This is the story of a curly, red-haired, five year old, city boy spending an afternoon in the mountains. While we were doing some work on our house in Challuabamba, Jonny went outside to play. He would usually find sticks to play with or rocks to throw or just plain explore the great outdoors.
The fields next to our house are rocky, filled with waist high scrub brush and tough wild grass. What more could a boy ask for to explore? A half hour later, we went outside to check on him and couldn’t find him. We called his name and, from a hundred yards away and out of sight over a rise, he answered. We heard him climbing up the hill and talking to someone. Minutes later, he arrived, his shirt covered with burrs. Dust and dirt covered his hands and smiling face. “I’ve been with my friends,” he said with a huge grin. Behind him came two young children followed by a dozen sheep slowly eating their way up the hill. Jonny had been playing with and talking to two shepherds, a boy of about nine and a girl of possibly eleven years. They were both dressed in long sleeve shirts and pants that had been washed so many times no color remained only worn cloth the color of tan dirt. The boy held a long stick, a staff, that he used to herd the sheep. Jonny ran up to us with a baseball sized rock in his hand, saying “He gave me this stone. It’s special. He says it’s part of the mountain and he gave it to me.” The children stood nearby, passively, watching Jonny and us without a saying a word. We climbed into our car to head back to the city with Jonny clutching his magic stone. We all waved goodbye. They waved in return and went back to herding the sheep toward fresh, new grass.
This was just a moment in our lives but there were strong images that we will remember for a long time. Something is happening to Jonny. After a long adjustment, he is comfortable using Spanish. He seems no longer to be frustrated by a lack of language and the ability to communicate easily with other children who speak only Spanish. He is much happier now than before in being able to talk to them. It has taken over a year but we hear him jabbering away in Spanish with an ease far more advanced than ours. He asked if we could go back tomorrow so he could go looking for his shepherd friends again. He sees no difference in them. They were just new friends. Jonny, by Ecuadorian standards, is a boy that comes from a wealthy family but cannot distinguish rich or poor. We thought about how this child of five has no class distinctions, and as yet, no rules of how to relate to others who are different. Where do we get this dividing line later in life of who we should be friends with and who is not acceptable? Class, race, status? Where does it come from?
We thought of the shepherd children and how different their lives will probably be compared to Jonny’s. What will their lives become? School is compulsory in Ecuador but does anyone check up in the mountains to see if these children were going to school? If they go to a local public school, it is obvious that the minute they get home they are told to take the sheep out to feed on the mountainside. We know of many people on our mountain who live in little more than shacks with dirt floors and an outhouse in the field behind.
It is almost certain that these two children live in a similar shanty. In the city, poverty is all around us but we seldom see a homeless person. Almost every poor person finds some way to sell something and survive. In the country, families scratch a living from almost vertical hillsides, raise animals, grow vegetables, scavenge the land for herbs to sell, collect firewood, and more.
All is done without the need for a national safety net or welfare. These shepherd children may, unfortunately, be a perfect example of how an Ecuadorian country boy and girl may grow up knowing little more than their mother and father’s existence and carrying on a life style that may never change. For Jonny, it is a different story. He is learning how to deal with diversity and poverty and friendship in two languages. With all of the problems of raising a child in a foreign country, an encounter like this probably has no match in the US. It would be all but impossible for Jonny to gain the same understanding almost anywhere else other than in the mountains of Ecuador. It is our hope that he will be a better person for this experience and many more to come.