Janey Fugate '15
Janey Fugate is a Romance Languages and Journalism double major from Atlanta, G.A. She used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to intern for the General's Development Initiative in Ecuador.
Village 235 sounds like it belongs in a science fiction novel or in the Hunger Games. But really it should be in Africa. Named for the 235th kilometer marker on the old railway that used to run to Quito, Ecuador, this tiny, subtropical casario is home to around 30 families, and the majority of them are black. Spanish speaking and mostly Catholic, they live in a valley carved out by the river Mira. Getting to 235 is a testament to its isolation. From Quito, I took a bus two hours north to the city Ibarra. From there, I took another bus one hour into the country to get out on the side of the road. The village is so small and the bus stop is so unremarkable that you would miss if you didn't know what to look for. After disembarking from the bus, I walked down a dirt path to the river. The only way to reach the village is by crossing a swinging bridge that creaks with every step. And even then it is a 15-minute walk up the side of the hill to the houses.
I was in 235 to check on a microfinance loan that the General's Development Initiative (W&L's microfinance group) had given to some of the farmers to expand pineapple production. But this took up maybe 20% of my time. Living with an elderly couple, Don Hermogenes and Doña Olga Pabon, time passed slowly and quietly. I spent the daylight hours eating fresh food, talking, chewing sugar cane on the porch and playing with their grandson. In the mornings I went out with local famer named Arturo Misia, whose hands were so weathered and callused he could peel spiny leaves off pineapple plants without gloves, to the terrenos, or sections of farmed land on the hillsides. I planted some pineapples and learned a bit about the produce they grow.
Like the couple I lived with, Village 235 is aging. Once children graduate from the elementary school, they take a bus to a neighboring town for high school. After that, most try to get jobs or go to college in cities like Ibarra or Quito, leaving their agricultural roots behind them. Out of the 11 children Don Hermogenes fathered, only one lives in 235 and none are farmers. One campesino, Armando Mendez, lamented that the village used to be more united. When one wanted to blaze a new trail up the mountain, everyone would participate. Now the population is more fractionalized and less organized, due to individualismo, he said, and also due to social mobility. This trend is reflected across the globe. Whaling and fishing towns in Norway shrink, aboriginals in Australia relinquish their nomadic lifestyle, and Amazonian tribes struggle before encroaching mining and oil operations (National Geographic, June 2013). I don't believe this kind of change is always negative, but I do think there is something to be said for the loss of culture, and for the letting go of working close to the earth and its systems.
But Village 235 was just part of my grant experience in Ecuador. I spent most of my time in Quito. Quito is just three hours away from 235 by bus, but worlds away in everything other aspect. A maze of colorful two story buildings, the city is overrun by stray dogs and encircled by mountains. In the casco colonial, or historic center, I lived at Fundación Casa Victoria, which offers after school programs for kids. General's Development Initiative made the loan to 235 through this foundation, which was how I was able to spend a month at CasaV. There, I worked as a volunteer. Every day the old, colonial style home turned into a madhouse bursting with children and volunteers. The program offered the kids tutoring, games, a library, computer lessons, Bible study and a meal. I had never been immersed in the comings and goings of a functioning non-profit, so it was interesting to see kinds of problems one faces, and the ways CasaV built a community within its sphere of influence.
Since my mornings were usually free, I went to the other side of the city to teach English at a school. While CasaV is located in the newly restored colonial district, just a few block's from the President's palace, Fundación Amor y Esperanza is located in one of poorest neighborhoods of the city. Humble buildings with dirt floors and rickety houses perched precariously on the steep slopes of the hills surrounded the school. I taught English to kids in the 5th through 10th grades, which gave me much more respect for teachers, especially teachers trying to teach English. I also worked with the school's director to start a microfinance project with General's Development Initiative. Essentially, the project will involve growing a catering business for the women who work in Amor y Esperanza's nursery kitchens scattered around the city. The project is currently in the works, but will hopefully come to fruition in the form of a loan this semester.