Ecuador has tugged at my heartstrings plenty of times. I still remember how I felt the first time (and the second and the third… and maybe the fiftieth too) I saw the views from Pimampiro. When my little host brother told me that he loved me for the first time, I smiled from ear to ear. The love and affection that I felt for my students one day after hanging out with them for a while and realizing just how much I really cared about them surprised me and confirmed that I was doing something right.
Of course, not all of the events that have touched me this year have brought smiles. There have been moments and days that have changed me, made me cry, and made me doubt everything. A lot of these moments have come through my work in the Paragachi guardería, or daycare. Many days after my classes in the high school in Pimampiro, I catch a ride on a truck or a bus and go down to Paragachi, a dusty, extremely impoverished town about ten minutes down the road. There are about 40 children aged six months to four years at the daycare. I play with them, feed them, and teach the oldest ones a little bit of English. They are beautiful and funny and I don’t know what I’m going to do when I don’t get to see them every week. I think their classic childlike innocence makes the hard moments even harder. I didn’t know what to tell a little four year-old when she told me that her mom was bleeding in the morning because her step-dad hit her with a broken beer bottle. I couldn’t say anything and cried instead when another four year-old friend showed up with a burn mark on his face and, with tears streaming down his face, told me that he didn’t want to go home because his mother had gone out of town, leaving him in the care of his alcoholic father. It doesn’t seem fair that these kids should have to deal with these types of things, and it definitely affects me. I try to remind myself that life and expectations are different here, and instead of focusing on their difficult home lives, I do my best to make sure their time at daycare is awesome.
Some things hit even deeper. There are three sisters who live in Paragachi and often come to help out and eat lunch at the daycare because they come from a big family and a mother who can’t provide for them. The deal is that if they go to classes, the women at the daycare will feed them in exchange for help with cleaning and other chores. Yesterday when they showed up, we discovered that they hadn’t gone to school. We told them that there would be no lunch that day and, presumably because they realized that they hadn’t held up their part of the deal, they didn’t complain. When I asked my friend, one of the women who works at the daycare, why the sisters hadn’t gone to school, I figured that it was probably because they had been working in the fields, trying to get a little bit of food and money to get them through the day. The answer shocked me. My friend told me that the sisters hadn’t gone to school because they had been wandering around town trying to find men who would pay them a few dollars in exchange for “favors.” The sisters are 10, 8, and 6.
We’ve known for a while that the girls don’t have good living conditions. They were initially invited to eat lunch at the daycare because someone saw them eating out of trashcans. Their mother suffers from some type of mental instability, and has no way to provide for her ten children. The three girls are the three youngest and while their older brothers lounge around and drink beer at home, they are left to fend for themselves. The girls are Ecuadorian, but they all have light skin and blonde hair due to severe malnutrition. When one of my friends was brushing the youngest girls’ hair, she found a giant mat and spent an hour getting it out. The girls take care of each other, but no one else really does. Some people in Paragachi pitch in to help the girls out, but they still have no stability or safe place to go. I’ve spoken with my lawyer friend who works at the municipality in Pimampiro and she doesn’t know why government programs have made no effort to help the girls. Solutions are hard to find because nothing is ideal. We’ve talked about trying to get them taken out of Paragachi and moved to an orphanage or home in Ibarra. Though this would probably be beneficial, it would also rip them away from their family and their home which, as bad as they may be, are the only things the girls know. Leaving the girls in Paragachi, even with help, almost definitely condemns them to a life of poverty and unthinkable acts. Over the past few months, I’ve befriended the girls and become especially attached to the youngest one, an adorable and playful six year-old. The next time I see them I’m going to ask them what they want. Although it likely won’t change anything initially, it will hopefully be the first step in helping the girls to change their situation.