Up the river and into the school - promoting education in a remote region of Ecuador
After more than a decade without education, a remote jungle area in the North of Ecuador sends its children back to the classroom
ESMERALDAS, Ecuador, September 2008 – In a small village on the banks of the Cayapas River, in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, most people are unable to read and write. But that is changing.
Many of the schools in the area closed down over 10 years ago, when the teachers who were sent from the capital abandoned their classrooms because of the harsh living conditions in this remote area. This is indeed an extremely isolated spot – with no access to electricity, water, phone lines or roads. The river is the sole means of transportation in and out of this remote area populated by afrodescendants who exist far away from what we all take for granted.
Once the schools closed, an entire generation grew up illiterate. Instead of going to class, children went to work in the fields or in the tropical rainforest; or they simply loitered around in the villages without anything useful to do.
Bringing schools back
In March 2002, the lives of the community members drastically changed when representatives from the Catholic Church and UNICEF approached the Ministry of Education and, together, they came to the area looking for volunteers who would like to become teachers for their local communities. The idea was that, since no teachers could be found who were willing to live and teach in the remote villages along the river Cayapas, it was time to build on local capacity.
“I was excited, I hated to see the children and adolescents waste their lives without receiving the opportunity to be educated,” says Jeffer Basilio, a young man from La Concordia community, who received primary and secondary education before the schools closed down. “I had long hoped that a school would be re-opened in my village.”
Jeffer recalls how one morning in early March, a UNICEF education consultant and two catholic priests visited his village looking for people with a secondary school degree, in an effort to re-establish the education system in the river area. Jeffer was eager to teach the children of his community, and immediately signed up for the education project.
Jeffer and 33 other young men and women were recruited as teachers: after receiving a crash-course on pedagogy, they were ready to begin teaching.
“I was very nervous on my first day as a teacher” Jeffer says. “But when I felt the children’s thirst for knowledge and their enthusiasm for learning new things, I soon started to enjoy my new task. Whenever I get stuck and don’t know how to handle one of my students, I recall what UNICEF taught me during our training: to teach all students with respect and patience and to never punish them with verbal or physical violence”.
Children return to school
These days, hundreds of canoes filled with students in uniforms on their way to school slowly float up and down the river. They attend one-teacher schools, with just one person teaching up to 150 students from different age groups. Jeffer and his colleagues perform miracles every day by applying all their patience, commitment and creativity to achieve educational goals.
“I have to plan the classes very well to make sure that all my students between ages 6 and 15 keep advancing in 6 different subjects,” says Jeffer. “While I give the older students a task to be solved in group work, I show the younger students how to write the alphabet.”
María, an 8-year old student in Jeffer’s class, used to be silent when asked about her future. Today she says she wants to be a teacher so that all children in the village can learn how to read.
Juan, who joint the classes at the age of 10 and is now 14 years old, tells us “I like to learn new things, I am the only one in my family who knows how to read, and soon, I want to become a doctor so I can help the people in our village.”
Advocating for education
UNICEF still continuously evaluates the teachers’ performance and organizes teacher training sessions. It also has produced a children’s book to stimulate reading in elementary schools; the book is now used in single-teacher schools all over Ecuador.
Thanks to UNICEF’s leadership and the commitment of the Catholic Church, more than 4,200 children are now receiving a quality education in northern Esmeraldas. Re-opening schools with teachers recruited from within the community has been so successful that the model is to be replicated in the entire northern border region.
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© UNICEF Ecuador/Schiermeyer/2008