When I spotted Pascual's mother on her way to the river, I rapidly tried to remember why I was teach English abroad in South America. I was used to the women not replying, not even looking at me in response. So as I shyly mumbled "wina jai", I was most surprised to see her turn towards me. She grabbed my hands, held them to her and smiled, a gloriously open, toothless smile. I hope that in my surprise I smiled back. I'm sure I did, I was always smiling.
It was at that moment that I realized how special the experience of volunteering to teach English at Kapawi was. All the tremendous difficulties in dealing with this strange culture, being scared of the isolation and disease and being so wet and dirty all the time were worth it. It was such a connection. Despite all the barriers I felt I had been accepted.
Kapawi is the name of both an eco-lodge and the indigenous Achuar community that lie in Amazonian Ecuador . The lodge was started in 1993 as a joint venture between the FINAE, the Achuar federation and a tour operator, Canodros, to build a hotel for eco-tourism on land neighboring the Kapawi community.
The goal of the lodge was to provide, through eco-tourism, a monthly means of support and jobs for the Achuar. In 10 years, the lodge and all the installations will belong to and be managed by the Achuar. I was brought in to teach the new generation of Achuar students in the Kapawi community school. It is these students who in ten years time will be part of the team managing the lodge and using English to communicate with the tourists there.
Unknown in origin, the Achuar now occupy huge extensions of Ecuador and Peru's rainforest . The Achuar territory is 4700 square kilometers of some of the last major trackless and roadless rainforests of the Amazon basin . It is truly a wild place, one of the last frontiers between man and nature. From Kapawi to the nearest town is a two week canoe trip. Of course, you can also fly. You take a tiny plane and watch uninterrupted tree tops for over an hour before landing on a dirt strip in the middle of an Achuar community.
I came to Kapawi this way to volunteer as an English teacher , but was at times a nurse, environmental educator, barmaid and guide. It was a role that gave me almost constant contact with the Achuar people. Trying to communicate with people from such an alien culture who have such different experiences in life is extremely hard and takes constant adaptation on both sides. It is incredibly interesting trying to understand the way the Achuar think. I had an amazing opportunity since I was the first volunteer to work in the Kapawi . I was, therefore, probably the first Westerner to spend more than a few hours with the Achuar people.
They were not contacted by outsiders until the early 1970's and even now live very traditional lives. Each member of the community has a distinct role according to their sex. Women work in the chacra, or garden, collecting the manioc to make the nijiamanch or manioc beer, a staple in the Achuar diet. They also do all the cooking and look after the children. The men help with community work, fish and hunt, often still with blowpipes. Men are also the leaders and the Shamans of the communities.
For all its traditional roots, life in Kapawi community has been changing. A Salesian mission has existed for the last five years, a quartet of warm, lively Mexican nuns led by Sister Conchita whose homemade tortillas were wonderful. They had started the high school where I was teaching and recruited the other teachers. Among them was Luis, a happy, smiling, dreamer from Quito who became my best friend there. They had introduced music, football and hygiene, though the latter was the most popular import.
On my first day of my two-month stay at the lodge, I was taken to the community to meet Sister Conchita and Luis. They probably hadn't heard about my arrival as their radio was broken.
I think they were astonished to see such a rare creature as me - tall, blonde and blue-eyed woman walking towards them in Kapawi. I quickly realized that teaching was going to be a real challenge. Luis was the designated English teacher in the high school, even though he spoke no English, so I knew my students wouldn't know much. Moreover, there were no books, music or radio in English and obviously no television or films. This meant that my students would never have heard a native speaker before. Combined with my inexperience teaching English and only a short TEFL course to rely on, I was extremely apprehensive about starting.
Sister Conchita and Luis told me that I was to teach two classes: Basico, whose students ranged between ages 12 and 18 years old, and Sexto who were the most advanced students where the oldest was 25. They gave me only vague instructions of what to teach and told me I was to begin the following week.
After a weekend of complete culture shock and a forty- minute walk through the rainforest to get to the school, I was met by Luis at the classroom door and given an enthusiastic introduction to the Sexto class. I was terrified. The classroom was a tin-roofed hut built recently by the government. It had a small blackboard at one end and a row of desks filled with eight expectant students.
