Stories from the Amazon
Smiling faces of Achuar children.
There's Time for Play in the Rainforest, Too
The Achuar school of Wichimi was a buzz.
I asked the teacher how often they get visitors from outside the rainforest. He replied, “You’re it.”
The indigenous Achuar nation of Ecuador consists of 7,000 people, living in 72 communities in the rainforest. No roads connect them to the outside world.
Wichimi has a population of about 250 people. It is the only Achuar village that is accessible by canoe, which is 10 hours from Porto Morona. Short on time, I chose to fly.
For my visit, the school had organized some special activities.
Students of various ages performed traditional dances and songs, while other students sat along the perimeter in chairs pulled from classrooms.
Sitting straight across from me was a couple of high school students wearing western clothes.
One student wore blue jeans, a silver belt buckle, cowboy boots and an unbuttoned long- sleeve shirt covering a T-shirt.
Had I not been sitting in the middle of the rainforest, I would have thought I was in Fremont.
After the brief school visit, a formal welcome was organized in the community building. Here parents and students came to receive the school materials I had brought. This activity included several speeches from the community leaders.
As the leaders gave speeches, kids chased chickens, women passed bowls of chicha (their staple drink) and side conversations flowed. I glanced around to see if anyone was listening. Few seemed to look at whomever was talking.
On one side of the building, which is nothing more than a large roof elevated by poles with no walls, sat the high school student who was dressed in western attire. Next to him was a village elder with traditional long hair and a headpiece of some kind of animal fur wrapped about his head. He was honing the stem of a palm tree later to be used for a poisonous dart.
Two different worlds blended together as one in a moment of time. The Achuar will change, as we all do, but my mind begged the question: Will they forget their culture and wisdom of the rainforest along the way?
Cristina Serrano, my guide to the village, turned to me and said, “It’s now your turn to talk.”
When I stood up, everyone became quiet. The “ingy,” as they call white people or foreigners, was going to say something.
“Winyahi,” I said loudly, which is hello in the Achuar language. This instantly brought smiles and a response of “ay yo,” which is their general reply to everything.
I extended greetings from the schools and people from my country who care about the rainforest and the Achuar’s relationship to it. I explained the reason why I brought the materials was as an exchange for them to teach me about the rainforest.
When I was done, they clapped loudly.
I wasn’t sure if the applause was for people’s interest in the rainforest or the fact that I brought two waterproof soccer balls as a gift.
After lunch, the schoolmaster organized a volleyball match for the older kids and a soccer match for the elementary students.
It didn’t matter that it started pouring rain right after the matches began.
For the soccer match, a goal was set up on each side of the runway that goes through the heart of the village. The rain only added to the fun of the match. Kids ran, darted and slid through the brown clay that was being transformed into mud by their feet.
Large water puddles became opportunities to fill the air with more water as they jumped, dashed and laughed. I stood under the protection of the community building roof, wishing to be a kid who cared little about getting dirty playing in a soccer game in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest.
At one point, the schoolmaster went out to end the game. I couldn’t understand the words, but I got the intonation as the students begged to continue playing.
He nodded his head yes. Both sides cheered.
The rain stopped, as did the soccer game. The kids ran off to the river to wash off the well-earned mud. Bedtime comes early in the rainforest. Once darkness descends, the day ends and kids drift off into dreams of kicking the winning goal.