My Final Community Project (Preserving Kichwa Folktales)

Jeffrey Fishman - Ecuador


April 2, 2019

I can’t believe that my time here in Ecuador is coming to an end! The days have truly flown by in the blink of an eye. I have learned so much over these past seven months, and I know that I am returning to the U.S. as a better version of myself.

Before leaving Ecuador, Brazil, India, or Senegal, each fellow is tasked with completing a Final Community Project. These wide-ranging projects are meant to help fellows both thank and say goodbye to the communities that have become their second homes.

My Final Community Project began the moment I set foot in the Farinango family household. The Farinangos are a proud Kichwa family. The Kichwa people are an indigenous group who inhabit South America across Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. They are direct descendants of the Incas and are the largest indigenous group in the Americas with a population of 7.5 million people.

Prior to my arrival in Ecuador, I had never even heard of the word, Kichwa. However, this vibrant culture impacted my gap year experience in the best way possible, teaching me lifelong lessons and skills. I was introduced to a new perspective that emphasizes selflessness and the importance of both family and community. As I attended Kichwa festivals, celebrated indigenous holidays, and learned new customs and traditions, I was fully welcomed and accepted by this kind community. I can’t imagine my gap year without this Kichwa influence and my indigenous Ecuadorian family!

Unfortunately, Kichwa culture and language are on a steady decline in Ecuador. In fact, my Ecuadorian family’s Kichwa community, Pueblo Natabuela, lost their native language over 300 years ago. Racism against indigenous people is often cited as the main cause in this degradation of Kichwa culture. Ecuadorian society is dominated by Spanish-speaking Mestizos (people with a combination of European and indigenous descent), and the Kichwa community is encouraged to assimilate. At this rate, the unique indigenous culture and language of Ecuador could disappear completely due to a generational gap that is forming between older generations and the Kichwa youth; these children and adolescents often face embarrassment due to their roots, causing them to turn their backs on their upbringing.

As the time came around to begin our Final Community Projects, I knew that I wanted to work in the preservation of indigenous society here in Ecuador. I partnered up with Anna Sophie Tinneny, a fellow who also lives with a Kichwa family, and we began searching for project ideas. While talking to my Ecua-Mom, Maty, we discovered that she had been trying to gain support for an effort to preserve the Kichwa folktales of Pueblo Natabuela for years, but never had the time or resources. Anna Sophie and I had found our project!

For the past few weekends, Maty and I have been running around our little community, gathering folktales from various members of Pueblo Natabuela. Anna Sophie is now transcribing the recordings in order to compile a digital archive of these stories. In this manner, the indigenous folktales will be preserved for generations to come.

However, if the youth of Pueblo Natabuela don’t learn the stories of their grandparents, then the preservation effort is futile. This is where the second half of our project comes in to play! Anna Sophie and I will be choosing a few of our favorite folktales to create a comic-style picture book. This book will be printed and distributed to the children of Pueblo Natabuela, encouraging kids to learn about this part of their indigenous culture. (Many of the stories also have a moral, so the youth will be taught important life lessons that have been passed down through these anecdotes for generations!) Additionally, the book will be in both Spanish and Kichwa, which will enable the children to learn a little of their native language that was lost so many years ago. Lastly, some copies of the book will be given to Pueblo Natabuela to be used as a learning resource in the Kichwa classes administered by the indigenous community.

I think that I’m so passionate about this project because of the immense love I have developed for my Ecuadorian family. They have given me so much over the past seven months, and I hope that by completing this project, I can repay them just a small amount for everything they have done for me. I know that leaving Ecuador is going to be extremely difficult for me because not only am I leaving all the parts of this country that I love dearly, but I also have to say goodbye to my second family. While this farewell will be painful, I am comforted by the fact that I will always have a second home here in Ecuador. This goodbye is not permanent, and I hope to return and visit soon! So long for now Ecuador! I’ll be back!

Here are some photos from my last few months in Ecuador!

I met this little girl named Camila while searching for folktales, and she asked me to teach her a little English. She was so cute and full of energy!

Up next are a few photos of my friend, Kat, and I climbing the Imbabura Volcano. I still can’t believe that we made it to the top of the 15,190-foot summit!

Kat and I with the city of Ibarra in the background. This was taken at the beginning of the climb, before we knew what we were getting ourselves into!

This photo was taken right after we reached the top of the volcano. We were exhausted, but so happy!

This sign marks the peak of the volcano! It translates to the Forest of Polylepis.

Here’s a photo of us with the heart of Imbabura. This symbol plays a very important role in many indigenous Kichwa folktales!

Me with the crater of the volcano in the background. I never wanted to leave the summit (mostly because I would have to walk all the way back down)!

My host family, other members of Pueblo Natabuela, and I competing in a Kichwa dance contest. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but we had so much fun!

My co-workers and I celebrating Carnaval. What a mess! I was purple for a week!

My cohort and I enjoying a Pachamanka ceremony, an ancient indigenous ritual where food is cooked in the ground using hot rocks. Yum!

My host family, our family friends, and I with the sign for my host dad’s new art gallery. He made this piece using only a chainsaw!

My host family and I at the opening of my host dad’s gallery. I’m so happy that he finally has a space to show off his beautiful wooden sculptures! I’m also so grateful for my huge, extended Ecuadorian family that has welcomed me in as one of their own!

Another volunteer and I working with Mateo, a little boy with an auditory deficiency. It has been so rewarding to see his progress over the past seven months!

Maty and I on a boat on the San Pablo Lake. We were surrounded by so many beautiful mountains! I know that I will miss these breathtaking views when I return to the U.S.!

Jeffrey Fishman