Not on my watch

13 Jan, 2016 | Anna Grace

Social issues and History & Politics

Bolivia’s Attempt to Shed its Colonial Past

Time: the universal truth, a constant system across nations. Definite, concrete, unquestionable?

The wrist watch I am wearing begs to differ. It has a black leather strap, a large black face and white numbers from 1 to 12. It is normal in many respects, until you notice that the numbers appear in reverse order. The number 1 is to the left of the 12, instead of the typical 11. The reason? This is a watch that tells time in an anti-clockwise direction. This is a watch that challenges temporal convention.

Ramiro Ulloa's interest in designing such time-tellers came after a trip to Asia. Happening upon a factory that produced similar specimens for an international crowd, he asked for a copy of their design and so was born his craft. For Ramiro, however, the backwards nature of the watches goes far beyond a quirky aesthetic.

‘Technical matters have always been imposed by dominant systems’, he tells me, describing his bewilderment when he was taught at school that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. ‘This isn't true in my reality’, he declares. In La Paz, water boils at 72 degrees. ‘If we want to go against dominant systems, we need to create situations that can change the mentality of the population.’

These dominant systems, of course, are those of the hegemonic ‘north.’ They are the social, cultural, and political modes of superiority established by European and U.S. powers in Latin American countries for centuries. ‘They imposed a colonial logic, their manner of reasoning. In short, they wanted us to be like Europe,’ says Cecilio Ilasaca, a member of the Vice Ministry of Decolonisation.

Ramiro is not alone in believing watches can subvert this prevalent logic. In June 2014, a similar clock was installed on the Asamblea Legislativa in Plaza Murillo. It received a mixture of praise, criticism and indifference, but it is meant to serve as a constant rejection of the country’s colonial heritage. It is meant to mark Bolivia’s independence and defiance as a nation.

This year, from the 11th to the 14th of November, the Vice Ministry organised a summit to discuss the ways in which Bolivia aims to revert its legacies of colonialism. The summit looked at tackling all forms of discrimination and racism in the country. ‘The main objective was to establish alliances between political entities at an international level,’ explains Cecilio, ‘and to examine the theme of decolonisation from the viewpoint of Fausto Reinaga’, an influential Quechuan-Aymaran intellectual.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Reinaga asserted the superiority of indigenous thought and generated a theory of social revolution rooted in the Andean region. In the twenty-first century, the Bolivian government has translated this radical approach to a pragmatic “process of change,” undertaken through building strategic alliances, governmental programs, and international awareness. It seems the reversal of clockwise time is only one way to demonstrate a change in logic.

For Ramiro, however, change is a simple and more personal process. ‘It's not going to stick if it’s not something banal, something that you’ve already seen,’ he explains. ‘With this watch, when you look at the time in the morning, you realise that the world is changing. I want people to realise that the world is changing.’

According to Cecilio, just as the hands on Ramiro’s watch move steadily towards the left, rather than to the normative right, Bolivian society also wants to move in a different direction;  one he hopes will lead to independence from colonial impositions. ‘Now, with the government of our President, we’re following a different course to that implemented by neoliberal governments’, he says, speaking of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader.

But initiatives such as the summit and the watch have more symbolic, rather than material implications. They symbolize the optimism of those who have created them, the fervent belief that improvement is around the corner. Change, in the eyes of Ramiro, is already underway: ‘When a snowball is set into motion,’ he says, ‘it’s very difficult to stop it. Our snowball has been set into motion’.

Gathering momentum, force and company as it goes, a snowball is perhaps an apt image for what these initiatives strive for: effective action and unity. Under Evo Morales, Bolivia has been officially named a Plurinational State due to the quantity of different – mainly indigenous – ethnic groups found within it. The idea is to find unity in the country’s plurality and bring the different groups together. Cecilio may well praise the President, but there are many who doubt Morales’s commitment to the plight of the indigenous and question the effectiveness of his government.

Ramiro, for all his optimism, concedes that there is still much work to be done: ‘I insist that this is still not the right time. It is probable that we will encounter setbacks.’ What is lacking then? The willpower certainly seems to be present, the ideas and the strategy. What lacks, it seems to me, is the all-essential unity, a mutual consensus on the direction in which the country is to move.

The full implications of decolonisation may still lie far from being accomplished. Changing the national mentality, overcoming years of subjection, unifying numerous ethnicities: no small feat. But the attempt to normalise an understanding of time that runs backwards is for some the symbol of a nation that is on the cusp of moving forward.

‘What's important is that, at some point, we obtain a flag of cohesion,’ Ramiro tells me, ‘a banner, and that we work towards it.’ With these words, the watchmaker points out the Wiphala flag beneath the 12 on my wristwatch. It is an indigenous symbol that was adopted by the current government as the second official flag of Bolivia. Perhaps, this is the unifying symbol that Ramiro believes Bolivians are after. For Ramiro, this watch is so much more than a teller of time or a piece of jewellery. For his hopes to be realised, though, what the object symbolizes must become reality. A flag, a watch: is this what it takes to change a national mindset?

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                                                    Photo credit: Anna Grace 


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