense of being part of something bigger, in a way they don’t in their job, their school, maybe even their family. And they will leave with a deep question inside: why doesn’t it feel like this always?
For Angela, the key is about transforming the nature of the relationships: “Community is about love. When you work with people you love the work has a different meaning….here we are building different relationships; the intention is very important. After this experience I couldn’t work another way.”
The idea of building different ways of working together through community was not present when the project first started over three years ago. These concepts were integrated after two members of the Casa travelled to Portugal to visit the Tamera community. They came back from that experience enthused with the idea of community as way of building alternatives to the causes of climate change. Tamera was originally founded in order to develop ‘a non-violent life model for cooperation between human beings, animals and nature.’ The idea is that the tangible practical work of living sustainably goes hand in hand with the intangible, more internal work of changing societal structures within ourselves.
One of these entrenched societal structures is the favoring of the individual over the collective. Apniuq explains, “In the wide view, of global community, it’s about thinking about the common good over your own personal gain. This doesn’t mean I let go of my individuality.”
This is the subversiveness of community: the power that we have against societal structures which focus solely on money and personal gain is our ability to create alternatives which draw people in. ‘Alternatives’ are not just about creating different options; they’re a way of taking power away from the status quo and slowly undermining it. In a world where individualism is encouraged and rewarded, working in community does just that. It creates networks of support between people that strengthens us beyond anything money in the bank can do – being able to fulfill our needs through collaboration with others.
A Local Economy Not Solely Driven by Profit
On any given day, those who contribute to the Casa are working away at all the jobs that need to be done for the project to function: cleaning, working in the veggie garden, cooking, doing admin work on the computer, managing the planning process for Comida Consciente Thursdays, or organizing workshops or classes in the Casa’s large sala.
One of the goals of the Casa de los Ningunos is to find new ways of shaping economic relations, which means everyone’s work should be valued. Those who live in the Casa earn Bolivia’s minimum wage of around $240 per month, no matter what they ‘do’.
The wage isn’t high, but as Ángela explains it is enough because: “I don’t have to pay rent, I don’t have to pay internet, water, electricity, all of that is included. In that sense I earn well, I don’t need more. The idea of the Casa has never been to profit.”
While developing an alternative economy, the Casa has no choice but to operate with money in order to pay the bills (members are buying the house with payments over time). But a big part of their economic ethos has to do with living and working in community: the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity is a moneyless exchange that goes beyond barter – it is giving for the common good and trusting that you will receive in return, also known as the gift economy. It’s not about expecting an immediate exchange.
Recently the Casa ran a three day workshop on regenerative sustainability. Even though the 40 participants paid to attend the workshop, the Casa itself did not make any profit -the money went to cover the costs of the facilitators and Comida Consciente meals for participants. But as the workshop covered natural building and soil enrichment techniques, the Casa got a new handmade abode and timber structure to use as a food kiosk, and a newly fertilized vegetable bed, additions to the project that go beyond profit.
And while participants gave a monetary retribution for the workshop, they gained more than just the knowledge from attending a class. They left the Casa with a deep sense of connection to others – a knowing that there are others who share similar visions for a different world. As one participant at the workshop, Lis, said: “I feel that the dynamics in the workshop left people with something inside them, not just in their heads, but in their hearts.”
As Fabrizio explains, the idea of the reciprocity economy is to build networks that are resilient to crises: “One big group can help along many small groups, and when these small groups grow, they will also be able to help along many other small groups, so the functionality of the reciprocity economy is to weave networks.” This is precisely what events like the sustainability workshop do, weave networks and connections between people.
Community Values bring Wellbeing, and Challenges
It’s not a coincidence that the Casa exists in Bolivia. Bolivia is a country hotwired by its culture to live in community through values such as reciprocity. For example, in rural indigenous communities, land is traditionally held collectively and the cultivation of crops is shared. Many of these community practices are founded in the concept of Vivir Bien, “living well”, an indigenous philosophy that has now become known globally. The basis of Vivir Bien is that our wellbeing is not measured by the accumulation of material goods, but about fulfilment of our material, spiritual and emotional needs in a way that is balance with others’ needs and with the earth. In many ways the Casa is a modern urban version of long-standing Bolivian community principles.
Of course, the community at the Casa is not without substantial challenges. The Casa has to balance developing alternative economic relations such as reciprocity while also generating conventional income. They do this by taking on Comida Consciente catering contracts outside the Casa, and they receive a grant from a friend of the project who administrates a foundation. While this could be seen as a contradiction to their reciprocal values, it reminds us that building these kinds of alternatives is a process, and what’s important is that the process is moving in the right direction. Projects like the Casa often have no choice at the beginning but to have one foot in the system, and one foot in the alternative. The point is to be constantly seeking to shift the balance away from the status quo.
The status quo – a society based on profit and competition – has led us to this point of urgent climate crisis. “If we look at climate change as a consequence of structural problems, then we have to go to the root of the structures, step by step. And this project for me has been a very important step towards that root,” says Gadir.
To move towards an alternative to the status quo, we need people to live out these ideas to show their desirability and viability and draw others in, like at the Casa. It’s not about everyone being so inspired by the Casa that they decide to live in community. It’s about taking the important elements: valuing relationships and connections with others as a way of fulfilling our needs, and working with others in a collaboration that’s not based on money, and integrating them into our daily lives.
Operating with reciprocal values in a capitalist economy brings inevitable challenges and compromises. Yet the Ningunos have persevered, and the work they are doing is opening up the cracks and letting the light in – not only about the injustices of the status quo, but about the possibility of changing it. And while living in a capital city can provoke more compromise, it can also provide more opportunities to show more people that a different way of living and relating is, indeed, possible.
This article is based on the Democracy Center’s project on the Casa de los Ningunos, produced by Nicky Scordellis, Sian Cowman and Leny Olivera.
Sian Cowman is an Irish activist and writer. She lives in Bolivia, where she works as a researcher for The Democracy Center.