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November 24, 2010
“And it’s okay if this world had a billion saviors
‘Cause there’s so many things to be saved.” –Cloud Cult


I met a couple of my heroes today, on a medical excursion to the nearby village of Alto Ongota. Both of them are government employees, incidentally.

Alto Ongota

#1 was the elementary school teacher. As he described the situation in the village to me, with its multitude of problems and unsatisfied needs, his eyes had a spark that hinted at the intelligence behind them. He spoke with sincere interest about the two important impressions he tries to leave with his students. First, he described the curriculum’s (his) attempts to instill in the students a sense of identity and cultural worth, fighting Ecuador’s colonial hangover by teaching the children to be proud of their indigenous heritage. Soy de Alto Ongota, soy Quichua, y tengo orgullo. Then he described how important it was for them to know the richness of their environment, and understand the impacts of the deforestation going on around them. As he pointed out the little car in which he commutes the gravel road to and from Tena every day, I couldn’t help but wonder: “What is he sacrificing to be here?” Or maybe, due to the government’s savvy decision to pay teachers more for working in rural and economically depressed areas, it’s not such a sacrifice after all.

#2 was the dentist on the 3-person medical team. White skin and professional degree firmly establishing his place at the top of the social order, here he was in a storage room-turned-makeshift-dentists’-office, using a portable kit to drill away at the cavities that riddled the teeth of every single kid. At a rate of 4.5 minutes per kid, neither the smile nor the line of sweat ever left his face. And just like that, 25 children, who would likely otherwise never see a dentist, got a cavity filled; something that cost me $80 (just for the filling, after insurance) the last time I had to get it done in the States. He’s originally from Quito, so you know he’s sacrificing something- rarely do you see someone migrate from the city to the Amazon; the opportunities gradient runs strongly in the opposite direction. Maybe working in a government clinic in Tena was simply the only job he could find when he graduated. Or maybe he just likes to see poor kids smile.

Cristian the dentist

Unrelated anecdote: I learned something today. I need to work on keeping from jumping to conclusions, especially when they come to me all pre-formed. When I first arrived at the community this morning, I went over and inspected the latrines (a pretty crucial weapon in the war on diarrhea) right away. I found them in a sorry state of affairs: overgrown with grass and weeds, the absence of trampling at the entrance an obvious sign of disuse. Clearly, I thought to myself, sanitation still isn’t a cultural value for these people; they must prefer to do their business in the jungle. If I had then thought, Poor dears, it wouldn’t have added much condescension to my little internal monologue.

Only later did I discover the new bathrooms behind the school buildings. They really were bathrooms, not just latrines, with bright white flushing toilets, and clear signs of use. Only there wasn’t any water with which to flush them- the village is dependent on a water source that is only replenished when it rains. Apparently waterless days like today are not uncommon.

Moral of the story: the way we think about hygiene is just one of the many privileges of our affluence. It was easy for me to look down on the people of Alto Ongota for what I perceived as their neglect of the latrines, but that’s only because I have had continuous access to soap, abundant water, and a functioning toilet for my entire life, not to mention an upbringing (cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze!) that has drilled into me, time and time again, the importance of hygiene. See, poverty has this hideous way of comprehensively disadvantaging a person: after a lifetime spent without developing hygiene habits, using the new latrine is not going to be a pressing concern on your mind, no matter what that man in the blue Centro de Salud polo is saying in your second language. If you have to work all day in the field under the tropical sun to cultivate enough of the tasteless yuca to feed your kids, are you really going to waste your little fuel on boiling water for them? And the benefits of good hygiene are likely to be invisible to you, anyway- will you notice if your kids get sick with slightly less frequency (if it changes at all, since dozens of factors remain uncorrected)?

And if there’s no water to wash your hands anyway, does it really matter?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jenny permalink
    December 7, 2010 6:24 PM

    Nice post, David! Took me waaaaay too long to getting around to reading it. Will remedy this.

    Also, that’s one of my favorite Cloud Cult songs. Good call.

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