[color-box color=”green”][dropcap]Join[/dropcap] Canadian Expat, Dodie Schadlich, in her weekly column for “Off the Beaten Path”. Discover La Libertad on the south coast of Ecuador in a way rarely seen by expats. [/color-box]
The ‘season’ is just around the corner; no matter what your name for it may be, we all want to give a little more during this time of year.
Considering Ecuador is mainly Catholic, Christmas remains a religious holiday. Whether or not it offends anyone is not the discussion for today. This country does not face the ethical dilemma of political correctness when it comes to Happy Holidays vs Merry Christmas. It is simply Feliz Navidad. This article is not about the local customs or history of the holidays. It is not about typical dinners found on the tables or how this differs from our own traditions.
It is about respect. dignity, humility, and pride.
There is a clear class division in Ecuador. There are the wealthy, who are very wealthy. You just need to look at the number and quality of malls with full parking lots in Guayaquil to realize this.
There is a growing middle class made up of workers; in social services, government positions, teachers, police, military and on the coast, even workers in the oil refineries and related industries.
And then we find the poor, the very, very poor. They work when, and as they can, and their daily collective focus is on survival; food, clothing, lodging. They are not only the occasional street beggar but also the beach vendors, the corner stand families, the man selling Cola from little cups, the child selling chiclets, the lines of pirated DVD vendors, the guitar man in your restaurant, or the never ending line up of workers at the traffic lights and toll booths selling everything from phone chargers to coconut water.
It is during this season that we like to reach out to our fellow human beings and bring a little cheer and kindness. Many of us express our appreciation and love to our friends and family by buying them gifts; nothing says I love you better than a PlayStation 4S under the tree!
We also reach out to strangers, charities, the man that works at the gate, the lady that sews our clothes and even to some of the most vulnerable and struggling members of our communities.
I know for certain there are expats in pueblos across Ecuador right this minute, sitting in groups; big and small, wondering how they can spread some cheer to the locals in need during the ‘season’.
Over the past 3 year’s we have been involved with many different community projects, crisis intervention, income earning opportunities, Christmas functions, bed programs, school supplies and uniform sponsorships, even trying to ensure some children receive a cake on their birthday.
Through these programs, we have made some mistakes and I would like to share some of the lessons we have learned. This is certainly not to tell you what you should or should not be doing. It is simply to share in hopes to save you and them some embarrassing situations. To be effective in charity projects by helping to build solid bridges created out of mutual respect, dignity and a desire to make a difference.
Building A Bridge
When we give, we envision the person will be filled with the warmth and happiness that was intended. We want them to feel special. We imagine that they will graciously accept the gift and later, as they lay their head down to sleep, they will feel blessed. Perhaps they will cherish that gift for years with fond memories.
But, what can sometimes happen, is they politely accept the item with a sheepish smile, eyes cast down and as they close the door, an intense feeling of shame envelopes them. This shame can turn to anger and resentment, where the words in their head are anything but grateful and may include; ignorant, arrogant, presumptuous, Pelucón
Pelucón is a word that has many meanings but used informally here in Ecuador to describe the wealthy. There is a connotation to the word that is ugly and somewhat comical to them; where the locals will look at each other and knowingly nod and say it under their breath. I am told it is not just about wealth, it is about attitude and behavior and the perceived dismissive and arrogant treatment towards the poorer working class.
I have sat in a number of bamboo homes to ask forgiveness for my oversights or unintentional faux pas that caused them shame. I have come to realize that apologies from the heart go a long way here.
Understanding what it is that I do not know; being open and willing to challenge my own belief systems became an important part of the process.
Learning Along The Way
To have the flexibility to adjust actions, even if it didn’t fully align with my understanding about life as I have lived it; to preserve the dignity of the family became as much a goal as it was to provide them food. To realize I may not know everything there is to know about them and their wants and needs without asking, rather than presuming I know best. I realized that I needed to be very careful of how I approached each situation. Learning to work beside them, with them, not above them.
