I’ve been thinking a lot recently about contrasts and how much they reveal about ourselves and the societies in which we live. This could be because I just re-read one of my favorite books, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, in which contrast is the crux upon which the story is built. The famous opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” sets the stage for the theme of contrast from the onset, but more than in any work of fiction, contrasts in our everyday lives can sometimes reveal some ugly truths. The vast contrast between rich and poor, for example, reveals the perverseness that we choose to live with on a daily basis. The contrast between the different ways the two sexes are treated is another that reveals some grave shortcomings in the society in which we live.
The contrast that moved me to write this was one I recently saw in a group of children in a village called Colón, about 20 mins upriver from Santo Domingo along the Onzole River, where I’m based, deep in Ecuador’s Northern province of Esmeraldas. I had made the short canoe ride upriver with a few other people who were going to help me run our first attempt at a travelling library. The idea came to me in May when we were in Colón running a day camp for the kids there. One of the stations in our camp was a reading activity and as I observed the kids it became evident there was a strong desire to listen to the stories and get engaged with the books. We were taking books, therefore, from our well-established library in Santo Domingo and bringing them to Colón where the lack of resources has left a large void. The idea was to spend a few hours with a small group of kids in hopes of making it a regular project, and, who knows, maybe even establish a full library there one day.
Colón is a village notorious for its struggles. Violence, alcoholism and drug abuse are all too prevalent and the kids who call it home have very much adopted its rough persona. Violence among the children in Colón can be quite disconcerting, with playful roughness quickly escalating to violent, malicious blows. Children are a product of the system around them and when this is understood it becomes easy to see how such sweet, affectionate, curious and energetic children can turn to violence so quickly as a way of expression.
With limited resources and space, the amount of children we could let into the small classroom was only about 20-25, which unfortunately left a very large number of kids outside, only able to occasionally peep through the high windows. With more resources we could have easily run the program for 100 kids.
As the next hour and a half unfolded, the level of engagement, attentiveness and responsiveness from the participating group was amazing. As they listened during a group reading time and answered questions and then as they diligently worked their way through stories during individual reading time, the contrast between what they were doing inside and what their friends were doing outside became quite evident. As the time came to an end and I stepped outside of the classroom it was impossible not to see the behavior of the the throng of kids who hadn’t been reading. Many of them were fighting, other were crying after a fight and the rest were running around uncontrollably.
Now I know reading for an hour and a half is far from the be all and end all of solutions, but I do know that for that short period of time, a small group of kids were presented with an alternative outlet. There was no fighting, no crying, no yelling, no worries, just reading and the learning that comes with it.
Contrasts and the truths they reveal should never be ignored. The contrast between a group of children who are each handed a book and a group of children who are not is no different. It reveals an undeniable truth that provides us with a way forward, a guide on how to proceed in our attempt at developing the contexts around us and helping every individual reach their full potential. I think that can happen one book at a time.