Rural Ecuador: The wheels on the bus

Nearly 40% of Ecuadorians live in rural areas where poverty rates are double those in urban centres. Since access to often impossible, how will rural Ecuador break this cycle?

In the Village of Irubi deep in the Intag valley, one ex pat is trying singlehandedly to break this vicious cycle.

After school I want to go to university” says Maritza. Elsewhere in the world, this could be a normal statement from a 17-year-old, but here deep inside the Intag Valley on the western fringes of the Ecuadorian Andes, Maritza’s dream may be the first of her family to be realised.

We are travelling with Maritza and her classmates on the “school truck” from the secondary school in the town of Apuela, along precarious mountain roads to her home village of Irubi (pronounced Ir-u-Bee). Up until about 3 years ago Maritza and her friends would never have considered secondary education as their right. They would simply have finished their primary school education and gone on to either take a low paid job tending to the crops or begin their careers as housewives and mothers. This is because the nearest secondary school to Irubi is situated a 6-hour walk away in the town of Apuela, and with no public transport and little money to pay for private transport, books or uniforms, secondary school was simply not an option.

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As we rattle along in the open-sided truck we occasionally find ourselves thrown into the middle as we swerve around treacherous bends. The passenger part of the truck consists of wooden slatted sides and 3 wooden beams as a roof with benches around the edge. Everywhere we look there are steep-sided mountains touching the now very dark clouds. “Get the cover out!” shouts one of the kids and a gaggle of boys cover part of the top of the truck with some tarpaulin under which the girls quickly huddle. Meanwhile, my colleague, Hannah, is bombarded by questions from the girls about her life: “How old are you? Are you married? What languages do you learn at school? What is the weather like in England?”

Finally, we clatter around the last corner and come to a stop in the community of Irubi. A tiny community with only 200 inhabitants, Irubi is almost completely cut off save for one road in and out. As we arrive I see two elderly men wandering slowly down into the village from the hills, each carrying a piece of antique farming equipment. Life in here, it would seem, hasn’t changed for a long time. There are only 2 buses in and out of Irubi per week. Around half of the people who live here have been to their capital, Quito, for the other half the furthest they have probably been being the town of Otavalo, around 3 hours away by bus. As we clamber off the truck we are taken to a row of tiny, houses situated in a square around a patch of rough grass. Graffiti instead of paint adorns the breeze block walls of each house, along with a wooden door and a corrugated tin roof.

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Standing in the centre of the community, a glance upwards into the huge sky reveals 360 degrees of dramatic cloud-forested slopes. Chickens and dogs wander freely around, hummingbirds hum and the sound of water flowing through the mountain streams is constant. Despite its rich beauty, the region is one of the poorest in Ecuador, with most families living from subsistence farming and trading. The area is rich in sugar cane producing “fattorias”, but aside from that there is now little employment to keep the young generation here and they often migrate to low-paid manual jobs in the city. Due to families being large, and income being respectively low, increasing living costs have forced many people in the area to live on substandard diets, and sadly education is not seen as a priority.

We are introduced to Don Manuel, a local farmer. “This is how the poor people live”, he says jovially as he ushers us into his simple two-roomed house. That evening my colleague, Hannah, and I sip potato soup inside Don Manuel’s family home with Dave Jackson, a British ex-pat biologist who guides trekkers through the surrounding mountains. At close to 2100m altitude, the temperature plummets here at night and we are both wearing almost the entire contents of our backpacks to keep warm.

 

In the candlelight, Dave explains why he has started fundraising to pay for a bus to get the local children to and from secondary school. “It’s a vicious cycle here”, he begins, “the people don’t own enough to ever be able to expand what they have, and so they don’t have options. However little we have in our lives we have choices and opportunities, but here they are just so far away from options”.

 

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With his insight into the lives of the people here, Dave felt compelled to try to make changes. With the nearest school 6 hours walk over mountain passes, the “school truck” was the only chance any child would have for a secondary education. Dave, who does not have a permanent address and scrapes a living from guiding himself, began raising money mostly from friends and family back home. Eventually, he had saved the US$8000 needed to operate the school truck each year and he proudly gave 11 children a means to get to high school that year. Now the school bus is entering its 6th year and has 35 children; the funding pot is down to zero.

Maura is one of the first two “school truck graduates”. She is now 21 years old and has just finished High School in Apuela. She started at the age of 15 and is keen to become the first person ever from Irubi to go onto into higher education.

“The 11th March 2015 was an incredible day for me”, explained Maura. “ I completed the goal I set myself at the beginning of secondary school six years ago: I graduated! This was something that neither I nor my parents ever thought possible. None of my eight older brothers or sisters had the possibility to study and I now have the pride and pleasure of being the first to have graduated secondary school. There were many things which did not permit us to study, such as a lack of money and the distance to the secondary school. Now, what was impossible is possible!”

Maura is one of the first two “school truck graduates”. She is now 21 years old and has just finished High School in Apuela. She started at the age of 15 and is now keen to become the first person ever from Irubi to go onto into higher education.

 

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The presence of a 15-year-old in a year 7 class is no unusual sight here. In rural Ecuador, 9 out of 10 children do not enter secondary education and 1 out of 3 children fail to complete primary education. Half of primary schools in rural areas do not have electricity and only 10% have a telephone.

After a night spent bundled in blankets in a house on the edge of the village, Hannah and I wake at sunrise the next day to the chorus of cockerels right outside our room. With the light we can now see where we had been staying – a large farmhouse with quite a few rooms, an outbuilding and a good deal of surrounding land. The house, whose wealthy owners live in the city, was being looked after by the family of Gabriela, a teenager whom we had met on the school bus the day before.

 

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The presence of a 15-year-old in a year 7 class is no unusual sight here. In rural Ecuador, 9 out of 10 children do not enter secondary education and 1 out of 3 children fail to complete primary education. Half of primary schools in rural areas do not have electricity and only 10% have a telephone.

After a night spent bundled in blankets in a house on the edge of the village, Hannah and I wake at sunrise the next day to the chorus of cockerels right outside our room. With the light we can now see where we had been staying – a large farmhouse with quite a few rooms, an outbuilding and a good deal of surrounding land. The house, whose wealthy owners live in the city, was being looked after by the family of Gabriela, a teenager whom we had met on the school bus the day before.

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After we finish breakfast and thank her she suddenly begins apologising. “I am so sorry that I could not kill a hen for your breakfast,” she says with a sad expression, “we just don’t have one to spare”. Dave later told us that the people here are used to being so humble that apologising constantly is part of their nature.

Later that morning some of the community members are keen to take us into the cloud forest to visit a local waterfall and we had invited some of the kids from the school bus to join us. We stop by Maritza’s house and her mother comes out to greet us. “Maritza has to wash her clothes for next week and do housework”, she explains, “so she can’t come with you”. The life of a teenager here is far removed from the westernized world.

We’re sad that Maritza is not able to join us, but we head off into the cloud forest safe in the knowledge that thanks to Dave and his work, her generation will have hitherto unknown opportunities. Next time we visit Irubi, things may well be very different.

 

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