Painting the World: The World Map Project

Abigail Hindson - Ecuador

March 27, 2012

It’s only a map…it’s only a map…it’s only a map…

The words kept repeating in my head, but to no avail: no matter how I attempted to rationalize the situation to myself—and the absurdity of my reaction to it—I could not fall asleep on Monday night.  I was terrified that none of the invited kids would show up, that there would be some sort of paint disaster, that we wouldn’t finish…and all of the endless preparation of drawing boxes upon boxes on the baby-blue (Ocean blue, according to the painting manual but I’ve never seen an ocean such a milky-pastel shade and oddly reminiscent of fleece footie PJs) wall would go to waste.

I never imagined that my gap year in Ecuador would culminate with painting map murals of the world in various locations around the Napo province with my wonderful friend and fellow Fellow, Lily Ellenberg.  The idea of us completing the whole project not just once but three times seemed pretty unlikely: to start with, because we had no other way to get funding for our idea, we applied for what I’m sure was one of the smallest grants the U.S. Embassy has ever been asked for.  After the Embassy surprisingly gave us the go-ahead for our project, we had to paint the wall blue, draw a giant grid of 1,568 squares, sketch the entire world map on the wall, and only THEN begin to paint it several different colors with the potentially disastrous “assistance” of several school children.

The World Map Project was originally created by a Peace Corps Volunteer who realized that the best way to make her students curious about world geography was to have them paint a map of the world themselves.  After completing that one project, the idea was developed into a step-by-step template that Peace Corps Volunteers have since brought to over 40 countries, expanding the minds of young people and encouraging global worldviews.

The whole idea for Global Citizen Year Fellows completing the World Map Project was introduced to the whole cohort of Ecuador Fellows by one of our directors at In-Country Training nearly six months ago.  I’d stored away the ambitious thought of somehow completing the project and had nearly forgotten about it the day Lily and I started discussing how nearly none of the kids in the schools where we give English classes have access to updated maps.  We both lamented how very few of our students had any idea of where Ecuador lies on a global scale, let alone the many other countries that make up the face of our planet.  Soon we were researching how to write grants, e-mailing around for ideas, and hoping for some way to make this idealistic dream into a reality.

On a fateful Tuesday, about two months after Lily and I first decided we were going to take on the challenge of the World Map Project, it was showtime, and for some reason I was terrified about it (thus the lack of sleep the night before).  We spent the entire morning of

Dotting Paint on the Map

“Painting Day” splotching dabs of color in each country—so that the wall appeared like a sloppy, spaced representation of something trying to be a very abstract map.  This way, we figured, the kids would only have to find a country with the color they were given, and then paint within the lines.

Children were constantly coming up to us to ask what we were doing, if they could help paint (and when we said no, “why not?”), and an endless stream of “where is…”  “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” we’d ask, and they would shuffle off with guilty grins.  Students were constantly confusing Africa and South America, pointing at Senegal and insisting that it was, in fact, Ecuador.

A few hours later, our delegation of painters—the jokester Fabian, my little sister Maria, sweet Karina, Carlos, and Gissely and Janina—all crowded around the wall wearing makeshift paint smocks (they all forgot their painting clothes at home and were still wearing crisp maroon and grey uniforms), eager to begin.

The painting afternoon went surprisingly smoothly, with the kids joking and talking as they worked.  “Mali,” Carlos read as he brushed

Janina, Karina, Gissely, and Fabian painting

on yellow.  Fabian playfully dabbed paint on the arms of the girls and told them that they should leave the planet because they couldn’t paint worth anything, and in return was gifted with a lovely green cowlick the color of Denmark and Algeria that took half an hour to get out of his hair.  Besides these little incidents and the fact that the Gulf of Persia had been mistaken for part of Iran, the painting went incredibly successfully.  On the inspiration of the moment, we all placed our handprints alongside the map as a finishing touch.  It was incredible to see how the kids took ownership of the project as they helped; they seemed truly satisfied to be making a lasting mark (literally) on their school.

“Mapmaking creates a community,” quipped the Peace Corps’ World Map Project manual.  When Lily and I started the World Map Project, I scoffed at this notion, which I found extremely cheesy.  Now however, with one map nearly complete, I believe that doing a project such as this one can create a sense of community and camaraderie among those involved.  “How’s the map going?” Fellow teachers ask when they see me.  “Can we paint today?” The kids are eager to help, sometimes holding pages as Lily and I work on writing the names of the countries or just watching and curiously asking, “Where’s Inglaterra?  Estados Unidos?  China?”  We still have two maps to go, but I can already say that the World Map Project is one of the most fulfilling endeavors I have taken on in Ecuador, and seeing the result—a community world map—is absolutely worth all of the effort it takes to finish.


Abigail Hindson