Outsider In Ecuador: Volunteer teaching at a rural primary school

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

It was a Thursday when I’d been filling an email to the brim with experiences of volunteering as an English teacher in a primary school in a remote Ecuadorian farming community.  I’m sure things have changed immensely in the five years since I was there but, then, slow slow internet was only available in the main village of Cuellaje; its tentacles had not spread to the farms, one of which we were staying in, dotted around the community, miles apart, separated by hills, mud tracks and very little transport.

Usually our only chance to make it to Cuellaje, and so connect with the outside world, was on a Sunday when we’d head down with our local host farming family – along with every other member of the surrounding communities. This was the day for churchgoing, food shopping, playing a variant of volleyball (very high net, no smashes) and generally hobnobbing in the village in one’s Sunday best. With only four dial-up computers available and a lot of teenagers around, it was also the day for fighting over internet.

On this Thursday, though, the teeny San Antonio primary school was closed. This wasn’t the first occasion that the children had been treated to a no lesson day since my arrival a couple of weeks before, but this time it was owing to a serious meeting. With only 17 children in the primary school, the education supervisors of the parish had deemed three teachers to be one too many, and so all had gone to Cuellaje village to decide who would be moved instead to the secondary school there.

While their fate was being determined, my travel buddy and I opportunistically made the 40min trek into the village on the back of the milk truck – the most regular and reliable form of transport around – so I could write home about my exploits… this time, school life, starting with a caviat:

An unsteady stream of volunteers with dodgy English teaching credentials is the only access to the language these children get.  English has relatively recently become part of the national curriculum in Ecuador, but it takes a long while for teachers’ qualifications to catch up, especially in rural areas.  People like me partaking in what I now see as ‘volontourism‘ doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, and potentially dis-incentivises local governments to train up teachers… still, I found myself there, happily ignorant to these ethical qualms whilst I learnt quite a lot but also felt appreciated by the locals.  (You can judge more here.)

I was teaching three groups of children, roughly divided into the 5 and 6 year olds, 8 and 9 year olds, then the 10 and 11 year olds. The school itself was pretty dilapidated but cheery and it soon felt normal, though it certainly wasn’t by western standards: faded painted concrete walls, broken windows, doors that barely locked, outside toilets and sinks, no playgrounds as such, just an uneven grassy field, and pencil-scribed workbooks to be rubbed out and used again.

None of that seemed to matter, though, as the kids made the best of it all. They were pretty up for learning, especially as I tried mostly to do games. It was a million times easier than teaching moody French teenagers which had been my experience up to that point. They could be a pain in the arse sometimes, of course, but mostly they were hugely entertaining, and wanted to play all the time. They were upbeat and adventurous, grubby and fun-loving like kids should be – even the 11 year olds who could have been pre-pubescent horrors but just weren’t. It inspired a child-like feeling in me again.

On the way home from school it could take anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours to walk back because of the many kids we’d have in tow. There were often various stops to scramble up mud banks and climb trees in order to scrounge whatever wild-growing fruit was obtainable. I would mainly stand at the bottom, shouting directions, giving a leg up, and catching things on the way down. Always generous, any of their fruity bounty they would share, from their grubby little hands to ours. I would accept with glee, my heart always won through my stomach… unfortunately, this was a surefire way for my stomach to also win out over my bowels…

In other food matters, before the school day even started we were fuelled with two (!) breakfasts: one at home and one at school with the kids. The latter consisted of a thick porridge-like drink tasting vaguely of banana and called colada, with biscuits and granola. We were also once treated to piglet uterus, which was a first. Like the kids, the teachers often insisted on sharing food with us and, on this occasion, wouldn’t divulge what we were eating until after we’d finished. I felt only a little weird about it.

The teachers were nice and pretty laid back. The volunteer ‘programme’ coordinator, an English guy named Ned who’s ‘gone native’ and become a farmer in the community, was of the opinion that they were “bone idle”. I’d rather believe it’s a cultural difference… although, it is true that, by mid-way through my time volunteering, there had already been the inexplicable days of no classes, and on National Children’s Day we just played games, ate corn and cheese and watched Ice Age

Slightly incomprehensible situations were commonplace in my life there, thanks to the giant culture differences and my not-fast-enough-improving level of Spanish. The now semi-anthropologist in me would have seen this all with quite different eyes but, five years ago, I was an English girl amused by the new oddities and contradictions I felt I was witnessing. And school seemed particularly rife with them.

Sometimes there were rules and timetables for things, other times there weren’t. As far as I could tell, it depended on the mood of the teachers.

Sometimes I’d end up taking one of the classes for an entire morning whilst, for example, the teacher put together a flat-pack cupboard so couldn’t possibly teach at the same time.

Break time could last 10 minutes one day and one hour the next.

Once a whole school lesson consisted of putting cut grass into a big hole in the field. I also believed at one point that the teachers were making the kids do gardening labour for them, but apparently it was part of the curriculum…

Monday at school was, inconsistently, the ‘day of patriotism’. The children were supposed to sing the national anthem, flag waving and hands over hearts. Extremely important for patriotism, it appeared, is having clean fingernails and ears, not wearing wellies and having a clean and folded hanky in your pocket. If not, a bunch of squats was doled out as punishment – for lack of patriotic cleanliness, I can only suppose.

Ultimately, propriety and orderliness were fighting a losing battle against a group of farm kids living on the edge of a cloud forest, where boundaries and time seemed loose. For me, this daily picture somewhat encapsulates it all:

The girls would start off the day, puffed up and pleased, with elaborately plaited and immaculately scraped back hair; the boys would have it combed, parted and plastered down to one side with water, all to stay that way for an hour at most. Their once weekly mother’s-hand-scrubbed uniforms – cold water, brush and soap against stone – stood no chance against their daily antics: they were generally ragged and torn, and increasingly dirty as the week wore on. This image was all topped – or bottomed – off by sock-free feet jammed into unmatching wellies…

The teachers reacted alternately with utter dismay, or total indifference.  And the kids, of course, spent 99% of their time not caring a single blooming jot!  And I adored them all the more for that.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

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