“But do they even want to learn?” she asked me, more than somewhat incredulous, the sound in her voice and the look on her face making me think that she had already formed an answer to her own question.
We were half way through our nine hour bus ride from the city of Guayaquil to the city of Esmeraldas and the light-skinned Ecuadorian woman beside me was clearly having a difficult time fully understanding the meaning behind my work here in Ecuador.
Her query, and unstated yet obvious opinion, didn’t come as such a surprise, no, not anymore. After more than three years of telling people about my work investing in education in predominantly Afro villages along the Onzole River, and telling them about the struggle of my friends in these communities, I have gotten used to hearing these kinds of doubting questions lobbed back in return. After years of engaging the community and learning about the myriad of issues they face, most stemming from a deep-seeded racial divide, I’ve come to understand that these cannot be seen as simple, innocent questions asked to legitimately gain further insight. People who truly want to know more don’t ask such tone deaf and, frankly, racist questions. Rather, they’re a very serious part of the problem. Loaded with negative pre-conceived ideas and false notions of superiority these questions are full of debilitating doubt. For many it may indeed seem like a simple question and what’s the big deal about that? But for my friends along the river it signals yet another person who believes that they don’t need, want, or deserve a quality education. It’s really hard to believe in yourself when no one else does.
And yet still dreams abound…
16 year old Alex knocks on my door before letting himself in one night, takes off his backpack and plops himself down beside me on a bench by my kitchen table. When I ask him how school’s going he unzips his bag and hands me a notebook. “Have a look,” he says, unable to contain the pearl white teeth that form his infectious smile any longer. I flip through the perfectly ordered pages as he slides in closer to point out the grades, written in red pen.
10/10, 10/10, 9/10, 10/10…
Before I can even congratulate him he looks at me and says: “Just ignore that 9/10, Carlos. I don’t like those.”
Alex has always been bright. Mischievous to no end, yes, but his frustrating side has always been kept mostly in check by an intelligence that has allowed him to realise the importance of buckling down when the time comes.
It was last year though that something special sparked.
A group of American teachers were visiting the community for a week to engage the local school and it’s teachers through an organization we partner with each year called Teachers2Teachers International. A science teacher from Michigan was working with Alex’s teacher in his grade 9 science class doing various experiments to learn about different kinds of soil. Alex, alternating between a pick axe and his notebook, his trademark grin on his face, was yelling with happiness: “I’m a scientist! I’m a scientist!”
It was the pure and innocent joy of discovering a passion, something that you love to do and that leaves you feeling filled yet thirsting for more at the same time. A truly beautiful and intoxicating paradox.
Since then we’ve spent a lot of time together discussing his ever growing desire to graduate high school and go on to study science at university in one of Ecuador’s big cities. His determination in reaching for something higher is both admirable and inspiring.
“But do they even want to learn?”…
I peek my head through the open door and see little Ashley sitting on the floor playing with her twin sister, Bethany. They’re in their grandmother’s house and as soon as they see me they jump up and run to give me a hug. These are moments that my job affords me that I truly savor.
The twins are three and half years old and just started school last month. After seeing their older sister, Maite, off to school every morning, with her cleanly pressed school uniform and her back pack full of interesting books, they were excited at the prospect of their own scholastic adventures to say the least. For months leading up to their first day they would stop me almost every time I passed their house to tell me that they were going to start school soon. As their next door neighbor you can be sure I was as excited as they were by the time that day rolled around. The absolute and unfettered excitement of little girls is truly a contagious thing!
As I stood there in their grandmother’s house, the two of them in my arms, I asked them the same question I ask them every weekday afternoon: “So girls, how was school today?”
Ashley, the far more animated and talkative one, jumps out of my arms and excitedly tells me that they learned how to use glue! Without any further explanation she’s already at the door, wiggling her feet into her little, blue rubber boots and running through the mud to her house. She returns a minute later, triumphantly showing me the craft that she had made: ripped up little balls of paper, glued all higglety-pigglety to another sheet of paper.
You’d be hard pressed to find more pride in a Nobel Prize winner.
In and of itself the craft isn’t really anything. But the excitement in being able to show it off, the pride behind having made it, the fact that these little girls literally beg their mother Vanessa to hurry up and walk them to school every morning, that is everything.
“But do they even want to learn?”…
I stopped at the stream and looked at my reflection in the water. I was sweating and mud had somehow smeared my cheek. I looked up from the trickling water and had one of those moments where all you can muster is “What on earth happened for me to be in this situation right now?” You know those situations, right?
There I was, more than an hour’s walk away from the community, in the middle of dense jungle, being led by three machete-wielding brothers and their cousin, nothing too crazy until I dwelt on the fact that the oldest one was only 14, wearing a onesie that was a few sizes too small and was carrying a rifle over his shoulder. “I am completely at the mercy of this pyjama-wearing, rifle-toting boy,” I thought to myself, trying to forget that this isn’t normal 14 year old boy behavior back home. “This is fine,” I repeated to myself, “we’re fine and this is normal.”
But something incredible happened. I survived to tell the tale. And perhaps contrary to some of my initial misgivings that day, my survival and safe return to the village was never in doubt because those young boys knew every trail, they knew the names of all of the different trees and which ones were good for harvesting hard-wood, soft-wood and which ones weren’t good for harvesting wood at all but simply looked pretty.
They spotted every fruit tree along the way and knew exactly how best to pick each delicious treat, telling the juicy, ripe ones from the unripe ones just by looking at them. They knew how to saddle a horse and when there weren’t enough saddles to go around they knew how to ride bareback, gently guiding the horse by the mane to exactly where they wanted it to go. Their machetes were like fluid extensions of their arms, expertly carving away the husks of coconuts when we became thirsty under the hot sun. They knew which cocoa trees their dad wanted them to pick from and knew the exact difference in cost between a pound of undried cocoa beans and a pound of dry ones, beans that would most likely end up being shipped off to Switzerland and made into world renowned chocolate.
They told me stories of all of the different kinds of snakes they had seen and the differences between the scary venomous ones and the harmless ones. They pointed out ant hills and knew the names of the different kinds of colonies we came across, letting me know in advance to sidestep the ones that bite.
They guided me through the day and taught me about all of the things that make up the reality of their family’s farm in this hidden corner of the world. It was an up close and personal lesson in the importance of indigenous knowledge and the power of a child’s mind to capture and grasp so much vital information and their ability to communicate it to an ignorant outsider.
“But do they even want to learn?”…
Alex, Ashley and Bethany, the jungle exploring brothers and their cousin… the list of my friends whose intelligence runs so much deeper than what they are ever given credit for goes on and on and on.
“But do they even want to learn,” she asked me.
“Well come and get to know them and I bet they’ll show you,” is my answer.