In early September, all fifty-two of the Ecuado Fellows huddled in the small classroom in Quito debating the merits of Ivan Illich´s To Hell with Good Intentions: is Illich right about the inevitable role of the US volunteer as the ¨vacationing salesmen for the middle class American way of life?¨ Now, seven weeks later, living in my permanent homestay in Talag, Napo, I wonder the same thing. My feelings are even more conflicted particularly due to my most recent four-day medical brigade trip.
Prior to the overnight expedition, my fellow colleague Dr. Ivan asked me, ¨Porque quieres irte?¨ Why do you want to go? He then proceeded to list all the reasons why I should not: it will be uncomfortable—the journey consist of a four hour drive from the city followed by four hours of hiking on gnarly trails; I have to carry all my belongings and sleep in a camp; there are even more bugs out there in the deep jungle that will compete for whatever is remaining of my legs; most important, the Waorani people are aggressive,–if I stray from the group, they will kidnap me. ¨La gente es mala,¨ he concluded, staring into my irritated face.
With these precautions in mind, I headed off with the group of fifteen doctors and nurses. At four o´clock in the afternoon last Wednesday, we shuffled into the Ministerio de Salud Publica van with all our backpacks, medical supplies, and food. We arrived at the Subcentro de Nucanchillacta, one of many rural health clinics, late that night and prepared for our big hike the following day. The next morning, after another forty minutes in the van over more bumpy, dirt road, we arrived at the trailhead, greeted by friendly-looking Waorani people who proceeded to heave our cargo onto their backs and directed us towards the hidden trail. As I straddled behind the natives, working hard to keep my footing on the muddy incline, I craned my neck to see where their hardy legs had taken them and wondered how in the world I would ever get to camp. Throughout the hike, I asked myself again and again, ¨Why are we here? Why am I here?¨
While I promised myself to keep an open mind about the trip, I knew that deep inside the reason I persisted on coming was to reinforce my deeply ingrained belief that the indigenous people are fine without contact with so called civilization and that development was their ruin. From the start, I was against everything that the medical brigade stood for, doubting the good intentions that the Ministerio de Salud embodied as we as a group invaded the indigenous town. Earlier that morning, when we stopped for gasoline at the PetroAmazonas oil reserve before getting dropped off, I could not help but stare at the fully equipped facilities, manned by trained Ecuadorians from other parts of the country as opposed to the native indigenous people of the Amazon. The sight of the turf field, the sign depicting hot water and cellphone signal, the blasted and mined hillside kept me at edge. As I contrasted the living conditions I found there on the corporate oil plant reserve, four hours away from Tena, the main city in Amazonian Ecuador, to the humble houses that lacked running water, electricity, and cellphone signal in Talag, my hometown, which is only a thirty minute drive from Tena, I wish I did not understand; did not understand that where economic interests are strong, luxury is prevalent; did not understand that the indigenous people will not profit from the exploitation of the natural resources right in their homes; did not understand that the pursuit of development often marginalizes those who are voiceless; did not understand that my mission on the medical brigade was to bring services from civilization to crude, uneducated people who lack basic amenities such as doctors. Thus, I started my trip with a burning desire to condemn the good intentions of society. Like Dr. Ivan, I also carried a heavy package of prejudices and creedences.
Luckily for Dr. Ivan and I, these preconceived notions did not deter us for coming to new conclusions after our stay with the Waorani people. While I did wince as I passed out free boxes of Ibuprofen to the villagers, I also recognized the importance of drawing blood to test for Hepatitis and offering treatment to the afflicted ones, the significance of pulling out rotten tooths from decaying gums, and the enthusiasm of offering medical attention to the middle-aged man whose right eye was completely clouded with cataract. Likewise, I also saw the change in Dr. Ivan. As he witnessed the kindness and openness of the Waorani people, his fears about their notorious aggressiveness to strangers melted away. Granted we were interacting with people who have had previous contact with outsiders and of course, the indigenous people who live further in the Amazon might not be as friendly, this experience was crucial for the both of us.
As I continue to contemplate the role of development in undeveloped regions and the utility of my good intentions as a US volunteer, I will be more open-minded. Yes, in our history, development has indeed bought about egregious cases of injustice, but it has also accompanied a higher standard of living with basic securities such as medical services. In the past, indigenous people have survived solely with medicinal plants and practices but their knowledge is slowly fading away as the younger generations begin to diverge from their culture and assimilate to Western fads. Thus, it is crucial to provide medical services to these people who are living in limbo and encourage a medical system where the best of Western medicine and traditional medicine is embraced. Lastly, while I can not deny that as Illich stated, the good intentions of US volunteers can often times wreck havoc in communities, directing villagers into a blind pursuit for the luxuries of a middle class American life, there are exceptions. Therefore as a nation, the United States needs to nurture global leaders who will not venture down that path. We need to train volunteers who will first listen before talking, who will first observe before acting, and finally who will provide services without humbling the people and thereby be true global citizens of any village or town in any country of the world.
Disclaimer: Dr. Ivan´s fears about our trip to visit the Waorani originate from his preconceived notions; there is no possibility that the Waorani will kidnap us due to several factors. First, the Ministry of Health does not send their employees to areas where there is danger and thus, this community that we visited had been cleared before the medical brigade. Second, Global Citizen Year has allowed me to accompany the group after my Team Leader Andy, who is knowledgeable about the areas of turmoil in Ecuador, granted me permission.