Our first Christmas while living in Ecuador was a Kichwa Christmas, celebrated in a small rural school in the Andes. Kichwa is the language of the indigenous people of Ecuador.
Por favor, puede ayudarme?! (Please, can you help me?!) This was the frantic plea of a man we hardly knew.
Only a few weeks after Gary and I had begun living in Ecuador, we were approached by Luis Panama, the maintenance man of a building where we were considering renting an apartment. He told us he was president of an indigenous school in Guachinguero, way up in the mountains outside Cotacachi.
Christmas was only a short time away and he had not been able to find a Christmas donor for his village. There was no money for candy for the school’s 65 or so children eagerly awaiting their yearly benefactors’ visit.
He asked if we could help and we did. Although the indigenous kichwa in Ecuador don’t usually celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, a traditional Christmas gift for kids is a plastic bag filled with animal crackers, chocolates, suckers and hard candy, tied with a ribbon. Luis Panama wanted 100 bags so that younger children not in school and also the elderly could receive a gift.
Two Canadian friends, Joanne and Ed, who were living in Ecuador for the winter, helped us make up the packages. Luis arranged a driver for us and away we went a few days before Christmas.
It had just rained heavily and the trip to the village was long and nerve-wracking as we jiggled down rough muddy roads. At one point we all got out of the truck and waited until the driver navigated a particularly treacherous area where the road had washed out into a deep ravine.
We were treated to a nativity play complete with the Holy Family, shepherds and angels and rounds of singing by each age group, plus a lunch of boiled corn on the cob, huge light-green beans like limas, potatoes and fresh, white, local cheese.
The next year Luis Panama gave us an official printed invitation to host the children but there was no date or time mentioned on it. As each week passed, we kept thinking that surely he would call and tell us when we needed to arrive at his kichwa village, but when no word came, we began to doubt if he was going to show up.
On December 19 he called Gary and asked if we were ready to go---the next morning at 9 a.m.! Gary quickly bought cookies and candies and Joanne and Ed, who had wisely already purchased the sacks and ribbons, stayed up late with us to get the bags ready.
The next morning we four again made the trip, this time accompanied by Sasa, a German woman spending some time in Cotacachi. Luis Panama had lost our phone number and each time he had come by our apartment we weren’t home, so he had just about given up.
Then he found someone who had our number and he called, just in time. There was no play this year, but we were treated to lunch again and the kids got their goodies. The highlight for us was listening to a bunch of kindergarteners enthusiastically belt out “Jingle Bells” in Kichwa, their native language.
Afterwards, I peeked into the kitchen and found it quite bare, only a muddy dirt floor and a fire on the ground, fueled from a pile of sticks stored in an adjoining room. There is a dining room for the kids, but the ceiling is falling in and the whole room needs refurbishing to be useable.
The kids usually eat from bowls outside while standing up or congregating on the new concrete playground, which last year was only hard-packed earth.
There are two teachers at the school and they teach 65 children aged 5 to 13. Kids show up for school at 8 and make the long walk home at 1, accompanied by a parent or older sibling.
The children have wooden desks and good books, blackboards and school supplies that are furnished by the government, but little more than the bare necessities. However, according to Sasa, who has lived in Africa for many years, this school is far better equipped than many in Africa.
As I enthusiastically rode my crusader’s white horse into a fantasy of saving the village and bringing endless joy and success to the children, I was brought up short by a friend who has lived in Ecuador for many years.
She reminded me of a hard-won lesson she and I have both learned during many years of service work. It is one I have also written about on this site: First check to see what is truly needed or wanted. Many an NGO and charitable organization have seen their efforts crumble because what they offered wasn’t really wanted or part of the existing culture. Learn more about being a responsible global citizen.
So we asked first. Luis Panama made it quite clear that what is desperately needed is a better-equipped kitchen, along with a dry dining room where the children can eat comfortably indoors. The door to the old dining room is blocked because the roof is falling in. If we furnish the money for materials, they will provide the labor to get the job done.
They also indicated a desire for some games and sports equipment for the school. If you would like to help out with some financial support, and perhaps even join us next Kichwa Christmas on our journey to Gauchinguero, we can make arrangements. The children would love a visit from Santa and toys in addition to the usual bag of sweets.
The teachers want a volunteer or two to teach English at least once a week. Transportation from Otavalo can be provided by the teachers who carpool up the mountain at 8 a.m. daily. We can assist with this, too.
Gary and I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing the excitement on the faces of the village children when we show up. I look forward to next year when we can do more to ease the poverty there and also improve the quality of education for a group of deserving youngsters.
If you are so moved to help this school, please contact us. You can be an angel to these children who need so much and can bring a little happiness into their lives. Your gift will be personally acknowledged and greatly appreciated.
Here’s some additional information about Kichwa, or Quichua, in Ecuador, also known as Quechua in other South American countries: