If providing education to the children of the indigenous Wishi Community were easy, it would have been done a long time ago. The project that we took on was hard. But this is what makes our success that much more exciting.
Last week 18 children started classes at La Escuela San Luis in the remote Wishi Community. This is the first time that many of these children have ever seen a classroom, and they enthusiastically walked through the door of their new school with the pride and excitement that comes with the first day of school.
The path that took us to this day was long and challenging, but in the process we have built a strong foundation that will give strength to these children, the school, and the community at large. The challenges we faced were real, but as promised we worked hard to find the truth, build a strong foundation for the project, and follow through to completion.
The indigenous people in this region have a long history of land troubles. Few communities hold titles to their land, and many areas have a past of conflict and struggle. This is one of the most threatened and marginalized communities in the area, and these challenges carried over to the project. Furthermore, there is serious prejudice and animosity toward the indigenous people, which hinders every effort to work towards the fulfillment of their rights and liberties. It also meant that our effort to help them move forward was challenged with scathing rumors and attempts to curtail our success. However, from the start of this project we were guided by the philosophy that there are no problems, only solutions, and in the face of these challenges this philosophy became even more important.
In the last post, we committed to move forward with an eye towards truth, stability, answers and love – and we did just that. We first spent over a month traveling throughout the country searching for the truth behind the rumors we had heard; building relationships with politicians, organizations, and prominent leaders throughout the region; discovering all the nuanced social and cultural dynamics; and rebuilding the project with a firm foundation of openness, honesty, and respect. We gained the support of the president of the district, the local mayor, indigenous rights organizations, humanitarian groups, and most importantly the broader Shuar community. This is just the foundation we needed to ensure the long term success of our project.
What we learned is that our project went far beyond the construction of a schoolhouse – we were by the side of a community who is fighting for legitimacy, respect and recognition, and we were honored to be there to support them. While working on plans for the construction of the school, we were simultaneously helping them through the process of building the formal backing they needed for the stability of their community. With the support and backing from local and national leaders, we helped them through the steps to establish their community as a legal entity, with a community based title to the land. We held meetings in the community with the Federation of Shuar, the President of La Junta Parroquial Sangay, directors of the local land organization Etsa, and more. We worked with an engineer to create and file an urbanization plan. We filed documents declaring the members of the community, population, and formal community leaders. And, we worked with them to apply for a Titulo Global, the ancestral land title giving the community a formal right to live on their land. These were important steps to guarantee the legitimacy of the school, and these steps – along with the schoolhouse itself – helped the community to gain the recognition, respect, and legitimacy that they have been seeking for years.
Construction of the school began in May, and was completed in less than a month. We had been planning and preparing for months, and the community had even constructed the entire frame during the time in which we were filing the documents. We finished extracting and preparing the wood, bought all the necessary supplies, brought enough food in for the build, and began work – with every member of the community doing their part. The men and adolescents worked from sunrise to sunset, the women ensured that we were all well fed and hydrated, and the children played alongside us and helped where they could. After weeks of hard work, we had the amazing surprise that La Junta Parroquial, in solidarity and support, donated us roof panels to complete the construction. We celebrated at the end of May with a big party, with food, dancing and music – friends from communities all around, armadillo soup, yuca and plantains, and plenty of the traditional drink chicha. It felt like a grand success, but in reality our project had only just begun.
During the next six months, thanks to the heroic work of our project coordinator Ramon, the community was able to gain formal recognition of the school, get approval for a teacher, and enroll all of the students. They put on all the finishing touches, painted the school, put the door on and got a contribution of desks, chairs and a chalkboard from the municipality. We believed that our project was finally nearing completion. The community began preparing for classes to begin, and we believed that classes would start just after Christmas. Until at the last minute the district told us that as a new school, we would have to wait until the start of the next school year before they would be able to fund a teacher.
These students have not had a school for over three years, and many of them have never been to school at all. We knew that we could not afford to miss the opportunity to prepare these students over the next nine months, to get them caught up to the extent possible before the next school year begins. Fortunately, the community believes in our guiding philosophy, that there are no problems, only solutions. They committed to finding a way to resolve this challenge. Within weeks, they had put formal requests for support into all local offices, and Ramon contracted his brother-in-law Marcial – a certified bi-lingual Shuar Spanish professor – to give classes in the community. Thankfully, Marcial was willing to do this without any certainty when, or if, he would be compensated for his work. Classes began, and we anxiously awaited response from the local officials to see whether they would be willing to pay. One by one the responses came back – there was no funding available to pay for our teacher.
Marcial continued teaching, and we kept trying to pursue any possible path to pay his salary both in the United States, and in Ecuador. Each time we heard the same response: we would love to help, but we just do not have the funding. Each passing day we lost confidence that we would ever be able to solve this final piece to truly complete our mission. Meanwhile, Marcial was growing tired of teaching uncompensated for his hard work.
During this time it was important to remember that throughout this project we have faced many daunting challenges, and we have maintained faith that we would succeed, and sure enough solutions have arisen like miracles out of what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation. Last week we experienced yet another miracle. Owing to the mysteries of coincidence and circumstance, over a cup of coffee and an article in National Geographic, we found a sponsor for our teacher. The New York Soccer Project, an organization that funds charity projects through the player fees of a NYC soccer league, has generously agreed to pay Marcial through next Fall when the district has committed to take over payments. This is truly the final piece that we needed, and now the Escuela San Luis is a formally recognized, fully functioning school, with a paid certified bi-lingual teacher at the front of a fully equipped classroom.
The children of the Wishi Community have their school. Por fin. At last.