I am learning to remove my super-hero cape; so rather than swooping in to ‘save the day’, my goal is to sit beside them and ask them what they need, rather than tell them what they need. To me this demonstrates a respect, it shows a willingness to collaborate and provides them an opportunity to feel part of the solution, not the recipient of charity.
When all the people making the decisions are gringos with little understanding as to the realities of life in these barrios and what lies behind the bamboo walls, it is a recipe for disaster. I have seen these types of plans with great intentions become a fiasco on more than one occasion. Once even causing the government to intervene to put processes in place to minimize repeat demonstrations. The ripples can run far and deep leaving unknown damages in its wake; bad feelings brewing silently. These types of repeated missteps only help to widen and solidify the divide between us and them.
3 years ago my Spanish was very basic, to speak to the locals that live in these communities was challenging, however, I had bilingual friends so I asked for help; using translators, charades, and the point and grunt method. If you cannot speak to them and are intimidated to make contact; it may be another good reason to be extremely cautious of the approach as misunderstandings are inevitable.
Changing The Approach
There is an imbalance of power in any give/take relationship. The receiving person acutely feels that imbalance. When the giver recognizes this simple truth, they can adjust how they approach; to give with quiet understanding rather than overt displays of the grandiose. I find myself saying “this is not from me, this is from your sponsor.” My role then becomes the delivery system and I collect the hugs. I would rather they not associate me as the source of ‘stuff’, but instead as an advocate, an organizer, a bridge between two cultures.
Understanding who you are giving to always improves the experience for both parties. When you know someone personally, you understand their likes and dislikes,wants vs needs.
What you think they want or need may not necessarily match the realities of their lives.
We need to understand that they don’t tell each other the story of ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, They do not hang their stockings by the fire place, and in fact ,are not aware of the significance to stockings; that is our tradition, not theirs. Some are lucky enough to have something that resembles a Christmas tree set up, typically without lights and certainly without gifts.
[color-box color=”gray”]Please keep these simple things in mind when giving;
- A truck to a child that is hungry and regularly misses meals.
- A soccer ball to someone wearing shoes 2 sizes too small.
- A microwave to a household that has only 2 plugs and no counters.
- A bottle of wine to a family without a corkscrew; and, in fact, only 4 spoons in the house to eat and cook with.
- A gift that requires batteries. Some of these homes have only one light bulb that they move from room to room; they simply cannot afford to replace batteries if they cannot afford to have a bulb in each socket.
Understanding Your Impact
How we present these gifts is equally important. Will they feel put on display? Will it create longing between family members, neighbors, and friends?
Did you know that when the gringos make appearances to a specific home in these neighborhoods, it can lead to them receiving repeated requests for help? They become the focus of the barrio because they have gringo friends or employers. People will come to them with their hand out asking for help, begging them to go ask their gringo friends.
This is why I strongly believe we should never just show up unannounced at their door like Ed McMahon of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweep Stakes. They need to be given an opportunity to decide if they want to be known as the family with the gringos’. They know their neighborhood and are the best people to judge the community reaction. It does not mean you cannot help them, it means together you decide how; even if that means only Ecuadorians make the delivery.
If I can summarize the most important thing I have learned to-date; it would be, don’t rush in loudly like a bull in a china shop. Understand the impact of what you are doing, more and bigger is not always better.
I want to thank Jean, for sharing her story about life in the mountains of Tennessee; it helped me to understand what I am dealing with and to strive to find better ways and ask better questions.
I want to thank James, for challenging my beliefs; for me to realize that emotional reaction is not always the answer but also the use of logic and strategic long-term planning for longer term results.
Lastly, I am blessed to have Pastora Gloria as a friend. She does not speak English. She and I come from very different worlds but together we look in one direction. She is my moral compass in terms of how to approach and when to approach.
I remember her words:
You may not agree with our ways, but you need to respect them.