I had planned to teach a greeting dialogue and so began slowly, "Hello, how are you? My name is Miranda, I am from Britain, I have one brother and one sister." The class was soon flowing, and I had one of the students in no time telling me 'My name is Marco, I am from Wayusensa and I have nineteen brothers and sisters.' I was also amazed by how quick and motivated they were. By the end of the class they had grasped my dialogue and as I left shouted 'Bye bye!'
Several of my students were among the most able in the territory. Antonio was probably the best. He was extremely confident, always answering first and explaining to the rest of the class. I am sure Antonio is destined to be a local leader.
First, however, Antonio wanted to be a guide at the lodge, as did many of the others. It was for this that he was finishing high school, and was his motivation for learning English. I concentrated on teaching vocabulary and phrases necessary for guiding with the Sexto class. By the end of my two months at Kapawi, he and his classmates were starting to guide me around the community in English.
Basico students were very different. Unlike Sexto they were still struggling with Spanish and, since they already spoke Quichua and Achuar, English was their fourth language. I wondered if they actually needed it. It was difficult to keep their attention so I ended up inventing games which usually meant repeating "My name is..., his name is..." endlessly. It was the only way to get everyone involved especially the girls who were so shy. I often wished that I had more ideas for games to play with them in English, and this is where an actual TEFL degree would have prepared me with the tools to handle challenging situations like this.
As well as teaching my students I also had time with them as they walked me back to the lodge after classes. Sometimes I would visit students' houses and their families. It was these moments of quiet conversation and intimate cultural exchange which I began to treasure.
This was amazing considering how uncomfortable I had felt when I first arrived. I had read an article from the previous volunteer at the lodge before I left Quito for Kapawi warning me how difficult it was there and for the first week she was right. This was a closed and tight community especially towards women outsiders.
Achuar women are not allowed to work in the lodge nor are they allowed much interaction with strange men. Women from the outside with their equal working roles are, therefore, treated with deep suspicion. For my first week in this very remote spot, where I was one of only two women employees at the lodge, none of the Achuar spoke to me. It was only after this trial period that things became more comfortable.
The patriarchal culture of the Achuar was not the only problem. In the middle of the rainforest there is every sort of bug, parasite, spider, snake and disease that you've thought of. In my first week, I was covered by microscopic, extremely itchy mites. They especially liked the areas of my body protected by tight clothing. This meant in my underwear. Apparently they are very common but I took pains never to get them again! At Kapawi you just take it as it comes.
I also saw some terrible things including cases of malaria. In the community we were once called to a house to help with a little boy of six who was having a seizure, apparently a result of malaria. They thought we could help. Unfortunately by the time we arrived the boy had died in his mothers arms. As I stood outside the house, one of the Achuar men went in, picked the boy up from his mother and laid him on the floor, covering his face. All this time the family present was silent. No one, not even the mother cried.
So was the isolation, the disease and other difficult jungle realities worth it for me, as a volunteer, in the end? Were my efforts useful to the Kapawi community? I was absolutely exhausted by the time I left both physically and mentally. I was also only there for two months, not enough time to teach much of a complex language. A full time teacher is really needed.
As I left Kapawi on my last day, looking at my students lined up for me to take a photo of them, I thought how much I had learned from them. It had been an exchange of knowledge. They had learned from me as well and I don't mean just rudimentary English. They learned who I am, how I am different from them, what I thought about them and how they live.
It is their generation that will have to fight for their freedom to continue in the world. Fight the oil companies trying to enter their land, fight the loggers and colonists. The only weapon in their fight is education. Through learning English and understanding outside cultures my students were taught to value what they have but to understand what the outside world can give them. They can choose how they want to live and not have it thrust upon them. If Antonio, Pascual and the rest can be educated to understand the outside world they will not be naive and ignorant bystanders, letting people from the outside take advantage of them. If in any small way I helped them to do that, my effort was worth the many challenges of Kapawi.
To teach English at Kapawi Ecolodge:
For more information on Kapawi, contact Miranda at email@example.com or visit the Kapawi lodge web site, www.canadros.com.
Photos by Miranda Thompson